Five Research Tips for Your Dissertation Literature Review

Est. Reading: 3 minutes

The dissertation literature review—also known as the thesis literature review, or simply the lit review—is the portion of your dissertation that summarizes and dialogues with the existing research on your topic.

If you’re like most of the students I work with, you may feel you need some help with this first and crucial part of your research.

In fact, for many grad students, the literature review is the section that raises the most difficult questions.

The purpose of your dissertation literature review is to clearly demonstrate the research gap that your research will fill. But how should you go about finding sources? Here are five top tips to get you started.

Learn How to Use Boolean Operators

Finding good sources often comes down to having robust search terms.

This is where a solid understanding of Boolean operators comes in. Boolean operators allow you to combine and/or exclude certain terms in your search string, enabling you to generate more accurate and varied search results. Words or phrases are strung together using the operators “AND,” “OR,” and “NOT.” Connexica offers a pretty good guide if you want to learn more about this super-useful technique.

Check Top Sources

Most fields in academia are supported by two key sources of research: institutions and journals. Identify the big movers and shakers in your field and keep an eye open for their latest publications and conference presentations.

Get to know their corpus of work, so that you form a sense of how the research has evolved over time. Also get to know the periodicals in your field and check them regularly. Many publish not only new research but also summary and review pieces that can help you identify key themes, ideas, trends, and researchers.

Mine the Reference Page

The chances are that if you find one source that is incredibly useful, that author will have used other sources that you will also find useful.

Always check through the reference list carefully to identify other sources you should look up and read. Keep a running list of what you have read, what you still need to read, and what has been useful. You will probably start to see certain names or ideas cropping up again and again, and recognizing these patterns will help you with your research gap.

Use Your Network

Social media offers a powerful tool for research that can definitely help get your literature review in shape. Don’t be afraid to reach out to others in your field.

You can ask for source recommendations (or access), get in touch with other researchers to share ideas and progress, and even reach out for motivation when you are feeling stuck. Use the #AcademicTwitter hashtag on Twitter to get general research help and advice, access sources and authors through sites like Research Gate, and connect with others in your field on sites like Prof2Prof.

Get Digital

When I was a grad student, a lot of research still involved print books and journals; now, however, tools like Google Books and open access are making research much easier.

Here are a few ways to use digital technology to speed up and improve your research:

  1. Do a Google Books search to find mentions of your topic in place you wouldn’t expect to.
  2. Access digital archives to understand the historical context of your work.
  3. Use Research Gate to request publications directly from authors of interest.
  4. Use social media to collect primary data.
  5. Set up Google Alerts to inform you about new research.

A literature review doesn’t have to be an overwhelming prospect. Use these five tips, and you will soon find your research is off to a great start.

Need More Help?

If you need more help to get your lit review off the ground, check out how dissertation coaching services can provide targeted support through one-on-one tutoring and mentorship.

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