literature review for phd students

  • What Is a PhD Literature Review?
  • Doing a PhD

A literature review is a critical analysis of published academic literature, mainly peer-reviewed papers and books, on a specific topic. This isn’t just a list of published studies but is a document summarising and critically appraising the main work by researchers in the field, the key findings, limitations and gaps identified in the knowledge.

  • The aim of a literature review is to critically assess the literature in your chosen field of research and be able to present an overview of the current knowledge gained from previous work.
  • By the conclusion of your literature review, you as a researcher should have identified the gaps in knowledge in your field; i.e. the unanswered research questions which your PhD project will help to answer.
  • Quality not quantity is the approach to use when writing a literature review for a PhD but as a general rule of thumb, most are between 6,000 and 12,000 words.

What Is the Purpose of a Literature Review?

First, to be clear on what a PhD literature review is NOT: it is not a ‘paper by paper’ summary of what others have done in your field. All you’re doing here is listing out all the papers and book chapters you’ve found with some text joining things together. This is a common mistake made by PhD students early on in their research project. This is a sign of poor academic writing and if it’s not picked up by your supervisor, it’ll definitely be by your examiners.

The biggest issue your examiners will have here is that you won’t have demonstrated an application of critical thinking when examining existing knowledge from previous research. This is an important part of the research process as a PhD student. It’s needed to show where the gaps in knowledge were, and how then you were able to identify the novelty of each research question and subsequent work.

The five main outcomes from carrying out a good literature review should be:

  • An understanding of what has been published in your subject area of research,
  • An appreciation of the leading research groups and authors in your field and their key contributions to the research topic,
  • Knowledge of the key theories in your field,
  • Knowledge of the main research areas within your field of interest,
  • A clear understanding of the research gap in knowledge that will help to motivate your PhD research questions .

When assessing the academic papers or books that you’ve come across, you must think about the strengths and weaknesses of them; what was novel about their work and what were the limitations? Are different sources of relevant literature coming to similar conclusions and complementing each other, or are you seeing different outcomes on the same topic by different researchers?

When Should I Write My Literature Review?

In the structure of your PhD thesis , your literature review is effectively your first main chapter. It’s at the start of your thesis and should, therefore, be a task you perform at the start of your research. After all, you need to have reviewed the literature to work out how your research can contribute novel findings to your area of research. Sometimes, however, in particular when you apply for a PhD project with a pre-defined research title and research questions, your supervisor may already know where the gaps in knowledge are.

You may be tempted to skip the literature review and dive straight into tackling the set questions (then completing the review at the end before thesis submission) but we strongly advise against this. Whilst your supervisor will be very familiar with the area, you as a doctoral student will not be and so it is essential that you gain this understanding before getting into the research.

How Long Should the Literature Review Be?

As your literature review will be one of your main thesis chapters, it needs to be a substantial body of work. It’s not a good strategy to have a thesis writing process here based on a specific word count, but know that most reviews are typically between 6,000 and 12,000 words. The length will depend on how much relevant material has previously been published in your field.

A point to remember though is that the review needs to be easy to read and avoid being filled with unnecessary information; in your search of selected literature, consider filtering out publications that don’t appear to add anything novel to the discussion – this might be useful in fields with hundreds of papers.

How Do I Write the Literature Review?

Before you start writing your literature review, you need to be clear on the topic you are researching.

1. Evaluating and Selecting the Publications

After completing your literature search and downloading all the papers you find, you may find that you have a lot of papers to read through ! You may find that you have so many papers that it’s unreasonable to read through all of them in their entirety, so you need to find a way to understand what they’re about and decide if they’re important quickly.

A good starting point is to read the abstract of the paper to gauge if it is useful and, as you do so, consider the following questions in your mind:

  • What was the overarching aim of the paper?
  • What was the methodology used by the authors?
  • Was this an experimental study or was this more theoretical in its approach?
  • What were the results and what did the authors conclude in their paper?
  • How does the data presented in this paper relate to other publications within this field?
  • Does it add new knowledge, does it raise more questions or does it confirm what is already known in your field? What is the key concept that the study described?
  • What are the strengths and weaknesses of this study, and in particular, what are the limitations?

2. Identifying Themes

To put together the structure of your literature review you need to identify the common themes that emerge from the collective papers and books that you have read. Key things to think about are:

  • Are there common methodologies different authors have used or have these changed over time?
  • Do the research questions change over time or are the key question’s still unanswered?
  • Is there general agreement between different research groups in the main results and outcomes, or do different authors provide differing points of view and different conclusions?
  • What are the key papers in your field that have had the biggest impact on the research?
  • Have different publications identified similar weaknesses or limitations or gaps in the knowledge that still need to be addressed?

Structuring and Writing Your Literature Review

There are several ways in which you can structure a literature review and this may depend on if, for example, your project is a science or non-science based PhD.

One approach may be to tell a story about how your research area has developed over time. You need to be careful here that you don’t just describe the different papers published in chronological order but that you discuss how different studies have motivated subsequent studies, how the knowledge has developed over time in your field, concluding with what is currently known, and what is currently not understood.

Alternatively, you may find from reading your papers that common themes emerge and it may be easier to develop your review around these, i.e. a thematic review. For example, if you are writing up about bridge design, you may structure the review around the themes of regulation, analysis, and sustainability.

As another approach, you might want to talk about the different research methodologies that have been used. You could then compare and contrast the results and ultimate conclusions that have been drawn from each.

As with all your chapters in your thesis, your literature review will be broken up into three key headings, with the basic structure being the introduction, the main body and conclusion. Within the main body, you will use several subheadings to separate out the topics depending on if you’re structuring it by the time period, the methods used or the common themes that have emerged.

The important thing to think about as you write your main body of text is to summarise the key takeaway messages from each research paper and how they come together to give one or more conclusions. Don’t just stop at summarising the papers though, instead continue on to give your analysis and your opinion on how these previous publications fit into the wider research field and where they have an impact. Emphasise the strengths of the studies you have evaluated also be clear on the limitations of previous work how these may have influenced the results and conclusions of the studies.

In your concluding paragraphs focus your discussion on how your critical evaluation of literature has helped you identify unanswered research questions and how you plan to address these in your PhD project. State the research problem you’re going to address and end with the overarching aim and key objectives of your work .

When writing at a graduate level, you have to take a critical approach when reading existing literature in your field to determine if and how it added value to existing knowledge. You may find that a large number of the papers on your reference list have the right academic context but are essentially saying the same thing. As a graduate student, you’ll need to take a methodological approach to work through this existing research to identify what is relevant literature and what is not.

You then need to go one step further to interpret and articulate the current state of what is known, based on existing theories, and where the research gaps are. It is these gaps in the literature that you will address in your own research project.

  • Decide on a research area and an associated research question.
  • Decide on the extent of your scope and start looking for literature.
  • Review and evaluate the literature.
  • Plan an outline for your literature review and start writing it.

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How to Conduct a Literature Review: A Guide for Graduate Students

  • Let's Get Started!
  • Traditional or Narrative Reviews
  • Systematic Reviews
  • Typology of Reviews
  • Literature Review Resources
  • Developing a Search Strategy
  • What Literature to Search
  • Where to Search: Indexes and Databases
  • Finding articles: Libkey Nomad
  • Finding Dissertations and Theses
  • Extending Your Searching with Citation Chains
  • Forward Citation Chains - Cited Reference Searching
  • Keeping up with the Literature
  • Managing Your References
  • Need More Information?

Bookmark This Guide!

Where to Get Help

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   “Google can bring you back 100,000 answers. A librarian can bring you back the right one.” - Neil Gaiman

The literature review is an important part of your thesis or dissertation. It is a survey of existing literature that provides context for your research contribution, and demonstrates your subject knowledge. It is also the way to tell the story of how your research extends knowledge in your field.

The first step to writing a successful literature review is knowing how to find and evaluate literature in your field. This guide is designed to introduce you to tools and give you skills you can use to effectively find the resources needed for your literature review.

Before getting started, familiarize yourself with some essential resources provided by the Graduate College:

  • Dissertation and Thesis Information
  • Center for Communication Excellence
  • Graduate College Handbook

Below are some questions that you can discuss with your advisor as you begin your research:

Questions to ask as you think about your literature review:

What is my research question.

Choosing a valid research question is something you will need to discuss with your academic advisor and/or POS committee. Ideas for your topic may come from your coursework, lab rotations, or work as a research assistant. Having a specific research topic allows you to focus your research on a project that is manageable. Beginning work on your literature review can help narrow your topic.

What kind of literature review is appropriate for my research question?

Depending on your area of research, the type of literature review you do for your thesis will vary. Consult with your advisor about the requirements for your discipline. You can view theses and dissertations from your field in the library's Digital Repository can give you ideas about how your literature review should be structured.

What kind of literature should I use?

The kind of literature you use for your thesis will depend on your discipline. The Library has developed a list of Guides by Subject with discipline-specific resources. For a given subject area, look for the guide titles "[Discipline] Research Guide." You may also consult our liaison librarians for information about the literature available your research area.

How will I make sure that I find all the appropriate information that informs my research?

Consulting multiple sources of information is the best way to insure that you have done a comprehensive search of the literature in your area. The What Literature to Search tab has information about the types of resources you may need to search. You may also consult our liaison librarians for assistance with identifying resources..

How will I evaluate the literature to include trustworthy information and eliminate unnecessary or untrustworthy information?

While you are searching for relevant information about your topic you will need to think about the accuracy of the information, whether the information is from a reputable source, whether it is objective and current. Our guides about Evaluating Scholarly Books and Articles and Evaluating Websites will give you criteria to use when evaluating resources.

How should I organize my literature? What citation management program is best for me?

Citation management software can help you organize your references in folders and/or with tags. You can also annotate and highlight the PDFs within the software and usually the notes are searchable. To choose a good citation management software, you need to consider which one can be streamlined with your literature search and writing process. Here is a guide page comparing EndNote, Mendeley & Zotero. The Library also has guides for three of the major citation management tools:

  • EndNote & EndNote Web Guide
  • Mendeley Guide
  • Getting Started with Zotero

What steps should I take to ensure academic integrity?

The best way to ensure academic integrity is to familiarize yourself with different types of intentional and unintentional plagiarism and learn about the University's standards for academic integrity. Start with this guide . The Library also has a guide about your rights and responsibilities regarding copyrighted images and figures that you include in your thesis.

Where can I find writing and editing help?

Writing and editing help is available at the Graduate College's Center for Communication Excellence . The CCE offers individual consultations, peer writing groups, workshops and seminars to help you improve your writing.

Where can I find I find formatting standards? Technical support?

The Graduate College has a Dissertation/ Thesis website with extensive examples and videos about formatting theses and dissertations. The site also has templates and formatting instructions for Word and LaTex .

What citation style should I use?

The Graduate College thesis guidelines require that you "use a consistent, current academic style for your discipline." The Library has a Citation Style Guides resource you can use for guidance on specific citation styles. If you are not sure, please consult your advisor or liaison librarians for help.

Adapted from The Literature Review: For Dissertations, by the University of Michigan Library. Available:

Center for Communication Excellence/ Library Workshop Slides

Slides from the CCE/ Library Workshop "A Citation Here...A Citation There...Pretty Soon You'll Have a Lit Review" held on February 21, 2024 are below:

  • CCE Workshop February 21, 2024
  • Next: Types of Literature Reviews >>

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  • 04 December 2020
  • Correction 09 December 2020

How to write a superb literature review

Andy Tay is a freelance writer based in Singapore.

You can also search for this author in PubMed   Google Scholar

Literature reviews are important resources for scientists. They provide historical context for a field while offering opinions on its future trajectory. Creating them can provide inspiration for one’s own research, as well as some practice in writing. But few scientists are trained in how to write a review — or in what constitutes an excellent one. Even picking the appropriate software to use can be an involved decision (see ‘Tools and techniques’). So Nature asked editors and working scientists with well-cited reviews for their tips.

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Interviews have been edited for length and clarity.

Updates & Corrections

Correction 09 December 2020 : An earlier version of the tables in this article included some incorrect details about the programs Zotero, Endnote and Manubot. These have now been corrected.

Hsing, I.-M., Xu, Y. & Zhao, W. Electroanalysis 19 , 755–768 (2007).

Article   Google Scholar  

Ledesma, H. A. et al. Nature Nanotechnol. 14 , 645–657 (2019).

Article   PubMed   Google Scholar  

Brahlek, M., Koirala, N., Bansal, N. & Oh, S. Solid State Commun. 215–216 , 54–62 (2015).

Choi, Y. & Lee, S. Y. Nature Rev. Chem . (2020).

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Writing a Literature Review

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A literature review is a document or section of a document that collects key sources on a topic and discusses those sources in conversation with each other (also called synthesis ). The lit review is an important genre in many disciplines, not just literature (i.e., the study of works of literature such as novels and plays). When we say “literature review” or refer to “the literature,” we are talking about the research ( scholarship ) in a given field. You will often see the terms “the research,” “the scholarship,” and “the literature” used mostly interchangeably.

