One of the problems I see often when I proofread PhDs is people being too descriptive and not being critical enough. This is most often the case in the literature review.
Critical thinking is one of the hardest skills to master in the entire PhD. Yet, it’s frustrating that many supervisors and doctoral training programs assume that PhD students are already capable critical thinkers.
To be critical in your PhD literature review doesn’t just mean describing what others have written. Instead, it means evaluating and analysing what it is that is being said.
In this post we explain how to master the art of being critical in your literature review. If you haven’t already, check out our post on how to conduct a literature review.
We’ve also made an infographic. Simply click on the image below to download it.
So many questions…
When we say ‘you must be critical’, we mean that you must critically evaluate whatever it is you are discussing. Your job when critically evaluating is to think analytically, rather than descriptively.
However, being critical doesn’t mean criticising. Instead it means evaluating.
We saw in our post on how to write a literature review and in the PhD Writing Template that the literature review serves three purposes.
- To provide sufficient background information so that your own research problem can be contextualised
- To discuss how, how well, or even if, others have solved similar problems
- To outline the methods used by others when discussing similar problems
It is the first and second purposes that require critical thinking skills, because you want to be evaluating each work you read and act as an investigator.
A quick and easy way to do so is to ask five standard questions of each thing you read:
Asking these questions means we don’t just take what is written at face value. Instead, we evaluate, interpret, explain, analyse and comment on the text. These questions are a starting point for you to do that.
You’ll need to expand on these questions in order to go into more depth. You can do this by asking (you’ll find these questions in your PhD Writing Template):
- Who wrote this and why?
- What are the authors trying to say?
- On what basis are they forming their judgements and arguments?
- Are they convincing?
- What theories or perspectives have been used? What alternative ones may have been used instead?
- What perspective are they coming from? What research tradition? What methods do they use? Are they appropriate?
- How does this work relate to others in the field?
- What are others arguing about the same topic?
- How does it relate to your research question or problem?
Ultimately, you’re asking: so what?
Don’t drown in a sea of authors
Let’s take an example of what not to do. Consider the following paragraph, from my very own PhD, on a theory of environmental politics known as ecological modernisation (that’s what the EM stands for):
We can see that I’ve become lost in the literature. All I’m really doing is listing various different studies. I’ve failed to think analytically and instead I’m just thinking descriptively.
I’m drowning in authors, navigating complex ideas and theories with little care for critically thinking about each of them. Instead I am piling up layers of ‘this person said this’ in order to showcase the field.
I – the academic – do not appear in this text at all. I offer no insight into my own critical reflection on any of the concepts, authors or ideas that I have listed. I have become invisible. I have not used the literature to put forward my own argument about the state of the discipline or to make the case for my own study.
There are two things to take from this:
- You need to speak with authority. Avoid falling into the trap of ‘he said, she said’, simply listing scholars and becoming invisible in the process.
- Avoid being overwhelmed by the literature.
How could I have improved my own literature review, using what I know now after years of working as an academic, proofreader and a literature review writer?
Consider the following excerpt from a literature review a colleague and I wrote as part of a journal article we had published. Notice how we aren’t invisible in a sea of authors and a sea of ‘he said, she said’.
Instead, we offer our own voice and put forward our own analysis of the literature. The sentence, ’this article argues, however, that all institutional formations are characterised by a combination or formal rules…’ is just one example of this.
Read, read, read, then write, write, write
Counterintuitively, when you are reading something for the first time, you should do so uncritically. Get a sense of what the writer is trying to do and whether the problem that they are tackling is in itself interesting.
We’ve written a guide about how to find content for your literature review. Check it out here.
You want to understand at this stage the ‘how’ and the ‘what’.
Once you have read the chapter, article, or book, and once you have a good sense of what it is about, you can then ask the when, why and how.
You can begin to unpack whether the conclusions are valid, whether the methods are appropriate, whether alternative theories or concepts could have been applied, and so on.
It is also at this stage that you can judge the validity of the paper as a whole. You need to ask yourself:
- Is it an incremental increase in the knowledge in your field, or is it game-changing?
- Is it a classic, or does it just add a little to what we knew before?
The answer to these questions can impact the significance the article or book plays in your literature review when you come to write.
As you write, you are forced to tackle what might seem like a wide range of literature. You are forced to relate different articles and books to one another and to explain the who, where, what, when and why.
But, you need a filter; much of what you read won’t be relevant to the study you are trying to develop or may be of poor quality.
It is these five questions above that act as your filter and which serve as your guide, against which you relate one piece of literature with another.
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.
Conclusion: Don’t be mean
So, thinking critically involves thinking like a detective in order to understand what others have written, why, and how it relates to that which came before and to your thesis. It involves not taking things at face value and questioning everything.
But, it’s not your job to be mean to other scholars. It’s your job to understand how well something was written and how relevant it is to your purposes. If you just list articles in a descriptive way, you won’t be doing this. You need instead to be critical, to ask questions, to probe the words.
Doing so will give you a voice and avoid you getting lost in sources.
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Thanks this was useful!
Great! Glad you found it useful.
