Last Updated on: 30th August 2022, 04:36 am
Chapter 2 of your dissertation, your literature review, may be the longest chapter. It is not uncommon to see lit reviews in the 40- to 60-page range. That may seem daunting, but I contend that the literature review could be the easiest part of your dissertation.
It is also foundational. To be able to select an appropriate research topic and craft expert research questions, you’ll need to know what has already been discovered and what mysteries remain.
Remember, your degree is meant to indicate your achieving the highest level of expertise in your area of study. The lit review for your dissertation could very well form the foundation for your entire career.
In this article, I’ll give you detailed instructions for how to write the literature review of your dissertation without stress. I’ll also provide a sample outline.
When to Write the Literature Review for your Dissertation
Though technically Chapter 2 of your dissertation, many students write their literature review first. Why? Because having a solid foundation in the research informs the way you write Chapter 1.
Also, when writing Chapter 1, you’ll need to become familiar with the literature anyway. It only makes sense to write down what you learn to form the start of your lit review.
Some institutions even encourage students to write Chapter 2 first. But it’s important to talk with your Chair to see what he or she recommends.
How Long Should a Literature Review Be?
There is no set length for a literature review. The length largely depends on your area of study. However, I have found that most literature reviews are between 40-60 pages.
If your literature review is significantly shorter than that, ask yourself (a) if there is other relevant research that you have not explored, or (b) if you have provided enough of a discussion about the information you did explore.
Preparing to Write the Literature Review for your Dissertation
1. Search Using Key Terms
Most people start their lit review searching appropriate databases using key terms. For example, if you’re researching the impact of social media on adult learning, some key terms you would use at the start of your search would be adult learning, androgogy, social media, and “learning and social media” together.
If your topic was the impact of natural disasters on stock prices, then you would need to explore all types of natural disasters, other market factors that impact stock prices, and the methodologies used.
You can save time by skimming the abstracts first; if the article is not what you thought it might be you can move on quickly.
Once you start finding articles using key terms, two different things will usually happen: you will find new key terms to search, and the articles will lead you directly to other articles related to what you are studying. It becomes like a snowball rolling downhill.
Note that the vast majority of your sources should be articles from peer-reviewed journals.
2. Immerse Yourself in the Literature
When people ask what they should do first for their dissertation the most common answer is “immerse yourself in the literature.” What exactly does this mean?
Think of this stage as a trip into the quiet heart of the forest. Your questions are at the center of this journey, and you’ll need to help your reader understand which trees — which particular theories, studies, and lines of reasoning — got you there.
There are lots of trees in this particular forest, but there are particular trees that mark your path. What makes them unique? What about J’s methodology made you choose that study over Y’s? How did B’s argument triumph over A’s, thus leading you to C’s theory?
You are showing your reader that you’ve fully explored the forest of your topic and chosen this particular path, leading to these particular questions (your research questions), for these particular reasons.
3. Consider Gaps in the Research
The gaps in the research are where current knowledge ends and your study begins. In order to build a case for doing your study, you must demonstrate that it:
- Is worthy of doctoral-level research, and
- Has not already been studied
Defining the gaps in the literature should help accomplish both aims. Identifying studies on related topics helps make the case that your study is relevant, since other researchers have conducted related studies.
And showing where they fall short will help make the case that your study is the appropriate next step. Pay special attention to the recommendations for further research that the authors of studies make.
4. Organize What You Find
As you find articles, you will have to come up with methods to organize what you find.
Whether you find a computer-based system (three popular systems are Zotero, endNote, and Mendeley) or some sort of manual system such as index cards, you need to devise a method where you can easily group your references by subject and methodology and find what you are looking for when you need it. It is very frustrating to know you have found an article that supports a point that you are trying to make, but you can’t find the article!
One way to save time and keep things organized is to cut and paste relevant quotations (and their references) under topic headings. You’ll be able to rearrange and do some paraphrasing later, but if you’ve got the quotations and the citations that are important to you already embedded in your text, you’ll have an easier time of it.
If you choose this method, be sure to list the whole reference on the reference/bibliography page so you don’t have to do this page separately later. Some students use Scrivener for this purpose, as it offers a clear way to view and easily navigate to all sections of a written document.
Need help with your literature review? Take a look at my dissertation coaching and dissertation editing services.
How to Write the Literature Review for your Dissertation
Once you have gathered a sufficient number of pertinent references, you’ll need to string them together in a way that tells your story. Explain what previous researchers have done by telling the story of how knowledge on this topic has evolved. Here, you are laying the support for your topic and showing that your research questions need to be answered. Let’s dive into how to actually write your dissertation’s literature review.
1. Create an Outline
If you’ve created a system for keeping track of the sources you’ve found, you likely already have the bones of an outline. Even if not, it may be relatively easy to see how to organize it all. The main thing to remember is, keep it simple and don’t overthink it. There are several ways to organize your dissertation’s literature review, and I’ll discuss some of the most common below:
- By topic. This is by far the most common approach, and it’s the one I recommend unless there’s a clear reason to do otherwise. Topics are things like servant leadership, transformational leadership, employee retention, organizational knowledge, etc. Organizing by topic is fairly simple and it makes sense to the reader.
