Step 3 of your Literature Review – Normalizing

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Note – if you haven’t read  them already, I suggest you go back and read the last two posts covering Steps 1 and 2 of the literature review: finding stuff and organizing and screening.  Then you’ll be ready to hear about Step 3 – normalizing


Once you’ve got all of your papers organized and screened, there is still one more step to complete before you can begin writing your literature review.  I call it the “normalizing” phase.  If you work in a field where there are no equations or variables to worry about, you can skip this step.  I’d venture to guess that would be pretty unlikely for most engineers and scientists though.

So what do I mean by normalizing?  Well, the idea is that every paper you read will likely use a different variable notation in presenting equations.  It’s your job to come up with a set of notation to use in your thesis for which every variable has only one symbol or variable name, and where every variable name is used for one variable only.  Then you have to translate all of the equations that you’ll be citing in your literature review (and anywhere else in your thesis) to this new, unique notation.

It sounds pretty obvious, I know, but I am consistently amazed at how few graduate students actually do it.  For example, I recently reviewed a thesis where the width of a river channel was referred to by three variable names: W, y, and T, and the letter V was used as the symbol for three distinctly different variables. I love it when this happens actually – my first question at the defense was, “What is V?” (I know, I’m cruel – but I really couldn’t resist. :-))  Seriously though, by the time I was halfway through that thesis, I was so confused that I felt like giving up completely.  It was an extremely irritating read and I felt very motivated to come up with extremely difficult questions for the defense.😉

So, unless you’re into being roasted over a hot grill at your defense, I suggest that you take the time to normalize all of your notation and don’t forget to create a list of variables as you go.  Once that’s done, you’re ready to start writing your literature review.  I’ll talk about that in my next post.

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