I am yet to write a Ph.D. literature review in English Literature on Kazuo Ishiguro. This article boosted me up to the importance of Critical and analytical thinking rather than descriptive thinking. I am also a blogger of Ph.D. https://phdstudytips.com But this information I have not written anywhere on my blog. Thanks for all efforts Dr.Max Lempriere
Thanks for the kind words. Critical thinking is so important, but so hard! I hope this article helped you in your academic journey.
Hi Dr. Max
Do you have any tips on how to approach a research proposal regarding structure and the do’s and don’ts ?
Sure – you can check out a guide we’ve written here: https://www.thephdproofreaders.com/writing/how-to-write-a-phd-proposal/
Hope this helps,
Hey Max.. This is very helpful for me. Thank u for writing this blog, i am now confident to start my review
I’m glad you are finding it useful. Good luck!
Really helpful. Thank you.
You’re welcome. I’m glad you found it useful.
Hi Dr Max, I’m about to write my Literature review. Your blog helps me a lot. However could you share with me some samples of Literature reviews in Phd?
Hi Sachin. Thanks for your kind words. I’m glad you’re finding the blog useful. I can’t offer any specific examples of literature reviews. It depends on your discipline. My advice would be to read similar PhDs in your discipline for inspiration. If in doubt, ask your supervisor or colleagues for their suggestions of particularly good examples. I hope this helps! Good luck!
Hello Dr. Max.
I must say that I enjoyed in this guide to literature review, and while I initially made the same mistake about just listing different studies, I have corrected that thanks to your guide.
There is one thing that I would like to ask you. How to approach to a thesis that is rarely documented, with very small number of published and relevant papers. Obviously, future PhD. thesis is going to offer better understanding of the matter that is about to be explored by experimental study, but what to do when very small number of researchers is dealing with this subject, or all of the available literature is of old date, but there is nothing new or better than this literature from the 60’s or 70’s.
Wish you all the best, and once again thank you for this guide.
Hi Faruk, thanks for the kind words. Your struggle is a common one. If there isn’t much literature to review, your literature review will necessarily be shorter than average and that’s okay. Make sure you thoroughly review the literature that goes exist, even if it is old, and make sure that your argument in the literature review chapter is built upon this idea that the literature is poorly developed. In some ways this makes your life easier, as the gap in your literature is so large that it will be easier for you to fill it. Hope this helps!
Thank you for the prompt response.
Yes, this definitely helps. It gives hope 🙂
Thanks for this article. My thesis is on a specific artist about whom very little has been written, relative to other artists. On the other hand, my general approach to the questions I am asking about this artist is interdisciplinary, which means there is a massive literature from about five different fields to review. Do you have any advice about how to manage this. I’ve written about 17,000 words, but my supervisor keeps telling me it’s not enough.
Hi! Without knowing more about your topic it’s hard to say, but I know from my own PhD that blending various literatures together in a review is tough. If you find yourself getting stuck and tied in knots, step away from the chapter/review for a few days and come back with a fresh set of eyes.
Very Very helpful Sir. I am about to start my PhD.
Welcome to the club! Good luck on your amazing PhD journey.
Dear Dr Max
I just started this course and would like to say that its contents are very useful to my current confused state of mind. Thank you for making me see the clearer picture so as not be overwhelmed by the PhD thesis writing. I was at the brink of giving up few years of work, and am so glad I came across your website and registered for the course. Thank you.
I’m glad you’re finding it useful. It’s my mission to make other students’ lives easier than mine was when I was doing my PhD, so I’m glad to see it is having the desired effect.
Thank you so much Dr. Max. It is very helpful, I joined PhD in this year 2020 in January.
You’re welcome. Thanks for reading.
Dear Dr Max ,
Good day sir and thanks for all your good work trying to make sure we get it easier than you did . am not yet in PHD class yet but in DR class .Please how soon can i start my Thesis Writing ? and how do i chose topic to write on ?
Please i need help .
Thanks again and God bless.
Hi Osy, I’m afraid I can’t offer any advice to help you choose a topic. Have you approach any potential supervisors and asked them? They’ll be better placed to help.
This was very useful. However, I find it difficult to articulate some complex thoughts (English is not my first language). Developing a discursive writing style is my greatest challenge in doing a Ph.D. I am only able to recognize them when someone else has written them,
You might want to work with a proofreader. Check out our website for more info.
Very good pointers shared. thanks for this post.
Thank you very much for your article. It addresses some of the many struggles PhD students seem to face. Knowing that I am not alone is a good start. I have finished my methodology and currently writing my literature review. I thought I would have enjoyed it more… but it’s a tough one! I must say I am finding it quite overwhelming particularly to organize the chapter. The first part contexualising the research is fine and done, but trying to critique the main text that acted as a springboard to my research is tough.
I am not quite sure whether I should engage with recent research that has adopted the same main text/research I am using and critically discuss those or else fuse the said recent existing research with other broader themes (which I still need to include as part of the lit review).
Getting my head around this is overwhelming!
When it gets too tough, remind yourself that this stuff is meant to be difficult.
Thank you, Dr. Max.
This blog is a booster for me. I am a research scholar in agribusiness I cover green marketing in agro-based industries. This blog helps me a lot.