Where, when, and why would I write a lit review?

There are a number of different situations where you might write a literature review, each with slightly different expectations; different disciplines, too, have field-specific expectations for what a literature review is and does. For instance, in the humanities, authors might include more overt argumentation and interpretation of source material in their literature reviews, whereas in the sciences, authors are more likely to report study designs and results in their literature reviews; these differences reflect these disciplines’ purposes and conventions in scholarship. You should always look at examples from your own discipline and talk to professors or mentors in your field to be sure you understand your discipline’s conventions, for literature reviews as well as for any other genre.

A literature review can be a part of a research paper or scholarly article, usually falling after the introduction and before the research methods sections. In these cases, the lit review just needs to cover scholarship that is important to the issue you are writing about; sometimes it will also cover key sources that informed your research methodology.

Lit reviews can also be standalone pieces, either as assignments in a class or as publications. In a class, a lit review may be assigned to help students familiarize themselves with a topic and with scholarship in their field, get an idea of the other researchers working on the topic they’re interested in, find gaps in existing research in order to propose new projects, and/or develop a theoretical framework and methodology for later research. As a publication, a lit review usually is meant to help make other scholars’ lives easier by collecting and summarizing, synthesizing, and analyzing existing research on a topic. This can be especially helpful for students or scholars getting into a new research area, or for directing an entire community of scholars toward questions that have not yet been answered.

What are the parts of a lit review?

Most lit reviews use a basic introduction-body-conclusion structure; if your lit review is part of a larger paper, the introduction and conclusion pieces may be just a few sentences while you focus most of your attention on the body. If your lit review is a standalone piece, the introduction and conclusion take up more space and give you a place to discuss your goals, research methods, and conclusions separately from where you discuss the literature itself.


  • An introductory paragraph that explains what your working topic and thesis is
  • A forecast of key topics or texts that will appear in the review
  • Potentially, a description of how you found sources and how you analyzed them for inclusion and discussion in the review (more often found in published, standalone literature reviews than in lit review sections in an article or research paper)
  • Summarize and synthesize: Give an overview of the main points of each source and combine them into a coherent whole
  • Analyze and interpret: Don’t just paraphrase other researchers – add your own interpretations where possible, discussing the significance of findings in relation to the literature as a whole
  • Critically Evaluate: Mention the strengths and weaknesses of your sources
  • Write in well-structured paragraphs: Use transition words and topic sentence to draw connections, comparisons, and contrasts.


  • Summarize the key findings you have taken from the literature and emphasize their significance
  • Connect it back to your primary research question

How should I organize my lit review?

Lit reviews can take many different organizational patterns depending on what you are trying to accomplish with the review. Here are some examples:

  • Chronological : The simplest approach is to trace the development of the topic over time, which helps familiarize the audience with the topic (for instance if you are introducing something that is not commonly known in your field). If you choose this strategy, be careful to avoid simply listing and summarizing sources in order. Try to analyze the patterns, turning points, and key debates that have shaped the direction of the field. Give your interpretation of how and why certain developments occurred (as mentioned previously, this may not be appropriate in your discipline — check with a teacher or mentor if you’re unsure).
  • Thematic : If you have found some recurring central themes that you will continue working with throughout your piece, you can organize your literature review into subsections that address different aspects of the topic. For example, if you are reviewing literature about women and religion, key themes can include the role of women in churches and the religious attitude towards women.
  • Qualitative versus quantitative research
  • Empirical versus theoretical scholarship
  • Divide the research by sociological, historical, or cultural sources
  • Theoretical : In many humanities articles, the literature review is the foundation for the theoretical framework. You can use it to discuss various theories, models, and definitions of key concepts. You can argue for the relevance of a specific theoretical approach or combine various theorical concepts to create a framework for your research.

What are some strategies or tips I can use while writing my lit review?

Any lit review is only as good as the research it discusses; make sure your sources are well-chosen and your research is thorough. Don’t be afraid to do more research if you discover a new thread as you’re writing. More info on the research process is available in our "Conducting Research" resources .

As you’re doing your research, create an annotated bibliography ( see our page on the this type of document ). Much of the information used in an annotated bibliography can be used also in a literature review, so you’ll be not only partially drafting your lit review as you research, but also developing your sense of the larger conversation going on among scholars, professionals, and any other stakeholders in your topic.

Usually you will need to synthesize research rather than just summarizing it. This means drawing connections between sources to create a picture of the scholarly conversation on a topic over time. Many student writers struggle to synthesize because they feel they don’t have anything to add to the scholars they are citing; here are some strategies to help you:

  • It often helps to remember that the point of these kinds of syntheses is to show your readers how you understand your research, to help them read the rest of your paper.
  • Writing teachers often say synthesis is like hosting a dinner party: imagine all your sources are together in a room, discussing your topic. What are they saying to each other?
  • Look at the in-text citations in each paragraph. Are you citing just one source for each paragraph? This usually indicates summary only. When you have multiple sources cited in a paragraph, you are more likely to be synthesizing them (not always, but often
  • Read more about synthesis here.

The most interesting literature reviews are often written as arguments (again, as mentioned at the beginning of the page, this is discipline-specific and doesn’t work for all situations). Often, the literature review is where you can establish your research as filling a particular gap or as relevant in a particular way. You have some chance to do this in your introduction in an article, but the literature review section gives a more extended opportunity to establish the conversation in the way you would like your readers to see it. You can choose the intellectual lineage you would like to be part of and whose definitions matter most to your thinking (mostly humanities-specific, but this goes for sciences as well). In addressing these points, you argue for your place in the conversation, which tends to make the lit review more compelling than a simple reporting of other sources.

Grad Coach

How To Write An A-Grade Literature Review

3 straightforward steps (with examples) + free template.

By: Derek Jansen (MBA) | Expert Reviewed By: Dr. Eunice Rautenbach | October 2019

Quality research is about building onto the existing work of others , “standing on the shoulders of giants”, as Newton put it. The literature review chapter of your dissertation, thesis or research project is where you synthesise this prior work and lay the theoretical foundation for your own research.

Long story short, this chapter is a pretty big deal, which is why you want to make sure you get it right . In this post, I’ll show you exactly how to write a literature review in three straightforward steps, so you can conquer this vital chapter (the smart way).

Overview: The Literature Review Process

  • Understanding the “ why “
  • Finding the relevant literature
  • Cataloguing and synthesising the information
  • Outlining & writing up your literature review
  • Example of a literature review

But first, the “why”…

Before we unpack how to write the literature review chapter, we’ve got to look at the why . To put it bluntly, if you don’t understand the function and purpose of the literature review process, there’s no way you can pull it off well. So, what exactly is the purpose of the literature review?

Well, there are (at least) four core functions:

  • For you to gain an understanding (and demonstrate this understanding) of where the research is at currently, what the key arguments and disagreements are.
  • For you to identify the gap(s) in the literature and then use this as justification for your own research topic.
  • To help you build a conceptual framework for empirical testing (if applicable to your research topic).
  • To inform your methodological choices and help you source tried and tested questionnaires (for interviews ) and measurement instruments (for surveys ).

Most students understand the first point but don’t give any thought to the rest. To get the most from the literature review process, you must keep all four points front of mind as you review the literature (more on this shortly), or you’ll land up with a wonky foundation.

Okay – with the why out the way, let’s move on to the how . As mentioned above, writing your literature review is a process, which I’ll break down into three steps:

  • Finding the most suitable literature
  • Understanding , distilling and organising the literature
  • Planning and writing up your literature review chapter

Importantly, you must complete steps one and two before you start writing up your chapter. I know it’s very tempting, but don’t try to kill two birds with one stone and write as you read. You’ll invariably end up wasting huge amounts of time re-writing and re-shaping, or you’ll just land up with a disjointed, hard-to-digest mess . Instead, you need to read first and distil the information, then plan and execute the writing.

Free Webinar: Literature Review 101

Step 1: Find the relevant literature

Naturally, the first step in the literature review journey is to hunt down the existing research that’s relevant to your topic. While you probably already have a decent base of this from your research proposal , you need to expand on this substantially in the dissertation or thesis itself.

Essentially, you need to be looking for any existing literature that potentially helps you answer your research question (or develop it, if that’s not yet pinned down). There are numerous ways to find relevant literature, but I’ll cover my top four tactics here. I’d suggest combining all four methods to ensure that nothing slips past you:

Method 1 – Google Scholar Scrubbing

Google’s academic search engine, Google Scholar , is a great starting point as it provides a good high-level view of the relevant journal articles for whatever keyword you throw at it. Most valuably, it tells you how many times each article has been cited, which gives you an idea of how credible (or at least, popular) it is. Some articles will be free to access, while others will require an account, which brings us to the next method.

Method 2 – University Database Scrounging

Generally, universities provide students with access to an online library, which provides access to many (but not all) of the major journals.

So, if you find an article using Google Scholar that requires paid access (which is quite likely), search for that article in your university’s database – if it’s listed there, you’ll have access. Note that, generally, the search engine capabilities of these databases are poor, so make sure you search for the exact article name, or you might not find it.

Method 3 – Journal Article Snowballing

At the end of every academic journal article, you’ll find a list of references. As with any academic writing, these references are the building blocks of the article, so if the article is relevant to your topic, there’s a good chance a portion of the referenced works will be too. Do a quick scan of the titles and see what seems relevant, then search for the relevant ones in your university’s database.

Method 4 – Dissertation Scavenging

Similar to Method 3 above, you can leverage other students’ dissertations. All you have to do is skim through literature review chapters of existing dissertations related to your topic and you’ll find a gold mine of potential literature. Usually, your university will provide you with access to previous students’ dissertations, but you can also find a much larger selection in the following databases:

  • Open Access Theses & Dissertations
  • Stanford SearchWorks

Keep in mind that dissertations and theses are not as academically sound as published, peer-reviewed journal articles (because they’re written by students, not professionals), so be sure to check the credibility of any sources you find using this method. You can do this by assessing the citation count of any given article in Google Scholar. If you need help with assessing the credibility of any article, or with finding relevant research in general, you can chat with one of our Research Specialists .

Alright – with a good base of literature firmly under your belt, it’s time to move onto the next step.

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literature review for phd students

Step 2: Log, catalogue and synthesise

Once you’ve built a little treasure trove of articles, it’s time to get reading and start digesting the information – what does it all mean?

While I present steps one and two (hunting and digesting) as sequential, in reality, it’s more of a back-and-forth tango – you’ll read a little , then have an idea, spot a new citation, or a new potential variable, and then go back to searching for articles. This is perfectly natural – through the reading process, your thoughts will develop , new avenues might crop up, and directional adjustments might arise. This is, after all, one of the main purposes of the literature review process (i.e. to familiarise yourself with the current state of research in your field).

As you’re working through your treasure chest, it’s essential that you simultaneously start organising the information. There are three aspects to this:

  • Logging reference information
  • Building an organised catalogue
  • Distilling and synthesising the information

I’ll discuss each of these below:

2.1 – Log the reference information

As you read each article, you should add it to your reference management software. I usually recommend Mendeley for this purpose (see the Mendeley 101 video below), but you can use whichever software you’re comfortable with. Most importantly, make sure you load EVERY article you read into your reference manager, even if it doesn’t seem very relevant at the time.

2.2 – Build an organised catalogue

In the beginning, you might feel confident that you can remember who said what, where, and what their main arguments were. Trust me, you won’t. If you do a thorough review of the relevant literature (as you must!), you’re going to read many, many articles, and it’s simply impossible to remember who said what, when, and in what context . Also, without the bird’s eye view that a catalogue provides, you’ll miss connections between various articles, and have no view of how the research developed over time. Simply put, it’s essential to build your own catalogue of the literature.

I would suggest using Excel to build your catalogue, as it allows you to run filters, colour code and sort – all very useful when your list grows large (which it will). How you lay your spreadsheet out is up to you, but I’d suggest you have the following columns (at minimum):

  • Author, date, title – Start with three columns containing this core information. This will make it easy for you to search for titles with certain words, order research by date, or group by author.
  • Categories or keywords – You can either create multiple columns, one for each category/theme and then tick the relevant categories, or you can have one column with keywords.
  • Key arguments/points – Use this column to succinctly convey the essence of the article, the key arguments and implications thereof for your research.
  • Context – Note the socioeconomic context in which the research was undertaken. For example, US-based, respondents aged 25-35, lower- income, etc. This will be useful for making an argument about gaps in the research.
  • Methodology – Note which methodology was used and why. Also, note any issues you feel arise due to the methodology. Again, you can use this to make an argument about gaps in the research.
  • Quotations – Note down any quoteworthy lines you feel might be useful later.
  • Notes – Make notes about anything not already covered. For example, linkages to or disagreements with other theories, questions raised but unanswered, shortcomings or limitations, and so forth.

