Module 3 – Conducting a Literature Review

Journal StackOne of the first responsibilities in the research process is to determine what research has been conducted in your field, and how it may relate to your project.  If you are starting out on a new research project, you should discuss this issue with your advisor or mentor.  He/she will probably have several key articles that pertain to the research.  Read through these thoroughly as you will be expected to know what is discussed in each article.  Often this is a bit intimidating and may require that you literally “work through” portions of the paper, one line at a time.  You should note questions that you have and discuss them with your advisor or graduate mentor.

When you start your research project, you will begin by conducting a literature review.  There are several reasons you want to do this.  First, you need to know what has already been done within your research topic to fully understand the purpose of your project.  Second, by knowing what has been done (and what is currently being done), you can find an area of the research that needs to be investigated.  This can lead you to your own project, and/or allow you to develop ideas to contribute to your project this summer. Ultimately, the literature review will help you to see the big picture and how your work fits into the overall subject.

Additionally, when you want to have your work published, nearly all professional journals expected a discussion/summary of the relevant literature in your paper.  This grounds your research in other established relevant work, and shows that you know your research area. To document what you have read, a good strategy to adopt is to write a short summary on every paper you read, right after you finish reading it.  This way, you record your understanding while it is still fresh in your mind. At the same time, this speeds up your literature review process (since you are writing parts of it in the form of many summaries). The literature review is also a standard section of every Master’s thesis and PhD dissertation.

In this module, we will talk about the key elements of conducting a successful literature review.  It can take a lot of work and a lot of time, but is essential for understanding your research topic. As you gain a deeper understanding of your project and topic, your work may lead you to new aspects of your research area. It is also likely that newly published literature will become available during the summer.  Therefore, even after the initial literature review is done, the search for relevant articles is also something that must continue (to some degree) throughout your research project.