- Chronologically. In some cases, it makes sense to tell the story of how knowledge and thought on a given subject have evolved. In this case, sub-sections may indicate important advances or contributions.
- By methodology. Some students organize their literature review by the methodology of the studies. This makes sense when conducting a mixed-methods study, and in cases where methodology is at the forefront.
2. Write the Paragraphs
I said earlier that I thought the lit review was the easiest part to write, and here is why. When you write about the findings of others, you can do it in small, discrete time periods. You go down the path awhile, then you rest.
Once you have many small pieces written, you can then piece them together. You can write each piece without worrying about the flow of the chapter; that can all be done at the end when you put the jigsaw puzzle of references together.
The literature review is a demonstration of your ability to think critically about existing research and build meaningfully on it in your study. Avoid simply stating what other researchers said. Find the relationships between studies, note where researchers agree and disagree, and- especiallyy-relate it to your own study.
Pay special attention to controversial issues, and don’t be afraid to give space to researchers who you disagree with. Including differing opinions will only strengthen the credibility of your study, as it demonstrates that you’re willing to consider all sides.
4. Justify the Methodology
In addition to discussing studies related to your topic, include some background on the methodology you will be using. This is especially important if you are using a new or little-used methodology, as it may help get committee members onboard.
I have seen several students get slowed down in the process trying to get committees to buy into the planned methodology. Providing references and samples of where the planned methodology has been used makes the job of the committee easier, and it will also help your reader trust the outcomes.
Advice for Writing Your Dissertation’s Literature Review
- Remember to relate each section back to your study (your Problem and Purpose statements).
- Discuss conflicting findings or theoretical positions. Avoid the temptation to only include research that you agree with.
- Sections should flow together, the way sections of a chapter in a nonfiction book do. They should relate to each other and relate back to the purpose of your study. Avoid making each section an island.
- Discuss how each study or theory relates to the others in that section.
- Avoid relying on direct quotes-you should demonstrate that you understand the study and can describe it accurately.
Sample Outline of a Literature Review (Dissertation Chapter 2)
Here is a sample outline, with some brief instructions. Note that your institution probably has specific requirements for the structure of your dissertation’s literature review. But to give you a general idea, I’ve provided a sample outline of a dissertation’s literature review here.
- State the problem and the purpose of the study
- Give a brief synopsis of literature that establishes the relevance of the problem
- Very briefly summarize the major sections of your chapter
Documentation of Literature Search Strategy
- Include the library databases and search engines you used
- List the key terms you used
- Describe the scope (qualitative) or iterative process (quantitative). Explain why and based on what criteria you selected the articles you did.
Literature Review (this is the meat of the chapter)
- Topic 1
- Sub-topic a
- Sub-topic b
- Topic 2
- Topic 3
- Sub-topic a
- Sub-topic b
- Sub-topic c
- Topic 4
- Sub-topic a
- Sub-topic b
- Topic 5
See below for an example of what this outline might look like.
How to Write a Literature Review for a Dissertation: An Example
Let’s take an example that will make the organization, and the outline, a little bit more clear. Below, I’ll fill out the example outline based on the topics discussed.
If your questions have to do with the impact of the servant leadership style of management on employee retention, you may want to saunter down the path of servant leadership first, learning of its origins, its principles, its values, and its methods.
You’ll note the different ways the style is employed based on different practitioners’ perspectives or circumstances and how studies have evaluated these differences. Researchers will draw conclusions that you’ll want to note, and these conclusions will lead you to your next questions.
Next, you’ll want to wander into the territory of management styles to discover their impact on employee retention in general. Does management style really make a difference in employee retention, and if so, what factors, exactly, make this impact?
Employee retention is its own path, and you’ll discover factors, internal and external, that encourage people to stick with their jobs.
You’ll likely find paradoxes and contradictions in here that just bring up more questions. How do internal and external factors mix and match? How can employers influence both psychology and context? Is it of benefit to try and do so?
At first, these three paths seem somewhat remote from one another, but your interest is where the three converge. Taking the lit review section by section like this before tying it all together will not only make it more manageable to write but will help you lead your reader down the same path you traveled, thereby increasing clarity.
So the main sections of your literature review might look something like this:
- Literature Search Strategy
- Conceptual Framework or Theoretical Foundation
- Literature that supports your methodology
- Servant Leadership
- Origins, principles, values
- Seminal research
- Current research
- Management Styles
- Theory 1
- Theory 2
- Theory 3
- Management Styles’ Impact on employee retention
- Employee Retention
- Internal Factors
- External Factors
- Influencing psychology and context
- Summary and Conclusion
Final Thoughts on Writing Your Dissertation’s Chapter 2
The lit review provides the foundation for your study and perhaps for your career. Spend time reading and getting lost in the literature. The “aha” moments will come where you see how everything fits together.
At that point, it will just be a matter of clearly recording and tracing your path, keeping your references organized, and conveying clearly how your research questions are a natural evolution of previous work that has been done.
PS. If you’re struggling with your literature review, I can help. I offer dissertation coaching and editing services.