There’s nothing more embarrassing that writing an entire report on a topic, then finding out that someone has already done it all. Multiply that sentiment by a factor of about a thousand if you’re writing a Master’s thesis – start a new project from scratch if this happens during your PhD. Whatever you’re writing or researching – the first step is always to conduct a thorough literature review. For a Master’s thesis you might get away with knowing just some of the relevant literature – depending upon your university’s academic requirements – but for a PhD you have to find absolutely everything and that’s a huge job. How do you tackle it? Well, like everything else we’ve been talking about in this blog – I suggest you go about it methodically and that means having a plan. There are four key steps in the typical Literature Review: 1) finding stuff, 2) organizing and screening, 3) normalizing and 4) writing. Today we’ll deal with the first step…
Step 1 – Finding Stuff
This sounds easy, but if you need to find ‘absolutely everything’, it can be a pretty daunting task. There are a million ways to find information and, with the internet, it’s now much easier than it was when I was a grad student 20+ years ago. The important thing is to seek out information in a variety of ways – don’t just stick to one approach or you will miss stuff. In particular – don’t rely solely on Google and other internet search engines – they’re good but they’re not going to get you all the way there – not even close. Here are some other (often more efficient) ways to find the relevant literature:
- Find the formative journal paper(s) on the topic – your thesis supervisor will probably tell you about these the first time you meet to discuss your thesis project. Check the list of references in each of those papers to see which ones might also be relevant to you. Also – and this is the really important bit – check to see who has cited these groundbreaking papers. That should lead you to the mother lode if you’ve truly got the formative papers on your topic in hand. (Most university libraries provide electronic access to citation databases for just this reason.)
- Search all the relevant literature databases – again, most university libraries provide electronic access to these. However, they can be a bit overwhelming – especially with so many to chose from. Here’s just one reason the modern librarian is essential to academia! University librarians have amazing expertise – start your literature review off right by going to see one VERY early in your information seeking process. They can tell you which databases you should check and how to use them effectively. They can even teach you how to set up automatic searches, so that you find out about new stuff as soon as it comes out.
- Attend technical meetings and conferences and talk to other researchers about your project every chance you get. You will be amazed at the stuff you will learn from others – especially the older scientists. I’ve found some really obscure gems in this way.
- Cast you net wide – grab everything and anything you think might be relevant. Repeat #1 above for every paper you find.
Sound time consuming? It sure is – just like every other part of the thesis writing process. That’s partly why it takes so long to get a PhD! Perseverance is as important as brains in the academic world.
In my next post – I’ll talk about organizing and screening the mountain of information you’ve accumulated.