Category Archives: literature reviews

Literature Reviews that Flop

I have consulted with many Ph.D. students who have adopted the strategy that hard work should pay off. The idea is that if they show their committee that they are thoroughly familiar with the details of all the studies that are relevant to their dissertation they should pass. The idea is to demonstrate that they have located, cited, analyzed and understood each and every relevant study.

Here is how this strategy plays out.  The student first locates the studies. Once started – it becomes easier because you can chase down all the research cited in the studies already located. By way of example, let’s say that 25 studies have been found.

The next step of this process is to take several hours to thoroughly read and study one study at a time.  On day one the first study is described and written up and included in the literature review chapter.  The study description can consume anywhere from a half page to several pages.

The following day you take a second study and follow the same process. A description of the second study is added to the description of the first study. You now have written several pages  of your literature review.

Continue with this strategy day after day – adding the results of one study at a time. At the conclusion of 25 days you have as many as 50 pages of text for your literature review.

If length counts for anything you are in good shape. But let’s now look at what you really have for all your work.

Your chapter reads as follows:

  • Humpty Dumpty found a significant result but he used a lousy measure of the construct.
  • Donald Duck’s results were inconclusive. It was a good study but the sample size was small.
  • Mickey Mouse  found a significant result, but in the opposite direction. He studied ducks. As we all know ducks are not representative of human behavior.

And so forth and so on.  You can find a flaw with any study. Anyone reading this chapter begins to think – what is the bottom line. Reading a chapter written in this fashion is always very boring.  A reader does not have to wait for the conclusion of the chapter to know how the final paragraph will read:

Some studies found a positive result, Some studies were inconclusive. Some studies found a negative result. Therefore, more research is needed.

Why is this literature review a flop? Your committee members has just read 50 pages of detail with no clear resolution of what any of your discussion means. They are bored stiff. They still have 4 chapters to review. Nothing was learned.

You have not placed your study in the context of the existing literature. Rather, you have simply proven that you worked really hard. Great. Now you have to figure out how your study fits in the context of what other researchers have found.

Robert Rodgers, Ph.D.

Are Literature Reviews Always Necessary?

Successful dissertations place their study in the context of the existent research. It is not enough to assert that you have an interesting question, a rich data set no one else has mined or a powerful method of analyzing your data.  Why?

Your committee will inevitably ask the question: how does your study fit into the context of all the research which has already examined your question in some fashion or another? You can always respond with the answer:

“There is no existent research on this question. Therefore, a review of the literature is not needed.”

In rare cases, this answer may fly with your committee. Success with this response is however  highly unlikely. Why?

  1. There is very likely research on the question – it is just not framed in the way you are planning to proceed.
  2. Committee members always look to see if a review of the literature is included in your dissertation (either Chapter 2 or Chapter 3). If  it is missing,  the student is told to go back to the drawing board.

Learning how to frame and write a review of the literature is part of the training in any Ph.D. program. To complete your program, committee members like to see a demonstration that you  know how to do a review of the literature.

Researchers may well have not used your constructs, your variables or your data.  But there is very likely a stream of literature that has considered your question and/or tested your hypothesis. Perhaps this research is theoretical. Perhaps it is filled with cases studies. But such a literature exists.

The challenge is to define the boundaries of the literature that falls into the backyard of your dissertation. Once you have placed boundaries on your own study, the literature becomes easier to identify and the literature review chapter much easier to write.

Without a clear idea of how your study fits in the context of existent research, literature reviews can consume hundreds of pages – but contribute little to a true understanding of how your question fits in the context of all the other work which has been published,

Robert Rodgers, Ph.D.