Surviving the lit review

At the very beginning, my idea of doing a literature review was like this;

Read some literature,
read some more literature,
read some more literature,
read some more literature,
read some more literature,
read some more literature,
read some more literature,
read some more literature,
read some more literature,
read the last bit of literature,
become an expert,
write something awesome based on my expert opinion.

Source: Literature Review HQ

Sometimes, reading for a literature review can seem an endless task. Where to start? Where to stop?  What’s relevant? What’s not? Here are some helpful observations about the journey from research students who have survived their own reading marathons.

At first the reading task may seem like standing in front of a fire hydrant being deluged with literature. How to sort through it all even to decide what to read? One suggestion is to read like a mongrelscanning, skimming, and searching in order to decide whether the paper goes into the “read critically later” folder or the “probably not relevant.” If you’re at all like me you will find it hard to discard anything “just in case.” Anyway, things can, and will, change.

The important thing about reading for a research degree is that it changes your thinking. So you can read a paper and not see the implications, or not understand it at all, and then come back to it a year later and suddenly realise that it’s a breakthrough for you. How does this happen? It could be that you have crossed a threshold. A threshold concept is one which changes you way of thinking in such a way that from then on you see the world in a different way. You may not realise this at first, but then something triggers it, like finding a key paper which causes you to leap into a whole new area of the literature. It’s easy to worry that you would have missed the breakthrough if you hadn’t chanced to go back to that paper, but if your thinking is ready for change, it will be triggered by something anyway.

Reading for a literature review is a learning experience, and for me it was an enjoyable one. I may still not be an expert reader but I now look back on that process as one if the best experiences of my PhD. The only problem is that it destroyed my ability to read fiction for pleasure. I hope I get it back.

About Jennie Swann

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