Thursday, 2 August 2012

10 Things I Learned About Doing a Lit. Review

I am delighted to say I have now finished and submitted my literature review.  If you've read any of my previous posts on the topic, you'll have noticed it has been a bit of whirlwind of emotions, stress and procrastination.  

However, I learned a lot from the process and thought I would sum up the experience with the ten most important things I've learned whilst working on my lit. review.  

And if you're wondering about the picture, this is what I'm doing now it's finished!

1.  Make plans with the intention of scrapping them.

On a CPD course I once got told that the act of making a plan isn't really to set out how and when we're going to work, instead, it's a mental exercise that allows us to get our head around what's actually involved.  Writing a lit. review, for example, isn't just about writing 7,000-10,000 words.  It's about reading, finding a story, figuring out how that's all going to come together, writing and finally editing.

I made about twelve different plans throughout my lit. review, and the finished product looks vastly different from the first five or so.  From then on, they come closer and closer to what the final version was about.

2.  Allow way more time than you think you'll need.

Since my last experiment went belly up, the literature review was all I had to work on this summer.  For that reason, I thought "Hey, no problem, I'll get that done in a few weeks!"  No.  Just no.  What was originally scheduled for submission on the 1st of July, became the 14th, then the 27th, then the 3rd of August.  I actually got it submitted on the 30th of July, so a little in between my final two estimates.

This is not because I am necessarily lazy.  The process was a lot more difficult than I'd anticipated, but we were also ripping out our kitchen and building a new one at this time.  Like my lit. review, this also took a lot longer than intended and was a lot more stressful, so it took away from time I might have dedicated to writing.

3.  Don't be afraid to let your thinking evolve.

I used to be what gaming people call a completionist.  I hated putting down a game if I hadn't earned every achievement, levelled up all my characters to 100, collected all the secret items and had explored every little corner.  Apply that logic to writing my lit. review, and it meant I really didn't want to give up on that first plan I'd made.

This is a really important lesson for the PhD as a whole, not just writing lit. reviews.  You must learn to be flexible.  The thing is, my first plan was pretty dull.  As I read more and learned more I found a more exciting path I wanted my research to go in.  My thinking and my writing had to adapt to keep up, and the final version is much more interesting because it has been around a topic I am passionate about.

4.  Don't be afraid to say "NO!"

This might be specific only for those who have a close family.  My family love me and are invested in me and my future, so they like to know how it's going.  They also knew that the lit. review was important.  But when every phone call or Facebook conversation asks how it's going, how much you've done and if you're going to finish on time, it can be stressful, even when you know they're only asking because they care.  Sometimes you just have to say "I'm not discussing it", even when you know it's rude, to preserve your sanity.

5.  Read it aloud.

I've always done this to check work.  I find reading aloud helps me find those minor errors (a where instead of a were, or a missed word or phrase that Word doesn't flag up) that when reading internally, we often skip over.  Reading aloud means these errors trip you up.  It also helps you figure out if sentences are too long, if they don't run well together, or if something is complicated.  If you're out of breath, the sentence is too long.

6.  Take a day off before editing.

By the time I had my final draft complete, I was sick of the sight of my literature review, and my laptop.  I wanted to kill it with fire and never look at it ever again.  Obviously, that's not an option.  However, I knew if I went straight into editing, my judgement would be clouded.  I'd skip over bits because I'd read over them what felt like a hundred times trying to get the wording right.  

Taking a day off gives you a reprieve.  I slept in and didn't use my computer or check emails or Facebook or anything for a day.  I went outside for a walk, I watched a couple of films, I sewed, I cleaned and I had an early night.  Coming back to edit after that was much easier.  Rather than feeling like a final slog, it was a a look back over what I'd done with fresh eyes and a recharged brain.  

7.  If it's not working, go back to basics.

My last post was written at a time when the writing was at its hardest.  I was stressed out and tearful all the time, exhausted with writing a project that just wouldn't go together.  Imagine you've one piece left for a jigsaw, but it just won't fit in - it's completely the wrong shape.  That's what it felt like.

So not long after that post, I decided to go back to the beginning.  I wrote the question at the top of a page, and drew the sections I thought would answer that question off it in spider-diagram form.  I then reordered those sections in the most sensible fashion.  Everything made sense.  I'd been struggling so much because I'd been trying to answer a newer, more evolved question, with an older plan.  The older plan no longer made sense to the newer question, hence my difficulty in getting things to fit together.  Once I'd figured out where I'd gone wrong, the words flew out and I wrote my final draft in about six days.  (Before editing of course!)

8.  Make sure you're doing something else too.  As long as it's not building a kitchen.

Part of my frustration with my lit. review was that I felt like I did nothing else.  My pilot had gone wrong so there was no more work to do for that, and I couldn't start my next study until September when the undergrads came back for Autumn term.  It ended up that all I felt like I was doing was my lit. review so I began to despise it because I felt it was taking over my life.

This led to a secondary problem, in that having only one project meant I kept procrastinating.  It was easy to say "I'll do it tomorrow" when I only had one thing to do.  Bad idea.

9.  Think carefully about advice.

If you're stuck and ask for advice, that's great.  It's important to feel comfortable enough to do that.  If you're asking people you trust who've been through this, even better.  But you will be given a lot of contradictory, unsolicited advice too.  Again, these people are only trying to be helpful and it is not the fact that they're giving advice which I'm cautioning against.  All I am saying is to think for yourself before you act on it.  Everyone works differently, and what they did might not work for you.  It can also be a bit stressful (like the "How's it going?" question), so don't feel bad if you just want to nod and politely say thank you, but not follow it.

10.  Have faith in yourself.

By the time you come to write your literature review, you'll have been doing your PhD for about a year.  You're going to feel totally out of your depth and like you know nothing.  You know more than you think you do.  Remember always that this process isn't just about progressing into second year, it's a chance for you to get familiar with the literature in your area, so you can rattle off "Oh yeah, like the Fletcher-Watson et al. paper on people preference" and have other people look at you and be impressed.


But seriously, if you got onto the PhD programme, you can do this.  Take your time.  Allow yourself days off if it's just not coming, but always remember you got this.  I have come out the other side of my lit. review more prepared to face the rest of my research, but also much more confident in arguing my case.  I know what I'm talking about.  These months of work have allowed time for osmosis to happen and finally, I know the key studies important to my research like I know the words to Flower of Scotland. (And that's well, by the way.  I could sing that in my sleep).

If I can do it, you can.  And if you're facing the prospect of a lit. review, or are writing one just now, I hope this might be helpful for you.  But the most important point is the last one.  If you take nothing else away from this, just remember: you got this.


  1. lol u forgot to put "have a lil' fun reading!" in ur list.

  2. Katie,
    As a cat fan, ours is Princess Leah (from what you may ask) I like the fun in your blogging. From a doctoral students going through and reflecting on the process I like the way you write. I know real well as a receiver of #4. “Don’t be afraid to say “No!” Preserving one’s sanity is key in this process to finish. You are candid and funny. If you are interested in sharing some of your reflections on your journey, my partner, a doctoral prof who is part of a team of mentors, holds a Sunday chat where all types of questions arise relevant to the phases that students are in with their PhD process. You may be interested in checking it out and contributing your own perspective as students and professors discuss questions that arise for different students. If interested check out their site for the weekly interactive community.

    Margie from Ireland

  3. I know you've been through all this so I salute and agree to you. My favourite part is number 6. I think it will give you a chance to refresh.