If you’d like, you can try out our free catalog template here (see screenshot below).

Excel literature review template

2.3 – Digest and synthesise

Most importantly, as you work through the literature and build your catalogue, you need to synthesise all the information in your own mind – how does it all fit together? Look for links between the various articles and try to develop a bigger picture view of the state of the research. Some important questions to ask yourself are:

  • What answers does the existing research provide to my own research questions ?
  • Which points do the researchers agree (and disagree) on?
  • How has the research developed over time?
  • Where do the gaps in the current research lie?

To help you develop a big-picture view and synthesise all the information, you might find mind mapping software such as Freemind useful. Alternatively, if you’re a fan of physical note-taking, investing in a large whiteboard might work for you.

Mind mapping is a useful way to plan your literature review.

Step 3: Outline and write it up!

Once you’re satisfied that you have digested and distilled all the relevant literature in your mind, it’s time to put pen to paper (or rather, fingers to keyboard). There are two steps here – outlining and writing:

3.1 – Draw up your outline

Having spent so much time reading, it might be tempting to just start writing up without a clear structure in mind. However, it’s critically important to decide on your structure and develop a detailed outline before you write anything. Your literature review chapter needs to present a clear, logical and an easy to follow narrative – and that requires some planning. Don’t try to wing it!

Naturally, you won’t always follow the plan to the letter, but without a detailed outline, you’re more than likely going to end up with a disjointed pile of waffle , and then you’re going to spend a far greater amount of time re-writing, hacking and patching. The adage, “measure twice, cut once” is very suitable here.

In terms of structure, the first decision you’ll have to make is whether you’ll lay out your review thematically (into themes) or chronologically (by date/period). The right choice depends on your topic, research objectives and research questions, which we discuss in this article .

Once that’s decided, you need to draw up an outline of your entire chapter in bullet point format. Try to get as detailed as possible, so that you know exactly what you’ll cover where, how each section will connect to the next, and how your entire argument will develop throughout the chapter. Also, at this stage, it’s a good idea to allocate rough word count limits for each section, so that you can identify word count problems before you’ve spent weeks or months writing!

PS – check out our free literature review chapter template…

3.2 – Get writing

With a detailed outline at your side, it’s time to start writing up (finally!). At this stage, it’s common to feel a bit of writer’s block and find yourself procrastinating under the pressure of finally having to put something on paper. To help with this, remember that the objective of the first draft is not perfection – it’s simply to get your thoughts out of your head and onto paper, after which you can refine them. The structure might change a little, the word count allocations might shift and shuffle, and you might add or remove a section – that’s all okay. Don’t worry about all this on your first draft – just get your thoughts down on paper.

start writing

Once you’ve got a full first draft (however rough it may be), step away from it for a day or two (longer if you can) and then come back at it with fresh eyes. Pay particular attention to the flow and narrative – does it fall fit together and flow from one section to another smoothly? Now’s the time to try to improve the linkage from each section to the next, tighten up the writing to be more concise, trim down word count and sand it down into a more digestible read.

Once you’ve done that, give your writing to a friend or colleague who is not a subject matter expert and ask them if they understand the overall discussion. The best way to assess this is to ask them to explain the chapter back to you. This technique will give you a strong indication of which points were clearly communicated and which weren’t. If you’re working with Grad Coach, this is a good time to have your Research Specialist review your chapter.

Finally, tighten it up and send it off to your supervisor for comment. Some might argue that you should be sending your work to your supervisor sooner than this (indeed your university might formally require this), but in my experience, supervisors are extremely short on time (and often patience), so, the more refined your chapter is, the less time they’ll waste on addressing basic issues (which you know about already) and the more time they’ll spend on valuable feedback that will increase your mark-earning potential.

Literature Review Example

In the video below, we unpack an actual literature review so that you can see how all the core components come together in reality.

Let’s Recap

In this post, we’ve covered how to research and write up a high-quality literature review chapter. Let’s do a quick recap of the key takeaways:

  • It is essential to understand the WHY of the literature review before you read or write anything. Make sure you understand the 4 core functions of the process.
  • The first step is to hunt down the relevant literature . You can do this using Google Scholar, your university database, the snowballing technique and by reviewing other dissertations and theses.
  • Next, you need to log all the articles in your reference manager , build your own catalogue of literature and synthesise all the research.
  • Following that, you need to develop a detailed outline of your entire chapter – the more detail the better. Don’t start writing without a clear outline (on paper, not in your head!)
  • Write up your first draft in rough form – don’t aim for perfection. Remember, done beats perfect.
  • Refine your second draft and get a layman’s perspective on it . Then tighten it up and submit it to your supervisor.

Literature Review Course

Psst… there’s more!

This post is an extract from our bestselling short course, Literature Review Bootcamp . If you want to work smart, you don't want to miss this .

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How To Find a Research Gap (Fast)


Phindile Mpetshwa

Thank you very much. This page is an eye opener and easy to comprehend.


This is awesome!

I wish I come across GradCoach earlier enough.

But all the same I’ll make use of this opportunity to the fullest.

Thank you for this good job.

Keep it up!

Derek Jansen

You’re welcome, Yinka. Thank you for the kind words. All the best writing your literature review.

Renee Buerger

Thank you for a very useful literature review session. Although I am doing most of the steps…it being my first masters an Mphil is a self study and one not sure you are on the right track. I have an amazing supervisor but one also knows they are super busy. So not wanting to bother on the minutae. Thank you.

You’re most welcome, Renee. Good luck with your literature review 🙂

Sheemal Prasad

This has been really helpful. Will make full use of it. 🙂

Thank you Gradcoach.


Really agreed. Admirable effort

Faturoti Toyin

thank you for this beautiful well explained recap.


Thank you so much for your guide of video and other instructions for the dissertation writing.

It is instrumental. It encouraged me to write a dissertation now.

Lorraine Hall

Thank you the video was great – from someone that knows nothing thankyou

araz agha

an amazing and very constructive way of presetting a topic, very useful, thanks for the effort,

Suilabayuh Ngah

It is timely

It is very good video of guidance for writing a research proposal and a dissertation. Since I have been watching and reading instructions, I have started my research proposal to write. I appreciate to Mr Jansen hugely.

Nancy Geregl

I learn a lot from your videos. Very comprehensive and detailed.

Thank you for sharing your knowledge. As a research student, you learn better with your learning tips in research


I was really stuck in reading and gathering information but after watching these things are cleared thanks, it is so helpful.

Xaysukith thorxaitou

Really helpful, Thank you for the effort in showing such information

Sheila Jerome

This is super helpful thank you very much.


Thank you for this whole literature writing review.You have simplified the process.


I’m so glad I found GradCoach. Excellent information, Clear explanation, and Easy to follow, Many thanks Derek!

You’re welcome, Maithe. Good luck writing your literature review 🙂


Thank you Coach, you have greatly enriched and improved my knowledge


Great piece, so enriching and it is going to help me a great lot in my project and thesis, thanks so much

Stephanie Louw

This is THE BEST site for ANYONE doing a masters or doctorate! Thank you for the sound advice and templates. You rock!

Thanks, Stephanie 🙂

oghenekaro Silas

This is mind blowing, the detailed explanation and simplicity is perfect.

I am doing two papers on my final year thesis, and I must stay I feel very confident to face both headlong after reading this article.

thank you so much.

if anyone is to get a paper done on time and in the best way possible, GRADCOACH is certainly the go to area!

tarandeep singh

This is very good video which is well explained with detailed explanation

uku igeny

Thank you excellent piece of work and great mentoring

Abdul Ahmad Zazay

Thanks, it was useful

Maserialong Dlamini

Thank you very much. the video and the information were very helpful.

Suleiman Abubakar

Good morning scholar. I’m delighted coming to know you even before the commencement of my dissertation which hopefully is expected in not more than six months from now. I would love to engage my study under your guidance from the beginning to the end. I love to know how to do good job

Mthuthuzeli Vongo

Thank you so much Derek for such useful information on writing up a good literature review. I am at a stage where I need to start writing my one. My proposal was accepted late last year but I honestly did not know where to start


Like the name of your YouTube implies you are GRAD (great,resource person, about dissertation). In short you are smart enough in coaching research work.

Richie Buffalo

This is a very well thought out webpage. Very informative and a great read.

Adekoya Opeyemi Jonathan

Very timely.

I appreciate.

Norasyidah Mohd Yusoff

Very comprehensive and eye opener for me as beginner in postgraduate study. Well explained and easy to understand. Appreciate and good reference in guiding me in my research journey. Thank you

Maryellen Elizabeth Hart

Thank you. I requested to download the free literature review template, however, your website wouldn’t allow me to complete the request or complete a download. May I request that you email me the free template? Thank you.

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Writing the Literature Review: Step-by-Step Tutorial for Graduate Students [Produced by University of Maryland University College]

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How to do a Successful Literature Review breaks the process down into ten easy steps and provides resources, tips, and tricks along the way. 

Please note that, while the interfaces of the Himmelfarb Library home page and PubMed have changed, the content remains the same. Also note that the instructor in this video conducts screening and extraction in Excel. However, you may wish to use Covidence, an online tool that helps facilitate and streamline these processes. 

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Approaching literature review for academic purposes: The Literature Review Checklist

Debora f.b. leite.

I Departamento de Ginecologia e Obstetricia, Faculdade de Ciencias Medicas, Universidade Estadual de Campinas, Campinas, SP, BR

II Universidade Federal de Pernambuco, Pernambuco, PE, BR

III Hospital das Clinicas, Universidade Federal de Pernambuco, Pernambuco, PE, BR

Maria Auxiliadora Soares Padilha

Jose g. cecatti.

A sophisticated literature review (LR) can result in a robust dissertation/thesis by scrutinizing the main problem examined by the academic study; anticipating research hypotheses, methods and results; and maintaining the interest of the audience in how the dissertation/thesis will provide solutions for the current gaps in a particular field. Unfortunately, little guidance is available on elaborating LRs, and writing an LR chapter is not a linear process. An LR translates students’ abilities in information literacy, the language domain, and critical writing. Students in postgraduate programs should be systematically trained in these skills. Therefore, this paper discusses the purposes of LRs in dissertations and theses. Second, the paper considers five steps for developing a review: defining the main topic, searching the literature, analyzing the results, writing the review and reflecting on the writing. Ultimately, this study proposes a twelve-item LR checklist. By clearly stating the desired achievements, this checklist allows Masters and Ph.D. students to continuously assess their own progress in elaborating an LR. Institutions aiming to strengthen students’ necessary skills in critical academic writing should also use this tool.


Writing the literature review (LR) is often viewed as a difficult task that can be a point of writer’s block and procrastination ( 1 ) in postgraduate life. Disagreements on the definitions or classifications of LRs ( 2 ) may confuse students about their purpose and scope, as well as how to perform an LR. Interestingly, at many universities, the LR is still an important element in any academic work, despite the more recent trend of producing scientific articles rather than classical theses.

The LR is not an isolated section of the thesis/dissertation or a copy of the background section of a research proposal. It identifies the state-of-the-art knowledge in a particular field, clarifies information that is already known, elucidates implications of the problem being analyzed, links theory and practice ( 3 - 5 ), highlights gaps in the current literature, and places the dissertation/thesis within the research agenda of that field. Additionally, by writing the LR, postgraduate students will comprehend the structure of the subject and elaborate on their cognitive connections ( 3 ) while analyzing and synthesizing data with increasing maturity.

At the same time, the LR transforms the student and hints at the contents of other chapters for the reader. First, the LR explains the research question; second, it supports the hypothesis, objectives, and methods of the research project; and finally, it facilitates a description of the student’s interpretation of the results and his/her conclusions. For scholars, the LR is an introductory chapter ( 6 ). If it is well written, it demonstrates the student’s understanding of and maturity in a particular topic. A sound and sophisticated LR can indicate a robust dissertation/thesis.

A consensus on the best method to elaborate a dissertation/thesis has not been achieved. The LR can be a distinct chapter or included in different sections; it can be part of the introduction chapter, part of each research topic, or part of each published paper ( 7 ). However, scholars view the LR as an integral part of the main body of an academic work because it is intrinsically connected to other sections ( Figure 1 ) and is frequently present. The structure of the LR depends on the conventions of a particular discipline, the rules of the department, and the student’s and supervisor’s areas of expertise, needs and interests.

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Interestingly, many postgraduate students choose to submit their LR to peer-reviewed journals. As LRs are critical evaluations of current knowledge, they are indeed publishable material, even in the form of narrative or systematic reviews. However, systematic reviews have specific patterns 1 ( 8 ) that may not entirely fit with the questions posed in the dissertation/thesis. Additionally, the scope of a systematic review may be too narrow, and the strict criteria for study inclusion may omit important information from the dissertation/thesis. Therefore, this essay discusses the definition of an LR is and methods to develop an LR in the context of an academic dissertation/thesis. Finally, we suggest a checklist to evaluate an LR.


