How to Kickstart Your Dissertation Literature Review in 5 Easy Steps

by | Jan 21, 2021 | Dissertation Writing | 0 comments

Lots of people ask me how to pick a topic or how to start writing the Dissertation Literature Review. They want to know if there is a format or a template they can follow. And they want help writing the outline for the chapter. 

While there is a similar framework used from dissertation to dissertation, the Literature Review is customized to each study. Although many schools allow students to start writing Chapter 1, I believe you should start your dissertation journey with Chapter 2. This article provides you with 5 easy steps to kickstarting your Literature Review and going from start to finish in the shortest time possible. 

Step #1: Start the dissertation journey with Chapter 2

Start with Chapter 2, the Literature Review. The reason for starting the dissertation journey with the Literature Review is because Chapter 1 is an overview of what is said in Chapter 2 and Chapter 3. It is not a good use of your time to start with Chapter 1 since you are not sure what chapters 2 and 3 say yet. For most schools, the dissertation outline includes (1) Introduction, (2) Literature Review, (3) Methodology, (4) Results, and (5) Discussion. By starting with Chapter 2, the Literature Review, you are finding the empirical literature that supports your research topic. After Chapter 2, move to Chapter 3. Once chapters 2 and 3 are finished, focus on Chapter 1.

Step #2: Pick a topic and optimize the keywords in your library search engine

Pick a topic of interest. Let’s say you are aware of an issue that needs to be solved. Search in your academic library for those keywords. For example, in 2020, many students found problems in their workplaces with COVID-19 and change management. Let’s assume you work in higher education. Using keywords of pandemic, COVID, change management, higher education, and recommendations for future research can help narrow your topic quickly. In each article, read the abstract first (should be less than 300 words) to see if the article is something relevant and interesting to your topic. If so, look for the recommendations for future research section (near the bottom of the article). 

Another way to pick a topic is to consider the assignments you worked on in your doctoral journey. Of those assignments, have you found some more interesting than others? If so, use those keywords. For example, I started my doctoral journey in 2013, and we learned about various theories and concepts along the way. As I started my dissertation research, I considered authentic leadership theory, servant leadership theory, and spiritual leadership theory. I also liked cultural dimensions, followership, and faith at work. I spent some time with those keywords (in addition to “recommendations for future research”) in the library. Eventually, I found my Golden Ticket!

If your topic is popular and research has been done, look for newer articles (current day to 1-year). If your topic is relatively common, extend your search to 1-3 years. If your topic has not been done or it has not received much attention in a while, do not restrict the timeline on your search. It may be necessary to pull all available information if you are selecting a rare topic. Do not be afraid to use older material for content definition or historical purposes. However, newer information should be used to show what has been done over a period of time. Remember, this is not a book report. We must demonstrate that you know that content definition but are extending the research, answering a call, or filling a gap. The purpose of doctoral research is to add something of value, not to simply report on what has already been done. 

Step #3: Find your Golden Ticket

Every dissertation needs a purpose. Are you answering the call, filling a gap, or extending the field of literature? To know the answer, it is essential to read similar peer-reviewed journal articles and look at their abstracts and future research recommendations. The goal is to find a statement from the author(s) that recommends someone else (you) do research on a specific topic. I call this the Golden Ticket. As you read the numerous articles and look at the recommendations for future research, there may be one that you find where the author(s) recommends that someone do a specific study. If that recommendation for future research statement excites you, then you have found your Golden Ticket. In short, you are looking for a sentence or two where the author(s) have an action call, and you can say, “I am answering the call by… to do….”

For example, I found an article by Benefiel, Fry, and Geigle (2014) that requested future research to explore the two main instruments to empirically test spirituality at work. This simple statement enabled me to pick up the ball from Benefiel, Fry, and Geigle and run with it. I started my dissertation journey in March 2016 and successfully defended it on Valentine’s Day 2017.

Step #4: Read and organize the supporting literature

As you read the empirical articles, look at the author(s), participant(s), instrument(s), control variable(s), theories or concepts, type of study (qualitative, quantitative, or mixed methods), findings, and recommendations for future research. Some students will organize this with a Synthesis Matrix. It’s a Microsoft Excel spreadsheet with the headings of what you are looking for (author, participant, instrument, control variable, etc.). Keep in mind that not every article will have all of the information; however, it is worthwhile to record the information if it is available. Other students will print the articles and organize them in piles on the floor. As the piles take shape, the outline for Chapter 2 is also taking shape. And, some will start writing in a Microsoft Word document. As more articles are read, and the information is recorded, the chapter should begin unfolding before your eyes. 

As noted above, I start with the abstract. The abstract should tell you everything about the article in 300 words or less. If the article is relevant, I will then read the recommendations for future research to see if it directly connects to my study. It is possible to have more than one Golden Ticket in a research project; although, that is not necessary. A dissertation should be laser focused. So, plan on narrowing your topic down as you read through the articles. Once I have read the abstract and the recommendations sections, I will decide if the article is worth my time to read in its entirety. The goal is to connect the published articles to your upcoming study. And, a direct line or “breadcrumb” will need to be written to make that connection in your Literature Review. 

For example, once I found my Golden Ticket to explore the two main instruments of spirituality at work, I started researching those instruments to see who had used them and what they did with them. I found many articles where the two main instruments were used alongside desirable workplace outcomes like improved employee health, reduction of stress, more job involvement, increased job satisfaction, higher levels of organizational commitment, less organizational frustration, more organizational identification, and enhanced work performance. My plan was not to retest what everyone else had done; remember, we need to add to the field, not recreate the wheel. Instead, I found that the two top desired outcomes were job satisfaction and organizational commitment. Now, you can see an outline taking place. I needed to define workplace spirituality, define the chosen instruments, and include many different studies that had used the instruments before my study. I needed to connect each of those articles to my upcoming study and articulate how they relate in Chapter 2. I needed to show my study’s significance, and using empirical articles provided justification and defendable material for my research topic.

Step #5: Outline your Literature Review and start writing

Once you have read enough articles, you should have a general idea of your topic or at least pieces of the topic. A general outline for your Literature Review may look something like this:

  1. Introduce the problem
    1. What is the WHY behind the study?
    2. What is the “bleeding neck” syndrome?
      1. This speaks to the urgency and significance of your study
      2. If your study is not done, what might or might not happen?
    3. Include your Golden Ticket in the introduction
      1. Are you filling a gap, extending the field of literature, or answering a call?
  2. Theory, concept, and variables applicable to the problem
    1. What are the central issues in this field of study?
    2. Doctoral research should be grounded in theory and within that theory there should be constructs or concepts to define
    3. If your study is qualitative, you will not have variables
    4. Include breadcrumbs in each section to connect the dots of what was done before and what you are doing now – build bridges between related studies
  3. Define the scope of your research
    1. What are you studying and what are you not studying?
    2. Establish the boundaries 
    3. You do not have to solve all of the world’s problems with one dissertation

In summary, the Literature Review is a look back at the work that has been done on your topic. However, it is more than a book report and should demonstrate how your study and empirical research are related. Clearly articulate how you fill a gap, answer the call, or extend the field of literature. This will feel redundant; however, it is necessary to connect those dots frequently in this chapter. If you find the Literature Review is taking longer than you expect, reach out for help. Sometimes, talking through the available research will help you see the outline more clearly. Also, if you find it is taking you a long time to read the articles, reach out for help. There are ways to skim the articles for brevity before investing lots of time to read them word-for-word.

This article was written by Dr. Debra, one of our expert dissertation coaches. 


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