So You Wanna Do a Thesis? Part 5: The Literature Review

Welcome to my new series about my decision to do the thesis option for my program, and my advice to those of you considering the same. Are you considering doing a thesis? Does your program require you to? Then join me on this journey! Follow along on Twitter (@JessicaLColbert) with #MSLISthesis.

Starting with my previous post, we are going to get more into the act of research and writing. One of the biggest problems I am having with my thesis is that I do not come from a social science background, so it’s an entirely new way of writing, organizing, and thinking. Even though you readers might not be coming from the same background, I hope the strategies I’ve used to keep track of my research and write my literature review are helpful to you!

The Literature Review

A literature review is basically you doing a survey of all the research and writing that is relevant to your research question. It is meant to situate your work within a larger context. In essence, it proves that you know how your work fits in with your discipline and that you are aware of what others in your field are producing.

The kind of literature review you do will depend on the type of research you’re doing. For instance, you might do a super comprehensive review of everything in your field, or you might only highlight a few important pieces. You might arrange your review chronologically, or you might group the pieces by subject or methodology. Your review might also simply summarize and place in context the pieces, or it might criticize them and point out further research.

If you are having trouble coming up with the type of literature review you need or its purpose, I highly recommend this library guide made at my university. It’s helped me out so much!

Tips for Writing the Literature Review

If you just need practice summarizing a text and linking it back to your research, I recommend starting with annotated bibliographies. Although annotated bibliographies serve a different purpose and are structured differently, they can help get you in the right writing mindset!

Another tip that I’ve mentioned before is to find an article or dissertation that is similar to your topic and study how that literature review is written and how it functions within the paper.

Doing the Research

I don’t think I was prepared for the volume of articles and books you must go through in order to conduct a literature review, even if you aren’t being comprehensive! Although I’m technically done with mine, I feel like there must be so much more out there, and I get some research anxiety because of it. Because of that, there are three things I have to remember to do:

Set Limits

When you do a literature review, you must decide on what years it will encompass, and whether or not it will be comprehensive. If you say you will not include anything past January 2017, then you don’t include anything past that date. Period.

If your review isn’t comprehensive, then don’t try to shove in every single word ever said about your topic. This one has been tricky for me because not many people have done my exact research, but there’s a rich history of librarians working in adjacent fields. What do I include? My adviser was helpful with this. I also had a few different sections of my literature review, and I got to be less comprehensive in some of those other sections.

Search Logs

The actual process of searching for works can be super overwhelming. I’ve had search strings be over 20 words with super complicated Boolean operators. I’ve had to repeat these searches in countless databases, and I’ve had to change the strings depending on the language used in the databases. Keeping track of all that information can seem like a challenge, but it really is necessary and helpful!

One thing you can do is to keep some sort of search journal, either physically or digitally (I like Microsoft OneNote), where you note the database, the date, the search string, and the success of the search.

screen-shot-2017-03-01-at-10-46-15-pmI also like to subscribe to searches that succeed using RSS feeds, so that if new articles are added to a database that fit my search, I get an alert. This also helps me to save that particular search string, and it keeps track of when it was performed. (If you have questions about this, please contact me. I teach a session about this topic, and this is the guide that goes with it.

Citation Management

Now that you’ve got a digital mountain of sources to include in your text, how do you keep them all organized? As grad students, you gotta gotta gotta manage your citations! You could go old school and use a spreadsheet, or you could use a fancy citation management software. I am partial to Zotero, but there are loads of other tools like Mendeley and EndNote.

I like Zotero because it’s free, and it’s super great at pulling information from sources, whether it’s a book in a library catalog, an article in a database, or a blog post. In your library, you can create little sub-folders. I like to do this for the different parts of my thesis.


This is the LGBT Subject Access sub-folder in the Literature Review sub-folder in the Thesis folder of My Library. You can also see all the metadata for the article I have selected.

Citation managers can also generate all your in-text citations and your reference list, automatically. Of course, you should always double-check the citations, but it saves you loads of time, especially when you’re citing hundreds of books and articles.

Final Tips

Remember that your literature review is a living document. Until you turn your thesis in, you are allowed to go in and make changes. I don’t recommend getting obsessive with this or moving beyond those boundaries you’ve set for yourself, but it is useful to revisit your literature review after you’ve been working on another section for a month.

Remember to have your adviser and others read your work. Remember to read your writing out loud. I’m really terrible at editing my own work, so doing these two things helps to catch odd writing cadences and typos.

Remember that you might sound redundant by constantly relating everything back to everything else, but that just means you’re doing it right. This is probably the thing I’m struggling with the most as an English BA, where we sort of assume that you can remember the thesis throughout the paper.

Remember to give yourself enough time to work on your literature review. It took me almost a year, since I’ve been researching this topic since I started grad school, and I still feel like I must be missing things.

And remember, you can always hit me up on Twitter and ask me questions! I think it’s always super helpful to have a student perspective and not just somebody who has been doing this for years and years.

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