Conducting research and writing a dissertation/thesis translates rational thinking and enthusiasm ( 9 ). While a strong body of literature that instructs students on research methodology, data analysis and writing scientific papers exists, little guidance on performing LRs is available. The LR is a unique opportunity to assess and contrast various arguments and theories, not just summarize them. The research results should not be discussed within the LR, but the postgraduate student tends to write a comprehensive LR while reflecting on his or her own findings ( 10 ).

Many people believe that writing an LR is a lonely and linear process. Supervisors or the institutions assume that the Ph.D. student has mastered the relevant techniques and vocabulary associated with his/her subject and conducts a self-reflection about previously published findings. Indeed, while elaborating the LR, the student should aggregate diverse skills, which mainly rely on his/her own commitment to mastering them. Thus, less supervision should be required ( 11 ). However, the parameters described above might not currently be the case for many students ( 11 , 12 ), and the lack of formal and systematic training on writing LRs is an important concern ( 11 ).

An institutional environment devoted to active learning will provide students the opportunity to continuously reflect on LRs, which will form a dialogue between the postgraduate student and the current literature in a particular field ( 13 ). Postgraduate students will be interpreting studies by other researchers, and, according to Hart (1998) ( 3 ), the outcomes of the LR in a dissertation/thesis include the following:

  • To identify what research has been performed and what topics require further investigation in a particular field of knowledge;
  • To determine the context of the problem;
  • To recognize the main methodologies and techniques that have been used in the past;
  • To place the current research project within the historical, methodological and theoretical context of a particular field;
  • To identify significant aspects of the topic;
  • To elucidate the implications of the topic;
  • To offer an alternative perspective;
  • To discern how the studied subject is structured;
  • To improve the student’s subject vocabulary in a particular field; and
  • To characterize the links between theory and practice.

A sound LR translates the postgraduate student’s expertise in academic and scientific writing: it expresses his/her level of comfort with synthesizing ideas ( 11 ). The LR reveals how well the postgraduate student has proceeded in three domains: an effective literature search, the language domain, and critical writing.

Effective literature search

All students should be trained in gathering appropriate data for specific purposes, and information literacy skills are a cornerstone. These skills are defined as “an individual’s ability to know when they need information, to identify information that can help them address the issue or problem at hand, and to locate, evaluate, and use that information effectively” ( 14 ). Librarian support is of vital importance in coaching the appropriate use of Boolean logic (AND, OR, NOT) and other tools for highly efficient literature searches (e.g., quotation marks and truncation), as is the appropriate management of electronic databases.

Language domain

Academic writing must be concise and precise: unnecessary words distract the reader from the essential content ( 15 ). In this context, reading about issues distant from the research topic ( 16 ) may increase students’ general vocabulary and familiarity with grammar. Ultimately, reading diverse materials facilitates and encourages the writing process itself.

Critical writing

Critical judgment includes critical reading, thinking and writing. It supposes a student’s analytical reflection about what he/she has read. The student should delineate the basic elements of the topic, characterize the most relevant claims, identify relationships, and finally contrast those relationships ( 17 ). Each scientific document highlights the perspective of the author, and students will become more confident in judging the supporting evidence and underlying premises of a study and constructing their own counterargument as they read more articles. A paucity of integration or contradictory perspectives indicates lower levels of cognitive complexity ( 12 ).

Thus, while elaborating an LR, the postgraduate student should achieve the highest category of Bloom’s cognitive skills: evaluation ( 12 ). The writer should not only summarize data and understand each topic but also be able to make judgments based on objective criteria, compare resources and findings, identify discrepancies due to methodology, and construct his/her own argument ( 12 ). As a result, the student will be sufficiently confident to show his/her own voice .

Writing a consistent LR is an intense and complex activity that reveals the training and long-lasting academic skills of a writer. It is not a lonely or linear process. However, students are unlikely to be prepared to write an LR if they have not mastered the aforementioned domains ( 10 ). An institutional environment that supports student learning is crucial.

Different institutions employ distinct methods to promote students’ learning processes. First, many universities propose modules to develop behind the scenes activities that enhance self-reflection about general skills (e.g., the skills we have mastered and the skills we need to develop further), behaviors that should be incorporated (e.g., self-criticism about one’s own thoughts), and each student’s role in the advancement of his/her field. Lectures or workshops about LRs themselves are useful because they describe the purposes of the LR and how it fits into the whole picture of a student’s work. These activities may explain what type of discussion an LR must involve, the importance of defining the correct scope, the reasons to include a particular resource, and the main role of critical reading.

Some pedagogic services that promote a continuous improvement in study and academic skills are equally important. Examples include workshops about time management, the accomplishment of personal objectives, active learning, and foreign languages for nonnative speakers. Additionally, opportunities to converse with other students promotes an awareness of others’ experiences and difficulties. Ultimately, the supervisor’s role in providing feedback and setting deadlines is crucial in developing students’ abilities and in strengthening students’ writing quality ( 12 ).


A consensus on the appropriate method for elaborating an LR is not available, but four main steps are generally accepted: defining the main topic, searching the literature, analyzing the results, and writing ( 6 ). We suggest a fifth step: reflecting on the information that has been written in previous publications ( Figure 2 ).

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First step: Defining the main topic

Planning an LR is directly linked to the research main question of the thesis and occurs in parallel to students’ training in the three domains discussed above. The planning stage helps organize ideas, delimit the scope of the LR ( 11 ), and avoid the wasting of time in the process. Planning includes the following steps:

  • Reflecting on the scope of the LR: postgraduate students will have assumptions about what material must be addressed and what information is not essential to an LR ( 13 , 18 ). Cooper’s Taxonomy of Literature Reviews 2 systematizes the writing process through six characteristics and nonmutually exclusive categories. The focus refers to the reviewer’s most important points of interest, while the goals concern what students want to achieve with the LR. The perspective assumes answers to the student’s own view of the LR and how he/she presents a particular issue. The coverage defines how comprehensive the student is in presenting the literature, and the organization determines the sequence of arguments. The audience is defined as the group for whom the LR is written.
  • Designating sections and subsections: Headings and subheadings should be specific, explanatory and have a coherent sequence throughout the text ( 4 ). They simulate an inverted pyramid, with an increasing level of reflection and depth of argument.
  • Identifying keywords: The relevant keywords for each LR section should be listed to guide the literature search. This list should mirror what Hart (1998) ( 3 ) advocates as subject vocabulary . The keywords will also be useful when the student is writing the LR since they guide the reader through the text.
  • Delineating the time interval and language of documents to be retrieved in the second step. The most recently published documents should be considered, but relevant texts published before a predefined cutoff year can be included if they are classic documents in that field. Extra care should be employed when translating documents.

Second step: Searching the literature

The ability to gather adequate information from the literature must be addressed in postgraduate programs. Librarian support is important, particularly for accessing difficult texts. This step comprises the following components:

  • Searching the literature itself: This process consists of defining which databases (electronic or dissertation/thesis repositories), official documents, and books will be searched and then actively conducting the search. Information literacy skills have a central role in this stage. While searching electronic databases, controlled vocabulary (e.g., Medical Subject Headings, or MeSH, for the PubMed database) or specific standardized syntax rules may need to be applied.

In addition, two other approaches are suggested. First, a review of the reference list of each document might be useful for identifying relevant publications to be included and important opinions to be assessed. This step is also relevant for referencing the original studies and leading authors in that field. Moreover, students can directly contact the experts on a particular topic to consult with them regarding their experience or use them as a source of additional unpublished documents.

Before submitting a dissertation/thesis, the electronic search strategy should be repeated. This process will ensure that the most recently published papers will be considered in the LR.

  • Selecting documents for inclusion: Generally, the most recent literature will be included in the form of published peer-reviewed papers. Assess books and unpublished material, such as conference abstracts, academic texts and government reports, are also important to assess since the gray literature also offers valuable information. However, since these materials are not peer-reviewed, we recommend that they are carefully added to the LR.

This task is an important exercise in time management. First, students should read the title and abstract to understand whether that document suits their purposes, addresses the research question, and helps develop the topic of interest. Then, they should scan the full text, determine how it is structured, group it with similar documents, and verify whether other arguments might be considered ( 5 ).

Third step: Analyzing the results

Critical reading and thinking skills are important in this step. This step consists of the following components:

  • Reading documents: The student may read various texts in depth according to LR sections and subsections ( defining the main topic ), which is not a passive activity ( 1 ). Some questions should be asked to practice critical analysis skills, as listed below. Is the research question evident and articulated with previous knowledge? What are the authors’ research goals and theoretical orientations, and how do they interact? Are the authors’ claims related to other scholars’ research? Do the authors consider different perspectives? Was the research project designed and conducted properly? Are the results and discussion plausible, and are they consistent with the research objectives and methodology? What are the strengths and limitations of this work? How do the authors support their findings? How does this work contribute to the current research topic? ( 1 , 19 )
  • Taking notes: Students who systematically take notes on each document are more readily able to establish similarities or differences with other documents and to highlight personal observations. This approach reinforces the student’s ideas about the next step and helps develop his/her own academic voice ( 1 , 13 ). Voice recognition software ( 16 ), mind maps ( 5 ), flowcharts, tables, spreadsheets, personal comments on the referenced texts, and note-taking apps are all available tools for managing these observations, and the student him/herself should use the tool that best improves his/her learning. Additionally, when a student is considering submitting an LR to a peer-reviewed journal, notes should be taken on the activities performed in all five steps to ensure that they are able to be replicated.

Fourth step: Writing

The recognition of when a student is able and ready to write after a sufficient period of reading and thinking is likely a difficult task. Some students can produce a review in a single long work session. However, as discussed above, writing is not a linear process, and students do not need to write LRs according to a specific sequence of sections. Writing an LR is a time-consuming task, and some scholars believe that a period of at least six months is sufficient ( 6 ). An LR, and academic writing in general, expresses the writer’s proper thoughts, conclusions about others’ work ( 6 , 10 , 13 , 16 ), and decisions about methods to progress in the chosen field of knowledge. Thus, each student is expected to present a different learning and writing trajectory.

In this step, writing methods should be considered; then, editing, citing and correct referencing should complete this stage, at least temporarily. Freewriting techniques may be a good starting point for brainstorming ideas and improving the understanding of the information that has been read ( 1 ). Students should consider the following parameters when creating an agenda for writing the LR: two-hour writing blocks (at minimum), with prespecified tasks that are possible to complete in one section; short (minutes) and long breaks (days or weeks) to allow sufficient time for mental rest and reflection; and short- and long-term goals to motivate the writing itself ( 20 ). With increasing experience, this scheme can vary widely, and it is not a straightforward rule. Importantly, each discipline has a different way of writing ( 1 ), and each department has its own preferred styles for citations and references.

Fifth step: Reflecting on the writing

In this step, the postgraduate student should ask him/herself the same questions as in the analyzing the results step, which can take more time than anticipated. Ambiguities, repeated ideas, and a lack of coherence may not be noted when the student is immersed in the writing task for long periods. The whole effort will likely be a work in progress, and continuous refinements in the written material will occur once the writing process has begun.


In contrast to review papers, the LR of a dissertation/thesis should not be a standalone piece or work. Instead, it should present the student as a scholar and should maintain the interest of the audience in how that dissertation/thesis will provide solutions for the current gaps in a particular field.

A checklist for evaluating an LR is convenient for students’ continuous academic development and research transparency: it clearly states the desired achievements for the LR of a dissertation/thesis. Here, we present an LR checklist developed from an LR scoring rubric ( 11 ). For a critical analysis of an LR, we maintain the five categories but offer twelve criteria that are not scaled ( Figure 3 ). The criteria all have the same importance and are not mutually exclusive.

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First category: Coverage

1. justified criteria exist for the inclusion and exclusion of literature in the review.

This criterion builds on the main topic and areas covered by the LR ( 18 ). While experts may be confident in retrieving and selecting literature, postgraduate students must convince their audience about the adequacy of their search strategy and their reasons for intentionally selecting what material to cover ( 11 ). References from different fields of knowledge provide distinct perspective, but narrowing the scope of coverage may be important in areas with a large body of existing knowledge.

Second category: Synthesis

2. a critical examination of the state of the field exists.

A critical examination is an assessment of distinct aspects in the field ( 1 ) along with a constructive argument. It is not a negative critique but an expression of the student’s understanding of how other scholars have added to the topic ( 1 ), and the student should analyze and contextualize contradictory statements. A writer’s personal bias (beliefs or political involvement) have been shown to influence the structure and writing of a document; therefore, the cultural and paradigmatic background guide how the theories are revised and presented ( 13 ). However, an honest judgment is important when considering different perspectives.

