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Crafting a Dissertation: Preparing for the Literature Search

The backbone of a successful dissertation is the literature review. This review provides the building blocks for the rest of the dissertation. The literature review consists of three phases: information gathering, note taking, and the actual document review. The first two phases—information gathering and note taking—are the subject of this blog. I tackle these two phases together because they work in tandem and really cannot be divorced from each other.

Information gathering does not begin until the candidate makes three basic decisions: (1) the subject of the dissertation and the related keywords that will be used when searching the internet and academic databases; (2) the method employed to gather the information; and (3) the type of literature review s/he will eventually conduct. The first decision, the subject and baseline keywords, are important because they will inform your searches for information. The subject is obviously your dissertation topic; the keywords are related words or phrases that may identify additional information. They will be added to and deleted from as your search progresses.

The second decision—the search method to be employed—must be specified so that you do not cover the same ground over-and-over again. I learned it is helpful to view your search as a dartboard. Each successive concentric circle represents a more targeted search until you finally hit the bull’s-eye. The keywords identified earlier will help you get to the bull’s-eye. Part of this decision is selecting the physical tools you will use to take notes. Will you use computer software such as iAnnotate, Endnotes, or Zotera? Or will you take notes by hand? If you take notes by hand, will you use note cards, research journals, legal pads, binders or some other physical tool? And how are you going to structure your notes? Will you use outlines, draw pictures, map relationships or use a methodology such as the Cornell Method of note taking?

The third decision is a determination of the type of literature review you will be conducting. This is ascertained, in part, by the dissertation topic. For example, are you conducting a qualitative, quantitative, or mixed methods study? Are you focusing on a specified methodology or something broader? Depending on the answers to these questions, your literature review will be broad, narrow, or somewhere in between. The results of and answers to the decisions and questions, respectively, will set the stage for your actual information gathering process. In my next blog post we will delve deeper into the information gathering and note taking phases. Until then...


Colleen L.

Professor for Theses and Doctoral Guidance and Standardized Test Prep

300+ hours
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