This post is part of a series of guides that explain in the simplest terms possible how to structure each of the major chapters of a typical PhD thesis. If you haven’t already, download our free PhD Thesis Writing Template for a simple way of visualising your entire thesis on one page.

If you like these guides, you’ll love the email based How To Write A PhD Course we’ve put together for you.

Literature reviews are tricky, largely because a lot of PhD students struggle to understand their purpose.

Imagine you’re making a new model of mobile phone. You’d need to look at old models to see how other people are designing them (and so you know how yours will differ) and to see how they are made. You’ll need to look for their flaws, and get an idea of where they can be improved.

That’s because you can’t make something new if you don’t know what old looks like. The literature review is the same.

You use it to make the case for your research by surveying the work that’s already been done in your discipline (and sometimes beyond). It’s a bit like a family tree. You use it to trace the lineage of your study. Putting it in its place.

So what is the purpose of a PhD literature review?

A literature review has three objectives:

  1. Summarise what has already been discussed in your field, both to demonstrate that you understand your field and to show how your study relates to it.
  2. Highlight gaps, problems or shortcomings in existing research to show the original contribution that your thesis makes.
  3. Identify important studies, theories, methods or theoretical frameworks that can be applied in your research.
How do you conduct a PhD literature review?

There are nine steps involved in conducting a literature review:

  1. Pick a broad topic
  2. Find the way in
  3. Who’s saying what and when
  4. Take notes
  5. Narrow down the field
  6. Narrow does the sources
  7. Snowball
  8. Think about questions that haven’t been asked
  9. Write early, write quickly and write relevantly

I’ve written a super-long, detailed guide that goes into a ton more detail on this and explains all the steps required when conducting and writing your PhD literature review. If you’re struggling to plan or write yours, it will definitely help. I’ve also put together a guide on how to be critical when you do so.

Our easy to follow but detailed online course focuses on how to plan, structure and write your PhD. It will help you worry less, write more and graduate sooner.

You’ll receive templates, chapter guides, cheat-sheets, checklists and more, all expertly designed to make your life easier.

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