The Literature Review: not so impossible after all

How do you see your literature review? Is it a giant, unattainable piece of work? Or is an achievable challenge that you’re confident in producing? Either way, the literature review is a daunting task that looms over every PhD student. It’s no easy feat that’s for sure, but with these handy tips you’ll be well on your way.

By Kayleigh Caffyn.

Remember that it’s a process

The age old saying “it’s a marathon, not a sprint!” comes into play here. It’s important to remember that this work will span over a couple of years and so it’s best to take your time and not focus on it being ‘perfect’ in the first instance. So don’t be afraid to make mistakes – it’s trial and error. You’ll probably find yourself making edits right up until you submit your thesis, so remember that it’s a work in process.

Find systematic reviews

These will overview your whole topic and so can be incredibly useful if you’re starting to read about a particular subject. They will provide you with the most prevalent studies within your field as well as providing a critical evaluation – perfect for finding your gap within the literature. Once you’ve found your key studies, read through them thoroughly and make note of any other relevant studies mentioned – this is called the snowballing technique.

Make notes as you go

It’s easy to think that you’ll remember your thoughts on a paper, but when you are 200 papers deep it’s a different story. Make sure to take note of any ideas, limitations, thoughts, strengths, and general findings to well equip yourself for the big write up. The last thing you want when it comes to writing up is what seems like millions of papers and nothing to say about them. Even a small thought can turn into a big idea later down the line.

An open notebook with a fountain pen resting on top, with the words 'notes' written and underlined. Some black glasses in the background,
Image Credit: David Travis.

Make use of your supervisors

Your supervisors are there to guide and help you on this journey, so make sure you utilise them! They will be full of the wisdom and knowledge you need to help you through, so don’t be afraid to ask for support. No question is a stupid question; it’s better to ask than to sit there struggling.

Find a system that works for you

It’s easy to think that every other student is doing it a particular way, but you need to figure out what is the best way you can learn about the papers you are reading. Is it by printing it out and highlighting in a colour-coded system? Is it a database where you can link your papers together? Do you work better in the library or at your kitchen table? Again, this can be trial and error but once you have your system in place, you’ll be one step closer to completing your literature review.

Hopefully these tips have made you relax a little more about your literature review. It’s a big piece of work, but significantly more manageable with a few reminders and some guidance along the way.

If you need further support with your literature review, see how the Library can help, or how to keep an annotated bibliography.

What are your top tips for a literature review? Share your experiences in the comments below, by tweeting us @researchex or by emailing us at

Header image: Tom Hermans.

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