3. The topic or problem is clearly placed in the context of the broader scholarly literature

The broader scholarly literature should be related to the chosen main topic for the LR ( how to develop the literature review section). The LR can cover the literature from one or more disciplines, depending on its scope, but it should always offer a new perspective. In addition, students should be careful in citing and referencing previous publications. As a rule, original studies and primary references should generally be included. Systematic and narrative reviews present summarized data, and it may be important to cite them, particularly for issues that should be understood but do not require a detailed description. Similarly, quotations highlight the exact statement from another publication. However, excessive referencing may disclose lower levels of analysis and synthesis by the student.

4. The LR is critically placed in the historical context of the field

Situating the LR in its historical context shows the level of comfort of the student in addressing a particular topic. Instead of only presenting statements and theories in a temporal approach, which occasionally follows a linear timeline, the LR should authentically characterize the student’s academic work in the state-of-art techniques in their particular field of knowledge. Thus, the LR should reinforce why the dissertation/thesis represents original work in the chosen research field.

5. Ambiguities in definitions are considered and resolved

Distinct theories on the same topic may exist in different disciplines, and one discipline may consider multiple concepts to explain one topic. These misunderstandings should be addressed and contemplated. The LR should not synthesize all theories or concepts at the same time. Although this approach might demonstrate in-depth reading on a particular topic, it can reveal a student’s inability to comprehend and synthesize his/her research problem.

6. Important variables and phenomena relevant to the topic are articulated

The LR is a unique opportunity to articulate ideas and arguments and to purpose new relationships between them ( 10 , 11 ). More importantly, a sound LR will outline to the audience how these important variables and phenomena will be addressed in the current academic work. Indeed, the LR should build a bidirectional link with the remaining sections and ground the connections between all of the sections ( Figure 1 ).

7. A synthesized new perspective on the literature has been established

The LR is a ‘creative inquiry’ ( 13 ) in which the student elaborates his/her own discourse, builds on previous knowledge in the field, and describes his/her own perspective while interpreting others’ work ( 13 , 17 ). Thus, students should articulate the current knowledge, not accept the results at face value ( 11 , 13 , 17 ), and improve their own cognitive abilities ( 12 ).

Third category: Methodology

8. the main methodologies and research techniques that have been used in the field are identified and their advantages and disadvantages are discussed.

The LR is expected to distinguish the research that has been completed from investigations that remain to be performed, address the benefits and limitations of the main methods applied to date, and consider the strategies for addressing the expected limitations described above. While placing his/her research within the methodological context of a particular topic, the LR will justify the methodology of the study and substantiate the student’s interpretations.

9. Ideas and theories in the field are related to research methodologies

The audience expects the writer to analyze and synthesize methodological approaches in the field. The findings should be explained according to the strengths and limitations of previous research methods, and students must avoid interpretations that are not supported by the analyzed literature. This criterion translates to the student’s comprehension of the applicability and types of answers provided by different research methodologies, even those using a quantitative or qualitative research approach.

Fourth category: Significance

10. the scholarly significance of the research problem is rationalized.

The LR is an introductory section of a dissertation/thesis and will present the postgraduate student as a scholar in a particular field ( 11 ). Therefore, the LR should discuss how the research problem is currently addressed in the discipline being investigated or in different disciplines, depending on the scope of the LR. The LR explains the academic paradigms in the topic of interest ( 13 ) and methods to advance the field from these starting points. However, an excess number of personal citations—whether referencing the student’s research or studies by his/her research team—may reflect a narrow literature search and a lack of comprehensive synthesis of ideas and arguments.

11. The practical significance of the research problem is rationalized

The practical significance indicates a student’s comprehensive understanding of research terminology (e.g., risk versus associated factor), methodology (e.g., efficacy versus effectiveness) and plausible interpretations in the context of the field. Notably, the academic argument about a topic may not always reflect the debate in real life terms. For example, using a quantitative approach in epidemiology, statistically significant differences between groups do not explain all of the factors involved in a particular problem ( 21 ). Therefore, excessive faith in p -values may reflect lower levels of critical evaluation of the context and implications of a research problem by the student.

Fifth category: Rhetoric

12. the lr was written with a coherent, clear structure that supported the review.

This category strictly relates to the language domain: the text should be coherent and presented in a logical sequence, regardless of which organizational ( 18 ) approach is chosen. The beginning of each section/subsection should state what themes will be addressed, paragraphs should be carefully linked to each other ( 10 ), and the first sentence of each paragraph should generally summarize the content. Additionally, the student’s statements are clear, sound, and linked to other scholars’ works, and precise and concise language that follows standardized writing conventions (e.g., in terms of active/passive voice and verb tenses) is used. Attention to grammar, such as orthography and punctuation, indicates prudence and supports a robust dissertation/thesis. Ultimately, all of these strategies provide fluency and consistency for the text.

Although the scoring rubric was initially proposed for postgraduate programs in education research, we are convinced that this checklist is a valuable tool for all academic areas. It enables the monitoring of students’ learning curves and a concentrated effort on any criteria that are not yet achieved. For institutions, the checklist is a guide to support supervisors’ feedback, improve students’ writing skills, and highlight the learning goals of each program. These criteria do not form a linear sequence, but ideally, all twelve achievements should be perceived in the LR.


A single correct method to classify, evaluate and guide the elaboration of an LR has not been established. In this essay, we have suggested directions for planning, structuring and critically evaluating an LR. The planning of the scope of an LR and approaches to complete it is a valuable effort, and the five steps represent a rational starting point. An institutional environment devoted to active learning will support students in continuously reflecting on LRs, which will form a dialogue between the writer and the current literature in a particular field ( 13 ).

The completion of an LR is a challenging and necessary process for understanding one’s own field of expertise. Knowledge is always transitory, but our responsibility as scholars is to provide a critical contribution to our field, allowing others to think through our work. Good researchers are grounded in sophisticated LRs, which reveal a writer’s training and long-lasting academic skills. We recommend using the LR checklist as a tool for strengthening the skills necessary for critical academic writing.


Leite DFB has initially conceived the idea and has written the first draft of this review. Padilha MAS and Cecatti JG have supervised data interpretation and critically reviewed the manuscript. All authors have read the draft and agreed with this submission. Authors are responsible for all aspects of this academic piece.


We are grateful to all of the professors of the ‘Getting Started with Graduate Research and Generic Skills’ module at University College Cork, Cork, Ireland, for suggesting and supporting this article. Funding: DFBL has granted scholarship from Brazilian Federal Agency for Support and Evaluation of Graduate Education (CAPES) to take part of her Ph.D. studies in Ireland (process number 88881.134512/2016-01). There is no participation from sponsors on authors’ decision to write or to submit this manuscript.

No potential conflict of interest was reported.

1 The questions posed in systematic reviews usually follow the ‘PICOS’ acronym: Population, Intervention, Comparison, Outcomes, Study design.

2 In 1988, Cooper proposed a taxonomy that aims to facilitate students’ and institutions’ understanding of literature reviews. Six characteristics with specific categories are briefly described: Focus: research outcomes, research methodologies, theories, or practices and applications; Goals: integration (generalization, conflict resolution, and linguistic bridge-building), criticism, or identification of central issues; Perspective: neutral representation or espousal of a position; Coverage: exhaustive, exhaustive with selective citations, representative, central or pivotal; Organization: historical, conceptual, or methodological; and Audience: specialized scholars, general scholars, practitioners or policymakers, or the general public.

The PhD Proofreaders

Wrestling an elephant into a cupboard: how to write a PhD literature review in nine easy steps

Feb 10, 2019

how to write a literature review

When I was writing my PhD I hated the literature review. I was scared of it. One day, my supervisor took me to one side and told me that I had no choice: ‘It was going to have to be done before you start fieldwork’. I was terrified.

Sound familiar? According to Google, 5,000 people a month search for advice on how to conduct a literature review. And we know from the one-on-one PhD coaching we offer and from the theses we proofread that many students struggle with this part of their thesis. 

If you’re feeling lost, keep reading. In this guide, I’ll walk you through the nine steps involved in conducting and writing a PhD literature review.

You’ll realise what I eventually found out: C onducting a literature review is easy. Okay, perhaps that’s a bit much. Let me rephrase: Conducting a PhD literature review isn’t as hard as you think.

What a PhD literature review isn’t

Let us make one thing very clear. A PhD literature review isn’t just a summary of existing literature. That’s an annotated bibliography and that isn’t what a PhD literature review is about. This is the mistake I see most frequently in the PhDs I proofread.

Not only will your examiners send this back for corrections, but it may mean the whole PhD thesis is problematic because it isn’t grounded in a critical review of the literature.

What a PhD literature review is

A PhD literature review is a critical assessment of the literature in your field and related to your specific research topic. When discussing each relevant piece of literature, the review must highlight where the gaps are and what the strengths and weaknesses are of particular studies, papers, books, etc. Also, different pieces of literature are compared and contrasted with one another so that themes and relationships are highlighted.

The job of a literature review is to show five things (if you’re using our PhD Writing Template , you may recognise these):

1. What has been written on your topic 2. Who the key authors are and what the key works are 3. The main theories and hypotheses 4. The main themes that exist in the literature 5. Gaps and weaknesses that your study will then help fill

Who cares what other people have written and said, or what they haven’t said? Well, you should and your examiners definitely will. For your own study to make sense, it has to be situated in the literature. That means you must relate it to what others are talking about.

If you wanted to build a new mobile phone, you would have to research how other mobile phones are built, find out where they can be improved and then design one that makes those improvements.

The literature review is the same.

But where do I start? Here, we list nine steps. Follow each and you’ll be on your way to literature review greatness.

We’ve made the infographic below to help you on your way. Click the image to download it.

literature review for phd students

Step One: Pick a Broad Topic

You will be reviewing literature on a particular topic, so knowing what your topic is beforehand means you can narrow down your search. At this stage your topic is broad. You won’t be able to know the specifics until you do the review itself.

For my PhD, which looked at the contributions that local government made to climate change policy, my literature review started with a broad topic of ‘climate change policy’. I didn’t focus in on local government until I had read the literature on climate change policy and realized there was a gap.

So, having a clearly defined purpose is really important. Otherwise you are searching blind. If you refer to your PhD Writing Template, take a look at the box titled ‘Aims & Objectives’ – you’ll need to make sure you have established your aims, scope and research questions.

Step Two: Find the Way In

If you search for your broad topic in Google Scholar, you’ll be presented with millions of results. With my own PhD, a search for ‘climate change policy’ bought up over 3 million results.

  Obviously it’s unfeasible to read through all these.

So where do you start? Easy: choose the biggest names in your field.

There are three ways to find these:

1. Textbooks 2. Review articles 3. Most-cited articles

Read through these seminal texts and you’ll begin to get an idea of the broad topic.

Step Three: Who’s Saying What & When

Your job at this stage is to find out the key debates in the field. 

  • Who is making the most significant contribution?
  • What are they saying?
  • How are they saying it?
  • What aren’t they saying?

Step Four: Notes, Notes, Notes.

Whenever you read anything you should be taking notes. Detailed notes. These need to cover the following points: 

  • What is the author saying?
  • How is it relevant to your research?
  • What are the gaps/weaknesses?
  • What are the key references that you should read?

The more of these kind of standardised notes you have, the easier it will be when you write your literature review.

Step Five: Narrow Down the Field

As you read the key texts, you will begin to see what the key debates are in your field. There might be a number of ’schools’, for example. When you become aware of them, start to focus your literature review around them.

Step Six: Filter Through Your Growing List of References

Don’t just read everything. You need to find a way to filter through the articles or books that are relevant. For example, scan the abstracts, introduction, keywords, titles and references.

Filter the sources you come across into three separate categories:

  • Probably won’t read

Step Seven: Use Snowball Sampling

As you read through these articles, look at their reference list. Collect articles that you think will be relevant and use them in your literature review. This is known as snowball sampling.

Step Eight: Think About the Questions that Haven’t Been Asked

You must be reading critically, which means asking what the weaknesses are and where particular articles or book could be improved.

In order to tease out your own specific research topic, you need to think of the questions that haven’t been asked.

PhD Literature Review & Theory Framework Survival Pack

Master your lit review & theory framework.

Learn what goes where (and why), and how it all fit together with this free, interactive guide to the PhD literature review and theory framework.

Step Nine: Writing Up Your Literature Review

  The review will broadly follow the key debates you have spotted in step five above. As you write, focus on putting in more detail about particular sources (i.e. flesh out steps six and seven). The focus when writing is to elaborate upon the key patterns and themes that have emerged.

However, you need to include your own synthesis of the material. I said earlier that you shouldn’t just summarize the literature. Instead you should write critically. You should clearly and precisely present your argument. The argument will focus around the questions that haven’t been asked – step nine above – and will ground the literature review. We’ve written a guide to being critical in your literature review . You should read it if you’re unsure what’s required.

So, write early and write that first draft quickly. The earlier you start writing your literature review the better. You must accept that your first draft is going to be just that: a draft. When you write the first draft, focus on the broad structure first. This means focus on the broad themes you want to discuss in the review.

