A dissertation is not done in a vacuum; it builds on the foundation of research that has already been carried out in your field. So it’s important to contextualize your research and situate it within a larger body of knowledge. This is precisely what a literature review does; it provides an overview of existing research in your field. 

But this is not simply a summary of the history of research. It goes deeper than that — it is a critical evaluation of this history, an opportunity for you to identify knowledge gaps, identify recurring themes and methods of study, and, most importantly, a chance for you to lay out your line of thought. A good literature review should give your evaluator or reader a clear idea about the state of the knowledge in your field so far. 

The question you seek to answer here is this: How did your study of existing research lead you to study the research question you are working on, and why does this trajectory matter?

 

The steps of writing a literature review 

Step 1: Identify and select relevant sources 

In the vast world of research, it’s quite likely that you’ll read hundreds and thousands of papers, many of which you may not even end up citing! As you get lost in this ocean of research, it’s important to activate your critical thinking and identify papers, books, or even specific arguments that are directly related to the research question you’re exploring. Only the most crucial of these will end up in your final dissertation. 

Maintain diversity and balance in the sources you’re using. Refer to books, journal papers, other literature reviews (yes, you can do that!) 

Step 2: Organize your literature review 

As you survey literature, you’ll begin to realize that there are many categories or parameters you can use to structure the dissertation. Let’s go over some ways you can strategize this order. 

  1. Chronological: Perhaps the most obvious approach for evaluating research, writing from a historical lens will cast the spotlight on how your research topic developed over time. 
  2. Thematic: If you have identified recurring themes within the literature you’ve studied so far, you can also present them in the same way. 
  3. Methodological: If your topic has been studied from various approaches, you can use this method to compare and contrast what has been done so far. 

 

Step 3: Identify a knowledge gap 

How did your study of existing literature lead you to pursue this particular issue? 

Depending on whether or not you need to write a literature review, you can choose to keep this segment brief or extensive. In either case, check your university guidelines for details about word count and number of chapters. 

Explicitly state what kind of knowledge your dissertation aims to fulfill. Does it 

  1. Fill a knowledge gap in existing literature? 
  2. Propose an alternative methodological approach for an existing problem? 
  3. Reexamine or revisit existing literature from a new perspective?