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The PhD Literature Review

Most PhD projects begin with a literature review, which usually serves as the first chapter of your dissertation. This provides an opportunity for you to show that you understand the body of academic work that has already been done in relation to your topic, including books, articles, data and research papers.

You should be prepared to offer your own critical analysis of this literature, as well as illustrating where your own research lies within the field – and how it contributes something new / significant to your subject.

This page will give you an overview of what you need to know about writing a literature review, with detail on structure, length and conclusions.

What is a PhD literature review?

A literature review is usually one of the first things you’ll do after beginning your PhD. Once you’ve met with your supervisor and discussed the scope of your research project, you’ll conduct a survey of the scholarly work that’s already been done in your area.

Depending on the nature of your PhD, this work could comprise books, publications, articles, experimental data and more. This body of work is collectively known as the ‘scholarly literature’, on your subject. You won’t have to tackle any novels, poetry or drama during this review (unless, of course, you’re actually studying a PhD in English Literature, in which case that comes later).

The purpose of the PhD literature review isn’t just to summarise what other scholars have done before you. You should analyse and evaluate the current body of work, situating your own research within that context and demonstrating the significant original contribution your research will make.

Planning your PhD literature review

Your supervisor will be able to give you advice if you’re not quite sure where to begin your review, pointing you in the direction of key texts and research that you can then investigate. It’s worth paying attention to the bibliographies (and literature reviews!) of these publications, which can often lead you towards even more specialist texts that could prove invaluable in your research. At the same time, it’s important not to let yourself fall down an academic rabbit hole – make sure that the books and articles you’re surveying are genuinely relevant to your own project.

You should aim to include a broad range of literature in your review, showing the scope of your knowledge, from foundational texts to the most recent publications.

The note-taking process is crucial while you’re in the early stages of your literature review. Keep a clear record of the sources you’ve read, along with your critical analysis of their key arguments and what you think makes them relevant to your research project.

How long should a literature review be?

The length of a PhD literature review varies greatly by subject. In Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences the review will typically be around 5,000 words long, while STEM literature reviews will usually be closer to 10,000 words long. In any case, you should consult with your supervisor on the optimum length for your own literature review.

Structuring a PhD literature review

When you begin to write your PhD literature review, it’s important to have a clear idea of its outline. Roughly speaking, the literature review structure should:

  • Introduce your topic and explain its significance
  • Evaluate the existing literature with reference to your thesis
  • Give a conclusion that considers the implications of your research for future study

The main body of your literature review will be spent critiquing the existing work that scholars have done in your field. There are a few different ways you may want to structure this part of the review, depending on the subject and the nature of your dissertation:

  • Chronologically – If your research looks at how something has changed over time, it may make sense to review the literature chronologically, tracking the way that ideas, attitudes and theories have shifted. This might seem like quite a simple way to structure the review, but it’s also imperative to identify the common threads and sticking points between academics along the way, rather than merely reeling off a list of books and articles.
  • Thematically – If your dissertation encompasses several different themes, you might want to group the literature by these subjects, while also emphasising the connections between them.
  • Methodologically – If you are going to be working with experimental data or statistics, it could be a good idea to assess the different methods that previous scholars have used in your field to produce relevant literature.

Whichever technique you use to structure your literature review, you should take care not to simply list different books, articles and research papers without offering your own commentary.

Always highlight the similarities (and differences) between them, giving your analysis of the significance of these relationships, connections and contrasts.

Writing up a PhD literature review

The process of writing a literature review is different to that of writing the bulk of the dissertation itself. The aim at this point isn’t necessarily to illustrate your own original ideas and research – that’s what the dissertation is for – but rather to show the depth of your knowledge of the field and your ability to assess the work of other scholars. It’s also an opportunity for you to indicate exactly how your dissertation will make an original contribution to your subject area.

These are some tips to bear in mind when writing a literature review:

  • Avoid paraphrasing – instead, offer your own evaluation of a source and its assertions
  • Follow a logical path from one source or theme to the next – don’t make leaps between different books or articles without explaining the connection between them
  • Critically analyse the literature – challenge assumptions, assess the validity of argument and write with authority
  • Don’t be too broad in your scope – it can be easy to get carried away including every piece of related literature you come across, but it’s also important not to let your review become too sprawling or rambling

The fact that you usually begin your literature review right at the start of a PhD means that it’s likely you’ll come across plenty more relevant books and papers during the course of your research and while writing the dissertation. So, it’s useful to think of this first draft as a work-in-progress that you keep up-to-date as you write your thesis.

Finishing a PhD literature review

As you come to the end of your dissertation, it’s vital to take a close look at your initial literature review and make sure that it’s consistent with the conclusions that you’ve reached. Of course, a lot can change over the course of a PhD so it’s entirely possible that your research led you in a different direction than you imagined at the beginning.

The conclusion of your literature review should summarise the significance of the survey that you’ve just completed, explaining its relevance for the research your dissertation will undertake.

Literature reviews and PhD upgrade exams

The literature review is usually one of the first sections of a PhD to be completed, at least in its draft form. As such, it is often part of the material that you may submit for your PhD upgrade exam. This usually takes place at the end of your first year (though not all PhDs require it). Involves you discussing your work so far with academics in your department to confirm that your project is on track for a PhD. The feedback you get at this point may help shape your literature review, or reveal any areas you’ve missed.

Doing a PhD

For more information on what it’s like to do a PhD, read our guides to research proposals, dissertations and the viva.

Last updated - 16/12/2020

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