Monday, 21 May 2012

The Literature Review - Part One

As with many universities, at my School, your first year as a PhD student is sort of like probation.  You get a chance to learn the ropes (or to try, anyway), to start figuring out what your question is and to generally feel overwhelmed by what you've signed up for.  

However, as probation starts to draw to a close, you remember that little paragraph somewhere in the postgraduate student handbook you read months ago, that you have to submit a piece of work to be judged as an assessment on whether you should become a fully-fledged, official PhD student.

Uh oh.  Frantically, you race back to the handbook, scroll through endless amounts of information to reach that paragraph and confirm - it says you've got a lot of work to do!  

That's the point I'm at.  I have my first proper piece of work to do (MSc module assignments aside).  For the 27th of July, I must write an 8000-10,000 word literature review on my topic.  Gulp!  For those of you further on in your PhDs, you are probably reading this and shaking your head with the memories of your first "big" piece of work and thinking to yourselves 'Oh just wait for what's to come.'  I realise that I'm probably going to cross this threshold soon and that in 6-9 months, writing a lit. review will seem like nothing.

Right now, though, it seems huge.  Which is why I thought it'd be helpful to write a short series of posts as I go through the process to illuminate it for anyone (a) thinking about doing a PhD so you can be forewarned, or (b) also going through this so you can commiserate too.

Now, I didn't do a Masters, so my last piece of academic writing was my undergraduate dissertation in my fourth year.  It was 7,500 words, so not too uncomparable in length, but the difference was it didn't really matter what you said.  Of course, you had to make sense, present your argument in a logical way, etc., but it didn't matter if your experiment was unsuccessful or if you hadn't fully grasped all the relevant concepts.  I think we all know that your literature review for your thesis, on the other hand, is a very different story.

So take my nervousness about writing academically, my awareness of how important it is - which leads to a sense of terror - and add in the fact that I have no idea how to write a literature review.  The latter, I feel, is likely to be my biggest hurdle.  I mean, I'd heard the term before, but what is a literature review when you get down to it?

At the moment, my understanding is that it is a way for you to present an argument for your research topic and demonstrate its grounding in relavent literature.  Ok, great.  I have an OED definition.  But how the hell do I go about writing one? 

My current plan is planning.  I've got a basic plan of progression (subheadings with bullet points illustrating what I might talk about), so I can begin to form an idea of how to tell the story, as it were.  I'm actually meeting with my supervisor today to discuss it, so I can either be given the go ahead, or be told to have another think about it.  It's daunting to consider 10,000 words at once, so instead, I'm trying to think of each individual section as a mini essay.  I have three subheadings to work with, each with their own subtitles, so I have the bare-bones framework for a very rough first draft.

The second hurdle is the fear.  I am finding it hard to persuade my fingers to commit anything to paper.  In fact, that's part of my reason for writing this - I figure the more I encourage myself to write, the more my brain will be in a "writing" mode.  My concerns about this are almost evenly divided into the rational and irrational.  I'm concerned it wont be good enough, and I wont be allowed to progress in my PhD.  This is a rational fear, I feel, as it would rather affect my life plan.  But other fears, like "I can't write anything!" I know are unfounded.  I have, after all, just written a rather long blog post about the whole topic.  

I don't imagine this being an easy task, but I hope that by taking semi-regular breaks to tell you all about it will help me take an objective perspective on it all once in a while.  This will hopefully help me retain my sanity, and remember that, in the grand scheme of things, there's only another 90,000-92,000 words to go.