How do I start #writing my #thesis literature review in PhD?

How to write thesis literature review in PhD

Way to start #writing my #thesis literature review?

A #PhDstudent recently asked me: How do I start #writing my #thesis literature review?

First, recognize something: you are NOT yet an expert in the field, and that’s okay! The purpose of writing the literature review is to help you become an expert.

Second, a painful truth: This is not something you can rush, and you will have to iterate on it many times over months and years.

Here’s my advice.

Start slowly and methodically.

Ask your advisor to give you one paper that she/he thinks is “great” in your field.

PhD students — 10 things to do in the first year of your PhD.

Read the paper thoroughly. I mean really read it, taking notes on things like:
✏️ Introduction. How do the authors quickly narrow the scope to the “important” and “new” stuff in field? Or is the Intro too broad and meandering?
✏️ Objective. How do the authors identify a knowledge gap and how do they propose to solve it?
✏️ Methods. What do the authors do in the paper? How do they validate their findings?
✏️ Discussion. How do the authors link their data to prior #literature? How do they push beyond reporting #data to discuss its importance?
✏️ Conclusions. What do the authors say it all means by the end? Are you convinced by the evidence?
✏️ Writing. Is the writing clear? What is working/not in terms of the writing for you?
✏️ Structure. How is it organized? Beyond headings, what information is contained in each paragraph?
✏️ References. How do the authors use citations? How are they leveraging prior knowledge?
✏️ You. What don’t you understand from the paper? What do you need to discuss with someone more knowledgeable in the field?

After you read this first paper, discuss it with your advisor or more senior lab mates.

Are you about to start writing your PhD thesis?

Now, go find 2 papers that this first one cites, and 2 papers that cite this first one (all 5 from different authors).
Do the same exercise with these 4 papers (it will go faster the more you do!) AND then – critically – ask yourself:
✏️ How do these 5 papers, together, advance a common idea?
✏️ Why are these papers within the same “citation family” – why are they citing each other?
✏️ Is there something contradictory between the papers? Or are the findings aligned?

Have another conversation with your lab group to talk about the group of papers.

As you continue to read papers, keep the following in mind about literature reviews:
🔍 This is about synthesizing knowledge in the field (hence the second exercise).
🔍 We want to avoid writing things like “Lab 1 did this” and “Lab 2 found this” and “Lab 3 did this.” It lacks depth and evidence of critical thinking.
🔍 We want to tell a scientific story, showing how ideas in the field have evolved over time. Citations are used to support this… but it needs to be our analysis.

And… NEVER copy/paste stuff from a paper into a document. There’s a good chance you’ll forget you did this, and then accidentally end up plagiarizing someone else’s work!


Some frequently asked questions about writing a literature review for a PhD:

  • What exactly is a literature review, not only for a PhD but also for a research paper or any other type of study?
    Literature review is a critical summary of all the research and knowledge that has already been done on a certain topic. In a PhD thesis, it is an important part of the research process for the researcher to evaluate and synthesize what is already known about the topic in order to set the stage for their own study.
  • Why this is important in a PhD thesis?
    This is important because it helps to show how important the research problem is, shows how well the researcher understands the field, and finds gaps in what is already known that the researcher’s study can fill.
  • How do I select a topic for my literature review?
    This is a really good question. Your literature review should be about a topic that is closely related to your research question or problem. It should also be a well-known topic with enough research already done on it.
  • How do I organize my literature review in the time of writing?
    There are different kinds of structure, just like there are different ways to format. Like, it can be done in a certain way, like using a chronological, thematic, or methodological structure. The writing should be clear, brief, and well-organized, and it should have a strong argument or main theme that runs through it.

Writer: Jillian Goldfarb
Associate Professor of Biological & Environmental Engineering,
Cornell University

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