How should I approach writing a literature review at the graduate level?

What is the purpose of a Literature Review?

For a graduate student the purpose of academic writing changes from what it was as an undergraduate. Where undergraduates often write to demonstrate a mastery of existing knowledge, graduate students are considered scholars and move toward creating new knowledge. Writing in graduate school, then, focuses on communicating that new knowledge to others in their field. In order to communicate this knowledge to other scholars, however, it also necessary to explain how that knowledge engages ongoing scholarly conversations in the field.

A literature review is a common genre for many types of writing you’ll have to do as a graduate student and scholar. Not only do dissertations contain literature reviews, but most articles and grant proposals have some form of literature review included in them. The reason the literature review is so prevalent in scholarly writing is that it functions as an argument about how your project fits in the ongoing scholarly conversation in your field and justifies your project.

A successful literature review does more than list the research that has preceded your work. A literature review is not simply a summary of research. Your literature review must not only demonstrate that you understand important conversations and debates surrounding your project and your position in regard to the conversations, but it must also create an argument as to why your work is relevant to your field of study. In order to create such an argument you must evaluate the relevant research, describing its strengths and weaknesses in relation to your project. You must then explain how your project will build on the work of other researchers, and fill the scholarly gaps left by other researchers.

What is typically included in a Literature Review and how do I start?

To show how your project joins an existing scholarly conversation you need to provide readers with the necessary background to understand your research project and persuade them that your intervention in the scholarly conversation is necessary. The first step is to evaluate and analyze the scholarship that is key to understanding your work. The scholarship you evaluate may include previous research on similar topics, theoretical concepts and perspectives, or methodological approaches. Evaluating existing research means more than just summarizing the scholar’s main point. You will also want to assess the strengths and limits of the writer’s project and approach. Questions to consider as you read include: What problems or issues is the writer exploring? What position does the writer take? How is the writer intervening in an ongoing conversation? Where does the writer leave the issue?

Once you have evaluated the research of others, you need to consider how to integrate ideas from other scholars with your ideas and research project. You will also need to show your readers which research is relevant to understanding your project and explain how you position your work in relationship to what has come before your project. In order to do this, it may be helpful to think about the nature of your research project. Not all research has the same purpose. For example, your research project may focus on extending existing research by applying it in a new context. Or you may be questioning the findings of existing research, or you may be pulling together two or more previously unconnected threads of research. Or your project may be bringing a new theoretical lens or interpretation to existing questions. The focus of your research project will determine the kind of material you need to include in your literature review.

What are some approaches for organizing a Literature Review?

In the first part of a literature review you typically establish several things. You should define or identify your project and briefly point out overall trends in what has been published about the topic – conflicts, gaps in research, foundational research or theory, etc. You should also establish your position – or argument - for the project and the organization of the review.

In the body of the literature review, consider organizing the research and theory according a particular approach. For example, you could discuss the research chronologically. Or you could organize the research thematically, around key ideas or terms or theoretical approaches. Your literature review may include definitions of key terms and the sources from which they are drawn, descriptions of relevant debates in the field, or a description of the most current thinking on your topic.

You will also want to provide clear transitions and strong organizing sentences at the start of sections or paragraphs. You may find it helpful to divide the body of the review up into individual sections with individual subheadings. As you summarize and evaluate studies or articles keep in mind that each article should not necessarily get the same amount of attention. Some scholarship will be more central to your project and will therefore have to be discussed at more length. There also may be some scholarship that you choose not to include, so you might need to explain those decisions. At every turn, you want to keep in mind how you are making the case for how your research will advance the ongoing scholarly conversation.

What can the Writing Center do to help?

It can sometimes be difficult, after reading pages and pages of research in your field, to step back from the work and decide how best to approach your literature review. Even before you begin to write you may find a consultation in the Writing Center will help you plan out your literature review. Consultants at the Writing Center are experienced in working with scholars to help them reflect on and organize their work in a literature review so it creates the argument for your project. Make an appointment to work with us on your focus and organization even before you begin to write. We are also able to help you by reading and responding to your drafts or to help with issues of documentation. We can help you understand the genre conventions of the literature review, work through revisions, and help you learn how to edit your own work.  We recommend that you come in early to give yourself enough time to work through any problems that may come up as you write.