The dreaded literature review

I must admit, as a researcher and aspiring academic, I find the literature review process to be the largest hurdle to overcome in my work. It’s not the copious amount of reading, nor is it the unrelenting and necessary note-taking, nor is it tracking and organizing citations. For me, it is the crippling uncertainty that you missed a critical piece of the puzzle and that oversight will be the sole focus of reviewers of your work. Nothing is worse than: “Did you consider this article?” That simple statement exacerbates the dreaded impostor syndrome in almost all graduate students. So, whenever I see resources on executing a literature review, I am quick to save them. Here are a few that have popped up recently that are worth sharing.

Five ways to structure a literature review

Guidelines for writing a literature review

5 ways to tame the literature dragon

Six Steps to Writing a Literature Review

While all of these provide solid overviews into how to execute the literature review, there still remains the chance of overlooking that critical piece of literature.

I’ve dealt with this in three ways:

  1. I am diligent in identifying all the major works that are relevant and then following the citation trail. This often leads to peripheral or irrelevant work, but is still a useful exercise.
  2. I ask around. This isn’t my favorite step of the process, but discuss your work and thoughts on certain articles leads to other mentioning or suggesting work for you to examine further.
  3. I let go. You’ll never get everything, but as long as you are logically setting your work within a body of literature and have sound rationale for your framing and selection, you’ll be fine.


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