Something you need to consider is how to structure the chapter. The simple answer is that you can either structure it chronologically or thematically.

The long answer is that chronological literature reviews are restrictive and over-simplify the field. They are useful for very early drafts of the review and can help you to arrange the literature and trace threads and connections within it. However, your supervisors and examiners are looking for thematic reviews (unless they have told you otherwise), where you discuss the literature with reference to the themes that have emerged.

Equally important is knowing when to stop reviewing the literature.

The sooner you go out and do your fieldwork, the better. The literature review is a cruel mistress; you’ll struggle to fully nail down its various components and fully understand how everything you have read is related. But don’t despair; aspects of the literature review will become clearer when you enter the field and start to collect data.

Don’t fall into the trap of spending too long in the library and too little time doing fieldwork.

  It’s natural to be scared of the literature review. To conduct one, you have to read, process and synthesise hundreds of thousands of words. But it’s not impossible. Keep this guide to hand and refer to it when you feel yourself getting lost. Share it with your colleagues so they too can conquer their fear of the literature review.

Now read our guide to being critical in the literature review and, if you haven’t already, download our PhD writing template .

And if you need a little extra support, check out our one-on-one PhD coaching . It’s like having a personal trainer, but for your PhD. 

Hello, Doctor…

Sounds good, doesn’t it?  Be able to call yourself Doctor sooner with our five-star rated How to Write A PhD email-course. Learn everything your supervisor should have taught you about planning and completing a PhD.

Now half price. Join hundreds of other students and become a better thesis writer, or your money back. 

Share this:


Anand Mohan

Good. Clear guidance


I have read the guidelines and noted numerous tricks of writing a thesis. My understanding of writing literature review has improved a lot. Thanks a lot

Dr. Max Lempriere

You’re welcome 🙂

Taurayi Nyandoro

Another Great piece.

C. Ann Chinwendu

It’s understandable and clearer now. I do appreciate you. Thanks so much

Many thanks for the kind words.

Sk Asraful Alam

You are just brilliant. Outstanding piece for the literature review.

You’re too kind. Thanks!

Titus Kisauzi

Great insights! Thanks indeed.

Mathew Shafaghi

Thank you very much for your clear advice. I am beginning to see where my early literature review drafts were lacking and my feelings of panic are reducing!


is the process the same a research paper?

Broadly speaking, yes. It’ll follow the same overall structure, but you won’t be going into as much detail.

Thabelo Nelushi

This is very helpful. Thank you so much for sharing

Gautam Kashyap

Great advice. Thank you!

You’re welcome!


Thank you for this! I’m a first-year Ph.D. candidate, and I’m super nervous about writing my first literature review. I’ll be sure to use this for some more insight!

Thanks for the kind words. You’re welcome to join us on a PhD Masterclass. We’re currently putting together the Spring 24 calendar and we always run literature review sessions. You can bookmark this page to be the first to hear when our new programme is ready for bookings:


I cannot tell you how much more concise this makes everything for my ADHD brain. Thank you!

I’m so glad. Thanks for the kind words Kimberly.


I’m staring down the barrel of my literature review and this article made it much clearer what I’m trying to accomplish and actually feel more doable. Thank you!

You’re welcome. I’m glad it helped. Best of luck with it. If you need any support you can get me at max[at]

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literature review for phd students

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  • How should I approach writing a literature review at the graduate level?
  • / Resources for Students
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  • / 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.

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Literature reviews for graduate students

On this page, what is a literature review, literature review type definitions, literature review protocols and guidelines, to google scholar, or not to google scholar, subject headings vs. keywords, keeping track of your research, project management software, citation management software, saved searches.

Related guides:

  • Systematic, scoping, and rapid reviews: An overview
  • Academic writing: what is a literature review , a guide that addresses the writing and composition aspect of a literature review
  • Media literature reviews: how to conduct a literature review using news sources
  • Literature reviews in the applied sciences
  • Start your research here , literature review searching, mainly of interest to newer researchers

For more assistance, please contact the Liaison Librarian in your subject area .

Most generally, a literature review is a search within a defined range of information source types, such as, for instance, journals and books, to discover what has been already written about a specific subject or topic.  A literature review is a key component of almost all research papers.  However, the term is often applied loosely to describe a wide range of methodological approaches. A literature review in a first or second year course may involve browsing the library databases to get a sense of the research landscape in your topic and including 3-4 journal articles in your paper. At the other end of the continuum, the review may involve completing a comprehensive search, complete with documented search strategies and a listing of article inclusion and exclusion criteria. In the most rigorous format - a Systematic Review - a team of researchers may compile and review over 100,000 journal articles in a project spanning one to two years! These are out of scope for most graduate students, but it is important to be aware of the range of types of reviews possible.

One of the first steps in conducting a lit review is thus to clarify what kind of review you are doing, and its associated expectations.

Factors determining review approach are varied, including departmental/discipline conventions, granting agency stipulations, evolving standards for evidence-based research (and the corollary need for documented, replicable search strategies), and available time and resources.

The standards are also continually evolving in light of changing technology and evidence-based research about literature review methodology effectiveness. The availability of new tools such as large-scale library search engines and sophisticated citation management software continues to influence the research process.

Some specific types of lit reviews types include systematic reviews , scoping reviews , realist reviews , narrative reviews , mapping reviews, and qualitative systematic reviews , just to name a few. The protocols and distinctions for review types are particularly delineated in health research fields, but we are seeing conventions quickly establishing themselves in other academic fields.

The below definitions are quoted from the very helpful book, Booth, A., Papaioannou, D., & Sutton, A. (2012). Systematic approaches to a successful literature review . London: SAGE Publications Ltd.

For more definitions, try:

  • Grant, M.J. & Booth, A. (2009). A typology of reviews: an analysis of the 14 review types and associated methodologies. Health Information & Libraries Journal , 26(2), 91-108. doi: 10.1111/j.1471-1842.2009.00848.x
  • Sage Research Methods Online. A database devoted to research methodology. Includes handbooks, encyclopedia entries, and a research concepts map.
  • Research Methods
  • Report Writing
  • Research--Methodology
  • Research--Methodology--Handbooks, manuals, etc.

Note:   There is unfortunately no subject heading specifically for "literature reviews" which brings together all related material.

Mapping Review : "A rapid search of the literature aiming to give a broad overview of the characteristics of a topic area. Mapping of existing research, identification of gaps, and a summary assessment of the quantity and quality of the available evidence helps to decide future areas for research or for systematic reviews." (Booth, Papaioannou & Sutton, 2012, p. 264)

Mixed Method Review : "A literature review that seeks to bring together data from quantitative and qualitative studies integrating them in a way that facilitates subsequent analysis" (Booth et al., p. 265).

Meta-analysis : "The process of combining statistically quantitative studies that have measured the same effect using similar methods and a common outcome measure" (Booth et al., p. 264).

Narrative Review: "A term used to describe a conventional overview of the literature, particularly when contrasted with a systematic review" (Booth et al., p. 265).

Note: this term is often used pejoratively, describing a review that is inadvertently guided by a confirmation bias.

Qualitative Evidence Synthesis : "An umbrella term increasingly used to describe a group of review types that attempt to synthesize and analyze findings from primary qualitative research studies" (Booth et al., p. 267).

Rapid Review : "Assessment of what is already known about a policy or practice issue, by using systematic review methods to search and critically appraise existing research" (Grant & Booth, 2009, p.96).

Note: Rapid reviews are often done when there are insufficient time and/or resources to conduct a systematic review. As stated by Butler et. al, "They aim to be rigorous and explicit in method and thus systematic but make concessions to the breadth or depth of the process by limiting particular aspects of the systematic review process" (as cited in Grant & Booth, 2009, p. 100). 

Scoping Review: "A type of review that has as its primary objective the identification of the size and quality of research in a topic area in order to inform subsequent review" (Booth et al., p. 269).

Systematic Review : "A review of a clearly formulated question that uses systematic and explicit methods to identify, select and critically appraise relevant research and to collect and analyse data from the studies that are included in the review" (Booth et al., p. 271).

Note : a systematic review (SR) is the most extensive and well-documented type of lit review, as well as potentially the most time-consuming. The idea with SRs  is that the search process becomes a replicable scientific study in itself. This level of review will possibly not be necessary (or desirable) for your research project.

Many lit review types are based on organization-driven specific protocols for conducting the reviews. These protocols provide specific frameworks, checklists, and other guidance to the generic literature review sub-types. Here are a few popular examples:

Cochrane Review - known as the "gold standard" of systematic reviews, designed by the Cochrane Collaboration. Primarily used in health research literature reviews.

  • Cochrane Handbook for Systematic Reviews of Interventions . "The official document that describes in detail the process of preparing and maintaining Cochrane systematic reviews".

Campbell Review - the sister organization of the Cochrane Institute which focuses on systematic reviews in the social sciences.

  • So you want to write a Campbell Systematic review?
  • Campbell Information Retrieval Guide. The details of effective information searching

Literature Reviews in Psychology

A recent article in the  Annual Review of Psychology  provides a very helpful guide to conducting literature reviews specifically in the field of Psychology.

How to Do a Systematic Review: A Best Practice Guide for Conducting and Reporting Narrative Reviews, Meta-Analyses, and Meta-Syntheses. (2019). Annual Review of Psychology, 70 (1), 747-770. doi: 10.1146/annurev-psych-010418-102803

Rapid Reviews have become increasingly common due to their flexibility, as well as the lack of time and resources available to do a comprehensive systematic review. McMaster University's National Collaborating Centre for Methods and Tools (NCCMT) has created a  Rapid Review Guidebook , which "details each step in the rapid review process, with notes on how to tailor the process given resource limitations."  

Scoping Review

There is no strict protocol for a scoping review (unlike Campbell and Cochrane reviews). The following are some recommended guidelines for scoping reviews:

  • Scoping Reviews  from the JBI Manual for Evidence Synthesis
  • Current best practices for the conduct of scoping reviews, from the EQUATOR Network

In addition to protocols which provide holistic guidance for conducting specific kinds of reviews, there are also a vast number of frameworks, checklists, and other tools available to help focus your review and ensure comprehensiveness. Some provide broader-level guidance; others are targeted to specific parts of your reviews such as data extraction or reporting out results.

  • PICO or PICOC A framework for posing a researchable question (population, intervention, comparisons, outcomes, context/environment)
  • PRISMA Minimum items to report upon in a systematic review, as well as its extensions , such as  PRISMA-ScR (for scoping reviews)
  • SALSA framework: frames the literature review into four parts: search (S), appraisal(AL), synthesis(S), analysis(A)
  • STARLITE Minimum requirements for reporting out on literature reviews.
  • Critical Appraisal Skills Program (CASP) Checklists Includes a checklist for evaluating Systematic Reviews.

These are just a sampling of specific guides generated from the ever-growing literature review industry.

Much of the online discussion about the use of Google Scholar in literature reviews seems to focus more on values and ideals, rather than a technical assessment of the search engine's role. Here are some things to keep in mind.

  • It's good practice to use both Google Scholar and subject-specific databases (example: PsycINFO) for conducting a lit review of any type. For most graduate-level literature reviews, it is usually recommended to use both.
  • You should search Google Scholar through the library's website when off-campus. This way you can avoid being prompted for payment to access articles that the SFU Library already subscribes to.
  • Search tips for Google and Google Scholar

Google Advantages:

  • Allows you to cast a wide net in your search.
  • The most popular articles are revealed
  • A high volume of articles are retrieved
  • Google's algorithm helps compensate for poorly designed searches
  • Full-text indexing of articles is now being done in Google Scholar
  • A search feature allow you to search within articles citing your key article
  • Excellent for known-item searching or locating a quote/citation
  • Helpful when searching for very unique terminology (e.g., places and people)
  • Times cited tool can help identify relevant articles
  • Extensive searching of non-article, but academic, information items: universities' institutional repositories, US case law, grey literature , academic websites, etc.


  • The database is not mapped to a specific discipline
  • Much less search sophistication and manipulation supported
  • Psuedo-Boolean operators
  • Missing deep data (e.g., statistics)
  • Mysterious algorithms and unknown source coverage at odds with the systematic and transparent requirement of a literature review.
  • Searches are optimized (for example, by your location), thwarting the replicability criteria of most literature review types
  • Low level of subject and author collocation - that is, bringing together all works by one author or one sub-topic
  • Challenging to run searches that involve common words. A search for "art AND time", for example, might bring up results on the art of time management when you are looking for the representation of time in art. In contrast, searching by topic is readily facilitated by use of subject headings in discipline-specific databases. Google Scholar has no subject headings.
  • New articles might not be pushed up if the popularity of an article is prioritized
  • Indexes articles from predatory publishers , which may be hard to identify if working outside of your field

Unlike Google Scholar, subject specific databases such as  PsycINFO , Medline , or Criminal Justice Abstracts are mapped to a disciplinary perspective. Article citations contain high-quality and detailed metadata. Metadata can be used to build specific searches and apply search limits relevant to your subject area. These databases also often offer access to specialized material in your area such as grey literature , psychological tests, statistics, books and dissertations.

