Writing a literature review for your dissertation can be a daunting task, but it’s an essential part of the research process. A literature review provides a critical analysis of the existing research on your topic, and it helps to identify gaps in the literature that your study can fill. In this guide, we’ll take you through the steps of writing a literature review for your dissertation, from selecting your sources to synthesizing your findings. Here’s the ultimate guide to writing a literature review dissertation!

Understand the Purpose and Scope of a Literature Review

A literature review is an essential part of any dissertation, serving as a thorough examination of all the relevant scholarly works related to your research topic. Its purpose is twofold: to provide a comprehensive overview of the current knowledge on your topic, and to identify gaps in the existing literature that your study aims to fill.

To effectively comprehend the purpose and scope of a literature review, you must first understand your study’s specific problem. Everything starts with developing a clear problem statement. From the problem statement comes the purpose, and from the purpose come the research questions. From the Research Questions come the literature to help you learn what has been studied related to those RQs.

The scope, meanwhile, refers to the depth and breadth of your literature review. It’s necessary to ensure that your review includes a wide range of sources and perspectives to fully cover your chosen topic. However…and this is important!…the literature review is not a research paper on your chosen topic. A literature review is a review of the research studies on your topic. You should not act as our encyclopedia, explaining everything there is to know about your topic. You should act as an analyst of research studies: what do the findings say about these various studies? How do they overlap? How do the findings of one study confirm, extend, or contrast with the findings of the other studies?

The Number of Sources That You Need

This is a common question for those beginning the process of writing a literature review. The number of sources is linked to the number of pages you have simply because with more sources you will have more literature to review. Universities often have minimum page numbers for dissertation writers; others offer little guidance beyond “as many as are needed.” However, a typical number is 30 pages for the literature review. A standard rule of thumb is twice as many sources as pages. Thus, if you are expected to have at least 30 pages for your literature review, then plan to review at least 60 sources.

Remember: That is just a rule of thumb. Once you start reading the same general findings over and over again, it’s time to stop. At that point, you may want to search using a different term or search for literature on a different concept, or you may be done altogether.

Conduct a Thorough Literature Search

A robust literature search is the foundation of an effective literature review. To do this, link your school’s library with Google Scholar following these steps:

  1. Open Google Scholar at https://scholar.google.com/.
  2. Click on the menu icon in the top left corner.
  3. Click on the settings tab.
  4. Click on “Library Links”.
  5. Enter the name of your school into the search bar. Click on the search button to the right.
  6. If your school is available to be linked, it will appear as a check bar with the school’s name next to it. Click on it to check the school. Save. You are done!

If it works, then you should be able to search Google Scholar and get results from your university’s library. But the benefit is that there will be additional studies listed—pages and pages of them—that you may be able to access, or you can ask your university librarian for an interlibrary loan.

If your library does not link to Google Scholar, that’s alright! Just access your university databases and also Google Scholar using the same terms. Additionally, consider seeking assistance from research librarians at your institution. They are your research assistants, helping you find articles that you need, and they want to help you.

Successfully conducting a thorough literature search goes beyond simple keyword queries on your institution’s databases or Google Scholar. It involves a series of strategic steps to help ensure that you are finding the most relevant and comprehensive sources related to your research topic. Here’s how you should go about it:

Developing Effective Search Terms

Your initial search terms will likely be broad, drawn directly from your research question. For instance, if your research involves the impact of social media on mental health, your initial search terms might be ‘social media’ and ‘mental health.’ As you delve deeper into your research, your search terms should become more refined and specific. Consider synonyms, related terms, and narrower aspects of your broad topics.

In the aforementioned example, possible refined search terms might include specific social media platforms like ‘Facebook’ or ‘Instagram’, specific mental health issues like ‘anxiety’ or ‘depression’, or specific populations like ‘adolescents’ or ‘college students.’

Using Boolean Operators

Boolean operators (AND, OR, NOT) can help in refining your search. Using ‘AND’ narrows your search by only showing results that include both search terms. ‘OR’ broadens your search by showing results that include either of the search terms. ‘NOT’ excludes a particular term from your search results.

For example, if you’re researching the impact of Facebook and Instagram on adolescent mental health, you could use the Boolean search ‘Facebook OR Instagram AND adolescents AND mental health.’

Filtering for Recent Literature

Most databases and search engines offer options to limit your search results by date, which is particularly useful when you need the most recent studies for your literature review. On Google Scholar, for instance, you can find this under the ‘Since Year’ filter on the left-hand side. Stay relevant in your research; avoid raising red flags by citing articles more than five years old.

Using Reference Lists

One effective strategy to find more relevant sources is to use the reference list of an article that you find important to your study. This can help you trace the development of the research topic over time and can often lead you to key resources that you might have missed in your initial search.

Google Scholar’s ‘Cited by’ feature can also be useful. This shows you more recent articles that have cited the article in question, which can lead you to more up-to-date discussion of your research topic.

Evaluate and Analyze the Literature

Evaluation and analysis are essential to separating valuable literature from the irrelevant or less significant. This process involves critical thinking and synthesis of the information you’ve gathered. Your analysis should not just summarize the research, but interpret it and provide insight on how it fits within your study’s context.

The irony of the literature review process is often finding relevant research studies on a topic that you’ve identified as a research gap. Remember that it’s okay to piece together studies that discuss different elements of your topic. The key is to provide a coherent overview of the existing literature and how it relates to your study.

A valuable shortcut in this process is to zoom in on the findings of any research study you use. If the article you are reading does not include research findings, be wary. You are likely using a non-peer reviewed source. The occasional use of white papers, policy papers, websites of organizations that are part of your study, or books is acceptable. However, the bulk of your sources in your literature review should be recent peer reviewed research studies.

Organize and Structure Your Literature Review

The organization of your literature review depends on your research topic, methodology, and the guidelines set by your institution. You should aim to group the literature thematically, synthesizing the findings of the studies in a particular theme and writing about it narratively. Your department or chair may also ask you to group articles by methodology and then organize them by theme, but that is less common.

Write and Revise Your Literature Review

Writing your literature review begins with a draft, often of just one theme you’ve developed based on the literature you’ve read. Write a rough draft, then revise it, ensuring each piece of literature contributes to your understanding of the topic and the identified research gap.

Revisions might involve adding or removing pieces of literature, refining your analysis, and improving the overall flow and coherence of your review. Don’t hesitate to seek feedback from peers, advisors, or writing experts to further refine your work.

Finally, Remember the Purpose

As you write your first, second, or third drafts, keep asking yourself: How does what I’m writing relate to the purpose of my study? Everything you write should be aligned to it. Do you find yourself going down a rabbit hole on one particular theme? Recognize it and change course. Stop writing on that theme if you must and turn to something else.

To recap, your literature review is an analysis of the literature on the topic of your dissertation. It is aligned to your research questions and the purpose of your study. Use recent literature and connect the findings of one study to the findings of another study to help you build a robust literature review that will clearly show the gaps that your study will address.

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