Tag Archives: literature review

Since I started this blog in 2014 I see that a common theme is my lack of belief that I am capable of doing intellectual work. In particular I have struggled with the literature review. I don’t know how to read the literature effectively, don’t know how to take notes, don’t know how to bring it all together and write about other people’s research etc.

I have read all the books on how to do a literature review, attended training courses, sought advice from various people. However, 4 years into the PhD I am still struggling. However, this week I’ve had a bit of an epiphany. I finally feel that I have some control over how I am going to write one of the literature review chapters and I suddenly feel really light and relaxed and confident. There are two specific resources that helped me. First this mind map:


Thanks D.R. Rowland, whoever you are!

And secondly the book ‘The Literature Review: A step-by-step guide for students by Diana Ridley

But these resources aren’t the magic bullet, it’s not like I haven’t been told or read about how to do a literature review a million times, rather something shifted in my mind. I want to share with you the thoughts I have been having for 4 years and how these have stopped the advice in the books, and from other people, sinking in:

  • I am not capable of managing all that literature. It’s too big a task for me and I am not capable of tackling it. Other people are neater and more organised than me that’s why they can do it.
  • I am not capable of understanding the theories and concepts in the literature. Other people are more intelligent than me, that’s why they can do it. I can only do more basic and descriptive work.
  • The techniques I read in ‘how to do a literature review’ books all probably work, but they won’t work for me because I’m not clever enough to implement them.
    • I’ve given up on the suggested technique. It’s because I am stupid, lazy and don’t have the stamina to see it through.
    • If I create my own technique it will probably fail because I am stupid and it will probably be fundamentally flawed.This technique I’ve read in a book isn’t working for me, but I’ll persevere anyway because surely I’m the one that’s wrong here, not the technique.
  • I can’t let anyone know that I am not sure how to do a literature review. It’s OK to not know in the first year but to not know in year 4 is a disgrace. If anyone finds out they will be shocked.
  • Nobody must know I think these thoughts as they are self-absorbed.

Out of the above, I think the main thing I needed to stop thinking was that I can’t create my own technique to read, manage and record the important things from the literature. But I can. It was just having the confidence to give my own technique a go. After 4 years of struggle, it only took me 1 hour I’d say to sort out how I am going to manage and record the important things I have found in the literature! It’s really simple. Just some headings in an Excel spreadsheet, but the key thing is, they are my headings, bespoke to my project and needs. I will share with you how I am going to approach this task in a future post as I better make sure it actually works for me first.

So my advice to you would be to read the books on how to do a literature review, but also remember that you can create your own bespoke method too by drawing on what you have learned from your reading and through trial and error. If you are thinking the same negative thoughts as me you probably don’t believe me. You may even be thinking that I am more organised, disciplined and intelligent than you…….but I am not of course.  Just relax, have confidence that you are becoming the expert and finally, keep it simple, stupid!

P.s. Thanks also to the UCL institute of Education Academic Writing Centre for some advice given to me on a private forum about taking ownership of my writing.


Each time I have done a degree, MA, report for small research project for work etc, I’ve never really known how to do a literature review. I mean I know not to do the shopping list type and do it by themes, I know how to search the literature, I know how to manage and store references, but for some reason I never felt like I have ever actually properly done one.

Then when you do a PhD, the literature review is no longer say a tiny 4000 words of a 10,000 project. More likely it is multiple chapters and a billion words (well that’s what it feels like) and you feel like you have to do something properly because you don’t want to be caught out doing it wrong. You’re supposed to be the expert who has read all the relevant stuff and thought about it all deeply. This has caused me to become paralysed with fear!

I’ve been scared about not sounding clever enough. I’ve been also trying to produce something that you write in your final year, not the first year. I think this is because people tell you to look at other theses to see what one looks like. Well, that had an opposite effect on me because that is one they wrote in their final year. The first year literature review is never going to look as amazing and deep and intelligent as the final year one and there is no point trying to make it so, like I’ve been doing.