For most graduate-level literature reviews, it is usually recommended to use both. Build careful searches in the subject/academic databases, and check Google Scholar as well.

For most graduate-level lit reviews, you will want to make use of the subject headings (aka descriptors) found in the various databases.

Subject headings are words or phrases assigned to articles, books, and other info items that describe the subject of their content. They are designed to succinctly capture a document's concepts, allowing the researcher to retrieve all articles/info items about that concept using one term. By identifying the subject headings associated with your research areas, and subsequently searching the database for other articles and materials assigned with that same subject heading, you are taking a significant measure to ensure the comprehensiveness of your literature review.

About subject headings:

  • They are applied systematically : articles and books will usually have about 3-8 subject headings assigned to their bibliographic record.
  • The subject headings come from a finite pool of terms -  one that is updated frequently.
  • They are often organized in a hierarchical taxonomy , with subject headings belonging to broader headings, and/or having narrower headings beneath them. Sometimes there are related terms (lateral) as well.
  • They provide a standardized way to describe a concept. For instance, a subject heading of "physician" may be used to capture many of the natural language words that describe a physician such as doctor, family doctor, GP, and MD.

One way to identify subject headings (SHs) of interest to you is to start with a keyword search in a database, and see which SHs are associated with the articles of interest.

A. In the below example, we start with a keyword search for "type a" personality in PsycINFO .  A more contemporary term to describe this phenomena is then found in the subject heading field:

keyword search in Psycinfo

B. Another way to identify subject headings related to your topic is to go directly to a database's thesaurus or index. For example, if we are researching depression, the PsycINFO entry for major depression suggests some narrower terms we could focus our search by.

using the thesaurus or index

For more in-depth help with using subject headings in a literature review, please contact the Liaison Librarian in your subject area .

  • NEW! Covidence . Covidence is a web-based literature review tool that will help you through the process of screening your references, data extraction, and keeping track of your work. Ideal for streamlining systematic reviews, scoping reviews, meta-analyses, and other related methods of evidence synthesis.
  • NVivo is a robust software package that helps with management and analysis of qualitative information.The Library's Research Commons offers extensive support for NVivo.
  • Research Support Software offered by the Research Commons

Citation management software such as Zotero, Mendeley, or Endnote is essential for completing a substantial lit review. Citation software is a centralized, online location for managing your sources. Specifically, it allows you to:

  • Access and manage your sources online, all in one place
  • Import references from library databases and websites
  • Automatically generate bibliographies and in-text citations within Microsoft Word
  • Share your collection of sources with others, and work collaboratively with references
  • De-duplicate your search results* (*Note: Mendeley is not recommended for deduplication in systematic reviews.)
  • Annotate your citations. Some software allows you to mark up PDFs.
  • Note trends in your research such as which journals or authors you cite from the most.

More information on Citation Management Software

Did you know that many databases allow you to save  your search strategies? The advantages of saving and tracking your search strategies online in a literature review include:

  • Developing your search strategy in a methodological manner, section by section. For instance, you can run searches for all synonyms and subjects headings associated with one concept, then combine them with different concepts in various combinations.
  • Re-running your well-executed search in the future
  • Creating search alerts based on a well-designed search, allowing you to stay notified of new research in your area
  • Tracking and remember all of the searches you have done. Avoid inadvertently re-doing your searches by being well-documented and systematic as you go along - it's worth the extra effort!

Databases housed on the EBSCO plaform (examples: Business Source Complete, PsycINFO, Medline, Academic Search Premier) allow you to create an free account where you might save your searches:

  • Using the EBSCOhost Search History - Tutorial [2:08]
  • Creating a Search Alert in EBSCOhost - Tutorial [1:26]

The Literature Review: A Guide for Postgraduate Students

This guide provides postgraduate students with an overview of the literature review required for most research degrees. It will advise you on the common types of literature reviews across disciplines and will outline how the purpose and structure of each may differ slightly. Various approaches to effective content organisation and writing style are offered, along with some common strategies for effective writing and avoiding some common mistakes. This guide focuses mainly on the required elements of a standalone literature review, but the suggestions and advice apply to literature reviews incorporated into other chapters.

Please see the companion article ‘ The Literature Review: A Guide for Undergraduate Students ’ for an introduction to the basic elements of a literature review. This article focuses on aspects that are particular to postgraduate literature reviews, containing detailed advice and effective strategies for writing a successful literature review. It will address the following topics:

  • The purpose of a literature review
  • The structure of your literature review
  • Strategies for writing an effective literature review
  • Mistakes to avoid

The Purpose of a Literature Review

After developing your research proposal and writing a research statement, your literature review is one of the most important early tasks you will undertake for your postgraduate research degree. Many faculties and departments require postgraduate research students to write an initial literature review as part of their research proposal, which forms part of the candidature confirmation process that occurs six months into the research degree for full-time students (12 months for part-time students).

For example, a postgraduate student in history would normally write a 10,000-word research proposal—including a literature review—in the first six months of their PhD. This would be assessed in order to confirm the ongoing candidature of the student.

The literature review is your opportunity you show your supervisor (and ultimately, your examiners) that you understand the most important debates in your field, can identify the texts and authors most relevant to your particular topic, and can examine and evaluate these debates and texts both critically and in depth. You will be expected to provide a comprehensive, detailed and relevant range of scholarly works in your literature review.

In general, a literature review has a specific and directed purpose: to focus the reader’s attention on the significance and necessity of your research. By identifying a ‘gap’ in the current scholarship, you convince your readers that your own research is vital.

As the author, you will achieve these objectives by displaying your in-depth knowledge and understanding of the relevant scholarship in your field, situating your own research within this wider body of work , while critically analysing the scholarship and highlighting your own arguments in relation to that scholarship.

A well-focused, well-developed and well-researched literature review operates as a linchpin for your thesis, provides the background to your research and demonstrates your proficiency in some requisite academic skills.

The Structure of Your Literature Review

Postgraduate degrees can be made up of a long thesis (Master’s and PhD by research) or a shorter thesis and coursework (Master’s by coursework; although some Australian universities now require PhD students to undertake coursework in the first year of their degree). Some disciplines involve creative work (such as a novel or artwork) and an exegesis (such as a creative writing research or fine arts degree). Others can comprise a series of published works in the form of a ‘thesis by publication’ (most common in the science and medical fields).

The structure of a literature review will thus vary according to the discipline and the type of thesis. Some of the most common discipline-based variations are outlined in the following paragraphs.

Humanities and Social Science Degrees

Many humanities and social science theses will include a standalone literature review chapter after the introduction and before any methodology (or theoretical approaches) chapters. In these theses, the literature review might make up around 15 to 30 per cent of the total thesis length, reflecting its purpose as a supporting chapter.

Here, the literature review chapter will have an introduction, an appropriate number of discussion paragraphs and a conclusion. As with a research essay, the introduction operates as a ‘road map’ to the chapter. The introduction should outline and clarify the argument you are making in your thesis (Australian National University 2017), as readers will then have a context for the discussion and critical analysis paragraphs that follow.

The main discussion section can be divided further with subheadings, and the material organised in several possible ways: chronologically, thematically or from the better- to the lesser-known issues and arguments. The conclusion should provide a summary of the chapter overall, and should re-state your thesis statement, linking this to the gap you have identified in the literature that confirms the necessity of your research.

For some humanities’ disciplines, such as literature or history (Premaratne 2013, 236–54), where primary sources are central, the literature review may be conducted chapter-by-chapter, with each chapter focusing on one theme and set of scholarly secondary sources relevant to the primary source material.

Science and Mathematics Degrees

For some science or mathematics research degrees, the literature review may be part of the introduction. The relevant literature here may be limited in number and scope, and if the research project is experiment-based, rather than theoretically based, a lengthy critical analysis of past research may be unnecessary (beyond establishing its weaknesses or failings and thus the necessity for the current research). The literature review section will normally appear after the paragraphs that outline the study’s research question, main findings and theoretical framework. Other science-based degrees may follow the standalone literature review chapter more common in the social sciences.

Strategies for Writing an Effective Literature Review

A research thesis—whether for a Master’s degree or Doctor of Philosophy—is a long project, and the literature review, usually written early on, will most likely be reviewed and refined over the life of the thesis. This section will detail some useful strategies to ensure you write a successful literature review that meets the expectations of your supervisor and examiners.

Using a Mind Map

Before planning or writing, it can be beneficial to undertake a brainstorm exercise to initiate ideas, especially in relation to the organisation of your literature review. A mind map is a very effective technique that can get your ideas flowing prior to a more formal planning process.

A mind map is best created in landscape orientation. Begin by writing a very brief version of your research topic in the middle of the page and then expanding this with themes and sub-themes, identified by keywords or phrases and linked by associations or oppositions. The University of Adelaide provides an excellent introduction to mind mapping.

Planning is as essential at the chapter level as it is for your thesis overall. If you have begun work on your literature review with a mind map or similar process, you can use the themes or organisational categories that emerged to begin organising your content. Plan your literature review as if it were a research essay with an introduction, main body and conclusion.

Create a detailed outline for each main paragraph or section and list the works you will discuss and analyse, along with keywords to identify important themes, arguments and relevant data. By creating a ‘planning document’ in this way, you can keep track of your ideas and refine the plan as you go.

Maintaining a Current Reference List or Annotated Bibliography

It is vital that you maintain detailed and up-to-date records of all scholarly works that you read in relation to your thesis. You will need to ensure that you remain aware of current and developing research, theoretical debates and data as your degree progresses; and review and update the literature review as you work through your own research and writing.

To do this most effectively and efficiently, you will need to record precisely the bibliographic details of each source you use. Decide on the referencing style you will be using at an early stage (this is often dictated by your department or discipline, or suggested by your supervisor). If you begin to construct your reference list as you write your thesis, ensure that you follow any formatting and stylistic requirements for your chosen referencing style from the start (nothing is more onerous than undertaking this task as you are finishing your research degree).

Insert references (also known as ‘citations’) into the text or footnote section as you write your literature review, and be aware of all instances where you need to use a reference . The literature review chapter or section may appear to be overwhelmed with references, but this is just a reflection of the source-based content and purpose.

The Drawbacks of Referencing Software

We don’t recommend the use of referencing software to help you with your references because using this software almost always leads to errors and inconsistencies. They simply can’t be trusted to produce references that will be complete and accurate, properly following your particular referencing style to the letter.

Further, relying on software to create your references for you usually means that you won’t learn how to reference correctly yourself, which is an absolutely vital skill, especially if you are hoping to continue in academia.

Writing Style

Similar to structural matters, your writing style will depend to some extent on your discipline and the expectations and advice of your supervisors. Humanities- and creative arts–based disciplines may be more open to a wider variety of authorial voices. Even if this is so, it remains preferable to establish an academic voice that is credible, engaging and clear.

Simple stylistic strategies such as using the active—instead of the passive—voice, providing variety in sentence structure and length and preferring (where appropriate) simple language over convoluted or overly obscure words can help to ensure your academic writing is both formal and highly readable.

Reviewing, Rewriting and Editing

Although an initial draft is essential (and in some departments it is a formal requirement) to establish the ground for your own research and its place within the wider body of scholarship, the literature review will evolve, develop and be modified as you continue to research, write, review and rewrite your thesis. It is likely that your literature review will not be completed until you have almost finished the thesis itself, and a final assessment and edit of this section is essential to ensure you have included the most important scholarship that is relevant and necessary to your research.

It has happened to many students that a crucial piece of literature is published just as they are about to finalise their thesis, and they must revise their literature review in light of it. Unfortunately, this cannot be avoided, lest your examiners think that you are not aware of this key piece of scholarship. You need to ensure your final literature review reflects how your research now fits into the new landscape in your field after any recent developments.

Mistakes to Avoid

Some common mistakes can result in an ineffective literature review that could then flow on to the rest of your thesis. These mistakes include:

  • Trying to read and include everything you find on your topic. The literature review should be selective as well as comprehensive, examining only those sources relevant to your research topic.
  • Listing the scholarship as if you are writing an annotated bibliography or a series of summaries. Your discussion of the literature should be synthesised and holistic, and should have a logical progression that is appropriate to the organisation of your content.
  • Failing to integrate your examination of the literature with your own thesis topic. You need to develop your discussion of each piece of scholarship in relation to other pieces of research, contextualising your analyses and conclusions in relation to your thesis statement or research topic and focusing on how your own research relates to, complements and extends the existing scholarship.

Writing the literature review is often the first task of your research degree. It is a focused reading and research activity that situates your own research in the wider scholarship, establishing yourself as an active member of the academic community through dialogue and debate. By reading, analysing and synthesising the existing scholarship on your topic, you gain a comprehensive and in-depth understanding, ensuring a solid basis for your own arguments and contributions. If you need advice on referencing , academic writing , time management or other aspects of your degree, you may find Capstone Editing’s other resources and blog articles useful.

