Grace Troupe: Starting your literature review

By Grace Troupe. Posted May 30, 2014.

I’ve been crawling through the beginning phases of my literature review for what seems like months.  It is a nebulous task with no definite beginning or end.  As I have plugged along, I have learned some lessons and had some shared with me.  Hopefully these lessons can help you too!

  1. Before you even think about starting, define the task as best as possible.  This short article is quite helpful in doing just that.

    In addition, pick the brains of other students and members of your committee.  Ask them their advice.  This help is priceless.

  2. Start your literature review AS SOON AS POSSIBLE.  The point of a literature review is for you to establish what is already known and what questions remain.  This can help you refine your research questions so that you don’t spend your time looking into questions that are already answered.  It also helps you learn standard procedures in your field.
  3. Define you research questions (to the best of your ability) before you start.  It will likely change as you read articles, but you need some direction to start with!
  4. Visit with your subject librarian.  Did you know you had one?  These are professors who specialize in research support and instruction related to information in your subject area.  What a great resource!  You can find yours here: The librarian can point out the best resources to search, recommend efficient searches that are as comprehensive as possible, and train you to use citation management software (see #6 below).
  5. Write a small summary or list the main points of each paper you read (that you think you’ll use).  Keep it in your computer or on a sticky note on the article.  This will help you when you start to write.  A paper may seem very clear and memorable in the moment, but 50 papers later when you are actually writing these summaries will really come in handy!
  6. Keep up your bibliography as you go.  The University Libraries pay for us all to use RefWorks, which can be pretty slick.  You can import the reference information and even attach PDFs to keep your own little resource library.  A librarian can help you learn to use it.  You can set up an account on this page:
  7. UNL Libraries pay for subscriptions to a lot of e-journals and article databases for us to use, and you can access from off-campus.  If you install the virtual private network software provided by UNL’s Information Technology Services, you can seamlessly log into the Libraries e-resources.  Voila!  You can access e-journals, e-books, and article databases from home. 
  8. Develop a uniform way of organizing your materials.  For me, it was printing articles off and putting them on a binder on my desk.  On the cover I wrote, “Articles:  Have you read one yet today?”  Some people can read all of theirs online, but I need mine to be waiting there on my desk begging me to read them.  I like to highlight, take notes, and use different colored pens to indicate different items I wanted to remember.
  9. Set goals for yourself.  If you set goals such as reading an article a day for the next month, the task is not so large.  Breaking the task into manageable pieces with defined deadlines helps you make progress…and feel like you are making progress!
  10. Agree on a deadline for the first draft of your literature review with your advisor.  This can give you accountability and pressure to get it done.  It is a huge blessing to have your literature review out of the way before you tackle the rest of your thesis writing…and it helps guide your research, so start early!

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