Another thing is that the research questions are supposed to emerge from gaps in the literature, so therefore you kind of think that you have to get through a lot of literature to know what the gaps are. And it is hard. How am I supposed to know because someone else might have done it but I just havent found it yet.

But one of the biggest things I did not realise was that theoretical stuff is ‘the literature’. I thought it was just empirical studies. So when my supervisors told me this, I felt relieved as I thought that I had not started my literature review, when in fact I had. You can also have a methodological review too. I’m going to have a smaller ‘methodology literature review’. Here I will put information about how other researchers researched the topic like I might say “so and so did this using 24 interviews blah blah whereas I think that this is a weakness which I will address by using a diff method blah blah”.

The biggest thing that made me no longer fearful of the review is that I no longer refer to it as ‘the literature review’. I’m not reviewing literature. I am reading, writing and thinking critically about it. I’m writing multiple little essays which have a common theme to create my story. That’s what I’m doing. In my final year, I will write it up and connect things more explicitly. But for now, little bits that connect – but perhaps not so clearly are fine!

In order to write these little manageable sections of the literature review, I use  Rowena Murray’s outlining technique. She refers to it but only quite briefly in the How to do a Thesis book (I’ve only got an old edition, so newer ones may be different). But in her book ‘Writing for Academic Journals’ she goes into more depth.

Outlining is where you create a very detailed outline of what you are going to write. So you break each topic and section down, and down and down again. Three levels of breakdown. Then you end up with nice little chunks. So now, I know that I need to write 100 words on a particular thing and it seems like an easier task. 100 words! That’s nothing!



Murray (2005) Writing for Academic Journals

My supervisor recommended that I keep track of all my sections in a spreadsheet and colour code. Tick things off and feel a sense of progress.

So in summary – scrap the words ‘literature review’ – that’s a big monster heading that causes anxiety attacks! Secondly create level three outlines. How can writing 100 words be scary?

Hope this helps any readers who may also have a literature review phobia.

I have been struggling with my literature review but did not really know it. Well, I knew because it has been going very slowly, but I thought that was because I am just a slow worker. However, upon reflection I am not a slow worker. When I worked in the menswear department in a department store I was super fast I could scan, fold and do the credit card transaction in super speed time, so much so customers would comment and crowds would form. When I worked in the library, I could shelve and tidy the heavy marketing books in a flash, all perfectly in order and upright, and some of those textbooks books were very heavy.

So when I met with one of my supervisors last week she said that the reason I am having difficulties in creating an outline for my literature review and actually writing it with purpose is because I do not know what my aims are. Instead I have been writing 2000 words here and there on seemingly random sections that do not seem to have a particular purpose apart from be standalone essays of sorts I suppose. In my head they kind of make sense, but my supervisors do not see it and I have not communicated well.

She helped me think about how to create aim which will eventually will become one aim and some objectives (remember there is a difference – see this blog for discussion on this issue: ) and of course they will also become research questions.

  • What you need to do is just write down an aim that comes to mind – what is it you want to do?
  • Then ask Why? Who cares? Why is it important/interesting? This takes the aim to a more theoretical level.
  • What hypothesis do you have? This is not just a quants thing – think about what you suspect to be the case, what your initial thoughts are, perhaps based on common sense assumptions.
  • Next ask What are the implications of this and also what are the limitations.

Another thing she said is that when writing your literature review, think of a framework to guide you. So for example, I think that C. Wright Mills’ Sociological Imagination where he talks about the importance of the interaction between history, biography and individual is going to be my frame. This is framing my whole thesis as it helps me to justify why I am using mixed methods and studying people’s educational trajectories using longitudinal data. I will be shifting from historical to social to individual perspectives. From policy to then how individuals enact policy for example. I will be looking at the context of people’s decision making of attending university at different time periods. Then this all links to my aims and the way I compose my research questions.

Now that I have a little bit more of a focus, I think the literature review should be much easier to write now. Better be because I have a big ball of anxiety in my chest where I feel like I have wasted so much time!

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