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Graduate Student Research Tips & Tricks

Conducting a Literature Review

A literature review brings together a range of relevant works on a topic, and is intended to:

  • explore compelling questions, problems, concepts, or issues that you would like to address
  • discover relationships between ideas
  • connect your ideas to existing literature on your research topic(s) 
  • demonstrate your knowledge of a topic
  • demonstrate your ability to critique and synthesize various strands of the conversation(s) taking place around your topic
  • identify research gaps, areas for further consideration, and/or disagreements in the literature

The literature review forms the core of your project, serving as the foundation on which you will build your position or thesis, situate your own ideas or findings within a larger context, and develop your contribution to the scholarly conversation around your topic. 

A literature review tells a story, but the research process that goes into that storytelling is nonlinear. There are likely many lines of study/angles/perspectives on your topic. In this vein, a literature review is iterative and ongoing. You may do any or all of the following as you prepare literature reviews for projects, papers, and presentations.

A. You will likely conduct an initial literature review to:

  • explore and better understand the existing research on your topic
  • develop your own perspective on an issue or problem
  • demonstrate what you know about your topic.

You may have an initial thesis or hypothesis that, once you become more informed on your topic, you revise (sometimes multiple times).

B. As you further refine your research questions or interests, a more focused literature review will help you flesh out your ideas and focus on the concepts that are important to your particular area of inquiry.

C. As you conduct your experiment, ethnography, textual analysis, or field experience, other questions may arise, and further literature searching may become important. 

D. Once you've completed your experiment, ethnography, textual analysis, or field experience, you will want to situate your findings in the literature. This may come, in part, from previous research you conducted, and in part from new approaches or themes that emerged during the course of your study that you want to further understand or expand upon.

As you begin:

1. Discuss your research with your advisor, colleagues, classmates, and librarian(s) to figure out which resources might be a good fit, or to identify research strategies you may want to use. Consider a wide range of resources that may be useful to you, and the various scholarly perspectives it would be important to include.

2. Look at other literature reviews to get a sense of the realm of options that exist. You may want to use one or two as a model, or to stimulate ideas around the organization or thematic approach to your work.

3. Critique each resource you select for your literature review, considering issues of authority, currency, research methodology, novelty, supporting evidence, and perspective/bias.

4. As you read, note major concepts that are important to your research. Abstracts and section headings can help you quickly grasp the primary themes of an article and help you decide how/if the article fits with your research question(s). 

5. Identify how the resources you have selected relate to concepts you are exploring or have already discovered (some may apply to many or one concept) and/or how they diverge or present new perspectives. An annotated bibliography can help you organize your thoughts and begin to synthesize the literature (note that, ultimately, your literature review will be a coherent synthesis of these concepts rather than a list of items with summary descriptions).

6. Categorize your resources in meaningful ways that help you to organize your thoughts around your topic. Examples include major concepts or themes that emerge in the literature you collect, theoretical approaches, methodological approaches, chronology, or trends. Depending on the complexity of your topic, or how you organize your thoughts, you may want to map your research concepts in order to visualize your topic. One tool you could use is


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