Australian National University. 2017. ‘Literature Reviews’. Last accessed 28 March.

Premaratne, Dhilara Darshana. 2013. ‘Discipline Based Variations in the Literature Review in the PhD Thesis: A Perspective from the Discipline of History’. Education and Research Perspectives 40: 236–54.

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literature review for phd students

Do you really want to publish your literature review? Advice for PhD students

Why publishing your literature review as your first paper may not be a good idea

Tatiana Andreeva - Sun 20 Jun 2021 08:20 (updated Wed 30 Aug 2023 10:03)

literature review for phd students

[Guest post by CYGNA member Tatiana Andreeva ]

Almost every PhD student I met had an idea that the literature review paper would be the first academic paper they publish. They thought of it being the first paper for two reasons - naturally literature review was the first stage of their PhD journey, but also they thought it was something relatively straightforward to do. To reinforce these ideas, in some PhD programmes I know publication of the literature review is routinely put as a milestone in the PhD progression plans.

At the same time, if you talk to academics who actually tried to publish a literature review, you would most often hear that it is a very challenging thing to do. Moreover, I recently realized that we rarely teach our graduate students how to do a literature review , let alone how to publish it . A weird mismatch, isn’t it? So, dear PhD students, I’d like to put some clarity around it for you. There are two key reasons why publishing literature review as your first paper may not be a good idea.

Not all literature reviews are made equal

First, the literature review you do as a first step of your PhD journey and publishable literature review are two different beasts: they have a different purpose, focus and audience.

The literature review you do as a first step of your PhD aims to inform you as a novice about existing literature and to help you identify an interesting research question or situate it better in the existing research landscape. You are likely to read different literatures and/or focus on different aspects, as you are trying to find your own research voice and space. As your PhD progresses and you get new ideas or unexpected empirical findings, you are likely to review the literature again (and again…)

Even if you do this literature review(s) following the best standards , it is very likely that parts of it will never be published – neither as a separate article, nor even as a literature review section of an empirical paper. Not because they are bad, but because they may end up being not so relevant for the final focus of your PhD. I know it is heartbreaking to discard pieces of work, especially our own writing, but if you think of them as steppingstones rather than final products, it becomes easier.  

In contrast, the literature review that is done for publication aims to inform others - many of whom are likely to be experts in the field - about something beyond existing literature and to propose future research agenda for them (and maybe for you as well, but it is not the main goal). Therefore, it needs a clear and single focus - on a specific research problem within a specific body of literature. And, if all goes well, it should be published – at least, that is the plan.

The table below briefly summarizes these ideas:

Easy publication of literature reviews is a myth

Another reason why I think that planning to publish a literature review as a first paper in the suite of PhD publications is not a good idea is: the notion that such papers are easy to publish is a myth! I think it is actually even more difficult to publish a literature review than an empirical paper.

In an empirical paper, you always have an element of uniqueness, which is your empirical data. Indeed, nobody has collected something like this so it is unique. Sometimes when your data is interesting, it could happen that reviewers come back to you and say: " you need to improve your theory and develop a much stronger positioning of the paper, but your data itself is very interesting, so we give you a chance for R&R ".

In my experience, this would never happen with a literature review paper – because your data is not unique, it is something that has been already written and published. Everybody, if they want, can access it. So with the literature reviews is really becomes critical that from the very start you have a very clear and strong idea of what is the problem that hasn’t been solved that your literature review solves, and what would be your theoretical contribution. This is a challenging task for everyone, not only for a PhD student, so it might be too risky to start from it your publication journey.

All that said, it does not mean that you cannot - or should not - do a literature review publication. Indeed, at some point it may stem from the literature review you did for your PhD. I hope that understanding the differences between these beasts may help you to master both – and plan your PhD publication portfolio better.

Related blogposts

  • Resources on doing a literature review
  • Want to publish a literature review? Think of it as an empirical paper
  • How to keep up-to-date with the literature, but avoid information overload?
  • Is a literature review publication a low-cost project?
  • Using Publish or Perish to do a literature review
  • How to conduct a longitudinal literature review?
  • New: Publish or Perish now also exports abstracts
  • A framework for your literature review article: where to find one?

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I cover all the expenses of operating my website privately. If you enjoyed this post and want to support me in maintaining my website, consider buying a copy of one of my books (see below) or  supporting the Publish or Perish software .

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Common Assignments: Literature Reviews

Basics of literature reviews.

A literature review is a written approach to examining published information on a particular topic or field. Authors use this review of literature to create a foundation and justification for their research or to demonstrate knowledge on the current state of a field. This review can take the form of a course assignment or a section of a longer capstone project. Read on for more information about writing a strong literature review!

Students often misinterpret the term "literature review" to mean merely a collection of source summaries, similar to annotations or article abstracts. Although summarizing is an element of a literature review, the purpose is to create a comprehensive representation of your understanding of a topic or area of research, such as what has already been done or what has been found. Then, also using these sources, you can demonstrate the need for future research, specifically, your future research.

There is usually no required format or template for a literature review. However, there are some actions to keep in mind when constructing a literature review:

  • Include an introduction and conclusion . Even if the literature review will be part of a longer document, introductory and concluding paragraphs can act as bookends to your material. Provide background information for your reader, such as including references to the pioneers in the field in the beginning and offering closure in the end by discussing the implications of future research to the field.
  • Avoid direct quotations . Just like in an annotated bibliography, you will want to paraphrase all of the material you present in a literature review. This assignment is a chance for you to demonstrate your knowledge on a topic, and putting ideas into your own words will ensure that you are interpreting the found material for your reader. Paraphrasing will also ensure your review of literature is in your authorial voice.
  • Organize by topic or theme rather than by author. When compiling multiple sources, a tendency can be to summarize each source and then compare and contrast the sources at the end. Instead, organize your source information by your identified themes and patterns. This organization helps demonstrate your synthesis of the material and inhibits you from creating a series of book reports.
  •  Use headings . APA encourages the use of headings within longer pieces of text to display a shift in topic and create a visual break for the reader. Headings in a literature review can also help you as the writer organize your material by theme and note any layers, or subtopics, within the field.
  • Show relationships and consider the flow of ideas. A literature review can be lengthy and dense, so you will want to make your text appealing to your reader. Transitions and comparison terms will allow you to demonstrate where authors agree or disagree on a topic and highlight your interpretation of the literature.

Related Multimedia, Social Media, and Other Resources


Randolph, J. J. (2009). A guide to writing the dissertation literature review. Practical Assessment, Research and Evaluation , 14 (13), 1–13.

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Video: Literature Reviews: An Overview for Graduate Students

What is a literature review? What purpose does it serve in research? What should you expect when writing one? Find out here

Writing a literature review is an inevitable part of being a graduate student. So, before spending hours of your time working on a project involving a literature review, it helps to understand what a "literature review" is, and why it is important. 

You may need to do a literature review as a part of a course assignment, a capstone project, or a master's thesis or dissertation. No matter the context, a literature review is an essential part of the research process. 

Some important functions of a literature review are that it helps you to understand a research topic and develop your own perspective on a problem. Not only that, it lets you show your instructor or thesis committee what you know about the topic. 

Your instructor or advisor may assume you know what a literature review is and that you understand what they are expecting from you. You might hear phrases like: "What does the literature show us?" "Connect your ideas to the literature." "Survey the literature on the topic." 

Well, before you can review the literature, you need to make sure you know what is meant by "the literature." A good definition of the literature is that it is a collection of all the scholarly writings on a topic. These writings can be in the form of scholarly, peer reviewed articles, books, and other sources like conference proceedings. These may be called annual meetings or conventions. The literature also includes dissertations written by other graduate students. Collectively, these make up the literature. 

Visually, the literature might look like this. Often there are major works that have been written on a topic, and then other, later, works that build on them. These later works tend to be extending or responding to the original papers in some way. Basically, the literature is a continuously evolving network of scholarly works that interact with each other. 

As you do your own research, you'll begin to understand the relationships in this evolving web and how your own ideas connect to it. 

I'm John Classen, Associate Professor of Biological and Agricultural Engineering at North Carolina State University. Research is about telling a story, kind of like a chain story where each writer starts with a partial story created by others and takes it where the imagination leads. The existing literature is the story so far. You have to know where you are before you can go forward. But research is not just one linear story; many different lines of study contribute to the story you are trying to write. 

Your job in the literature review is to see where all the loose ends are in the various fields that are most closely related to what you want to do and to figure out what needs to be done next. The background to any good story has to be explained carefully or the reader doesn't know why one thing is important and something else is not; the reader has to understand what's going on. 

In the same way, researchers need the background in the literature of their discipline to know what's going on in their field of study. So, how do you turn a network of articles into a cohesive review of the literature? How do you find and tell the "story" behind your research topic? 

Reviewing the literature is like participating in a conversation. As you read and evaluate articles you begin to understand how they are connected and how they form the story that the authors are telling. Then you start to formulate your own response or contribution. 

This process - discovering relationships in the literature and developing and connecting your own ideas to it - is what helps you turn a network of articles into a coherent review of the literature. 

So what does a literature review look like? There are different types of literature reviews that you may encounter, or be required to write, while in graduate school. Literature reviews can range from being selective to comprehensive. They can also be part of a larger work or stand alone. 

A course assignment is an example of a selective review. It focuses on a small segment of the literature on a topic and makes up the entire work. The literature review in a thesis or dissertation is an example of a comprehensive review that is part of a larger work. 

Most research articles begin with a selective literature review to establish the context for the research reported in the paper. Often this is part of the introduction. Other literature reviews are meant to be fairly comprehensive and also to stand alone. This means that the entire article is devoted to reviewing the literature. 

A literature review that introduces an article can look like this. Here is an article about cognitive behavioral therapy. Here is the literature review, in this article it is part of the introduction. You can tell that the introduction includes a literature review because it discusses important research that has already been published on this topic. 

Here is an example of a stand alone literature review article, in this case, about employment. The article's title states that this is a review of the literature on the topic. However, not all review articles will have the term 'literature review' in their title. In-depth review articles like this are an excellent starting place for research on a topic. 

So, at this point, you may be asking yourself just what's involved in writing a literature review? And how do I get started? 

Writing a literature review is a process with several key steps. Let's look at each part of this process in more detail. 

Your first step involves choosing, exploring, and focusing a topic. At this stage you might discover that you need to tweak your topic or the scope of your research as you learn more about the topic in the literature. Then, of course, you'll need to do some research using article databases, the library catalog, Google Scholar, and other sources to find scholarly information. 

All along you'll be using your brain. You'll want to evaluate what you find and select articles, books, and other publications that will be the most useful. Then, you will need to read through these articles and try to understand, analyze, and critique what you read. 

While researching and organizing your paper, you'll collect a lot of information from many different sources. You can use citation management software like RefWorks, EndNote, or Zotero to help you stay organized. Then, of course, you'll need to write and revise your paper and create your final bibliography. 

One more thing: Writing a literature review is a process, but it is not always a linear process. One step does lead to another, but sometimes your research or reading will point you back to earlier steps as you learn more about your topic and the literature. 

At this point you might be wondering how do I actually review the literature I find? Let's look at what it means to review the literature. 

In the most general sense it means that you collect and read all the relevant papers and other literature on your topic. You want to provide an overview but also highlight key concepts and important papers. As you read you may start by describing and summarizing each article. Then you can start to make connections by comparing and contrasting those papers. 

You will also need to evaluate, analyze, and organize the information from your reading. When you work with the literature you will read and critically examine articles and books to see what's important or out of scope and analyze arguments for strengths and weaknesses. 

When working with the literature it is important to look for relationships between publications. Some of the important relationships between publications that you discover might include major themes and important concepts, as well as critical gaps and disagreements. 

But don't fall into the trap of making your review a laundry list of summaries of the works you read. A literature review is not an annotated bibliography. 

Your goal should be to go one step further and integrate and synthesize what you find in the literature into something new. Ideally, you will create your own conceptual map or outline of the literature on your topic. 

For example, let's say as you read you discover three major concepts that are important in the literature and relevant to your research. You should then identify how the literature - that is, the content in individual articles, books, and other publications - relates to the concepts you discovered. Some publications may be relevant to several concepts; others may apply to only one concept. What's important is that you develop and present your own organization and understanding of the literature. 

Then, when you write your literature review you will end up with a document that is organized by the concepts and relationships you found and developed based on your reading and thinking. Your review will not only cover what's been published on your topic, but will include your own thoughts and ideas. You will be telling the specific story that sets the background and shows the significance of your research. 

Researching and writing a good literature review is a challenging and sometimes intimidating process. Don't be afraid to seek assistance, whether from your adviser or instructor, campus writing center, or your librarian. Many librarians have subject specialties and can be especially helpful in identifying valuable resources and showing you how to obtain relevant information.

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literature review for phd students


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