Writing a literature review is all about a new start. And we all know that a new start can be scary and challenging sometimes. The literature review is no different. It is the start of your thesis journey and the pillar for all your future work (no pressure!). However, there are techniques you may use to reduce the stress of starting your journey. Take into consideration that this is my opinion based on my experience so far and that yours can be totally different and as efficient as mine. There is no right answer.
Writing a literature review is all about consistency and habits. As mentioned by James Clear in his book Atomic Habits “success is the product of daily habits” and so is your literature review. If you make a habit to write something every day, you will see that it can become a less painful experience. But how to start?
First, for those who are in the process and for those who are starting, let’s keep one thing straight, doing a thesis is not all about flowers and rainbows. Some days you will feel stressed and nothing makes sense and that is fine. Then you will see those other days you really feel like you are living the dream. Above all, doing a literature review can be hard, stressful, confusing and mind-blowing actually. So, these are my tips to get started:
- Prepare your mind for the difficulty. This means taking a realistic approach to what is about to happen. Do not expect to not encounter obstacles because you will. You just need to be aware of them and keep going.
- Try to work on time-blocks, for example, for me it works best to work for a full hour and then take a 10-minute break. As mentioned by Grace Beverley in her book Working hard, hardly working, to maintain productivity there is the need for you to balance work and rest. In her book, she defines an approach to the day by time-blocks which means dividing your day into blocks of time according to the task you have at hand and according to your life habits. I suggest you give it a look.
- Define a strategy for your search. This includes the databases you will conduct your search, what keywords must guide it and the limitations you may impose on the search according to your topic.
- Keep organised folders with the articles you will include in your literature review and take notes of what you want to include in the format you are most comfortable in working with (it can be online – for example using Notion or offline – the traditional pen and paper). I prefer to highlight articles in my computer and then take notes with pen and paper because it is easier for me to remember.
Then we enter the writing stage… and some blank spaces in your brain can occur. Again, the hardest part is about starting. So, I will let you with my writing process. First, I start by deciding what is the focus of my literature review and my research questions, according to the search I conducted. Use a reference manager software because it will make your life much easier. There are plenty of them available for free (e.g., Mendeley, BibDesk, EndNote, Zotero).
In terms of structure, I start writing the introduction by introducing the topic of my research, the aims of my research and the structure of my work. Then, I write the applied methodology (remember, in a literature review never forget to include the date in which the search was conducted) and normally I follow the PRISMA method for a systematic literature review. This method is a 27-item checklist with a flow diagram for article screening which includes deemed essential for transparent reporting of s systematic review. I found that by using this method I can make the process easier for me and allows for a more efficient review of the literature since you only include what is necessary (always subject to the author bias, but what can we do, we are humans after all).
Then, I write the results section. This includes an analysis of the main keywords (it can be interesting to use Vosviewer to create clusters), the main theories applied in the field, the main methodologies that were used, the main conclusions from the articles and how they relate and impact the research and the future research suggestions that are still lacking answers. After this, I discuss these results considering the research question that was the aim of my work. Finally, I create a conclusion section including implications of the research, limitations, and future research suggestions of my work.
Writing a literature review seems easy to put down this way. But I know that it cannot be. So, do not be afraid to take breaks to reduce your stress and improve your performance. Work-life balance, remember? It is all about finding the perfect balance that better works for you. Some days you may work 8 hours and be productive while on others you may work the same amount of time and have no idea what you were doing. If it is one of these days, take a break!
In a world where social media is in our everyday lives, it is easy to compare what we are doing with tons of different people. But remember, most of the time, people just post the positive productive parts of their day and forget to mention that they had a 30-minute nap after lunch or that the picture they post today is in fact from last week. Do not believe everything you see about always being on call. Let social media inspire you in a positive way by wanting to achieve more, but do not compare what you are doing with someone who is on the other side of the planet and whose living conditions are completely different from yours. Every person has their own journey. Let yours inspire you!
For more amazing PhD content, go to Adriana’s Instagram @tryingaphd.
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 Available at Amazon (https://www.amazon.com/Atomic-Habits-Proven-Build-Break/dp/0735211299)
 Available at Amazon (https://www.amazon.com/Working-Hard-Hardly-achieve-fulfilled-ebook/dp/B08FFK3HZZ)
 See Liberati, A., Altman, D. G., Tetzlaff, J., Mulrow, C., Gøtzsche, P. C., Ioannidis, J. P. A., Clarke, M., Devereaux, P. J., Kleijnen, J., & Moher, D. (2009). The PRISMA statement for reporting systematic reviews and meta-analyses of studies that evaluate health care interventions: explanation and elaboration. Journal of Clinical Epidemiology, 6(7), 1–28. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jclinepi.2009.06.006 or Page, M. J., McKenzie, J. E., Bossuyt, P. M., Boutron, I., Hoffmann, T. C., Mulrow, C. D., Shamseer, L., Tetzlaff, J. M., Akl, E. A., Brennan, S. E., Chou, R., Glanville, J., Grimshaw, J. M., Hróbjartsson, A., Lalu, M. M., Li, T., Loder, E. W., Mayo-Wilson, E., McDonald, S., … Moher, D. (2021). The PRISMA 2020 statement: an updated guideline for reporting systematic reviews. Systematic Reviews, 10(1). https://doi.org/10.1186/s13643-021-01626-4