Making sense of the literature as a PhD student, Part 1: Literature searching

This blog post is the first part of a series of three blog posts on the topic of literature searching and writing a literature review for a PhD. Some of the advice presented here might also be applicable to students doing research at postgraduate level or any researchers undertaking large-scale research projects.

What is a literature search? What is the purpose of literature searching?

A literature search is a thorough and systematic search of resources relating to one’s research topic. The literature search includes academic books and peer-reviewed articles, but in many cases also extends to grey literature resources such as organisational reports and policy documents.

The ways that we would collect references for an essay or a report differ substantially from how we would approach literature searching for a dissertation at undergraduate, postgraduate, or PhD level.

In the former case, we would likely have a single research question to guide our analysis of the literature. We may be asked to analyse the available literature for our research question, or to contrast two opposing sides of an argument and to evaluate the evidence in support of each side. In the latter case, we would often be looking to make an original contribution to the literature. Here, we wouldn’t have a research question that we could answer by simply collecting and evaluating relevant literature sources. We would, instead, be looking to answer a set of prospective research questions organised around a topic that not too much is known about.

To answer our research questions as part of a dissertation, we would go through two stages. First, we need to review the extant literature in order to identify gaps in knowledge. Then, we would need to collect empirical evidence to address some of these previously identified gaps in knowledge. Our first stage – the literature review – begins with literature searching.

What’s so special about literature searching for a PhD, though? In brief, a PhD student’s main job in their first six months of the PhD is to conduct a literature search. However, literature searching necessitates the application of some advanced searching skills that we may not have fully developed prior to commencing a PhD.

Indeed, we do perform thorough literature searches as part of an undergraduate or postgraduate research degree, but we only have limited time to do so. A PhD gives us enough time to ponder the big questions and make meaningful contributions to our fields. Still, the banal phrase “with great power comes great responsibility” seems fitting here: we cannot identify and address gaps in knowledge unless our literature searching approach is targeted and precise, and unless we know our fields well. This is why literature searching is so important!

Luckily, there is a wealth of guidance out there on how to perform a literature search. I’ll summarise some of this guidance below.

General guidance on literature searching

The literature search should be systematic

What is meant by ‘systematic’ is that the search should explore all relevant parts of the literature using the same diligent procedure. It should be closely aligned with research objectives and should explore the state-of-the-art in relation to one’s research topic in a structured way.

It may be useful to define the conceptual limits of one’s research project by breaking down their research title or research proposal into keywords, and by deciding what disciplines they will draw from. In the earliest stages of literature searching, it may also be a good idea to read some introductory textbooks if something is unclear. After the parameters of the literature search are somewhat clear, it is then advisable to create a schedule of topics to search for every week. The schedule is there as a guideline, and can be deviated from if needed. It simply provides some structure to the search which enables us to easily track our progress.

Some technical searching skills are required

This includes knowing which databases to search, what keywords or keyword combinations to use, and how to filter results for relevance or academic esteem (e.g., number of citations). The whole process is a combination of using the automated features of libraries’ advanced search engines and performing some manual filtering.

The technical searching skills required to carry out this process successfully are typically covered in university libraries’ LibGuides pages. On Napier’s LibGuides page, we also have a Search Plan Template, which can be used ‘as-is’ or modified to fit our own approach. High-quality searches can be performed using Google Scholar, but it is much better to use library search engines, as these offer a degree of functionality and legitimacy that cannot be achieved by using Scholar ‘out of the box’. Library resources are routinely checked, tagged, and optimised for academic use, which makes a PhD student’s life easier!

How I did my literature search

The title of my PhD is ‘Career information literacy and decision-making behaviours of young people’. This is an interdisciplinary research project that combines insights from Career Studies and Information Science, though it also incorporates a sizeable portion of the Information Literacy literature. My objectives for now are to:

  • explore the role of information access, use, and evaluation in career development learning and career decision-making processes
  • generate insight into the identification and development of career information literacy skills in young people for the purpose of enhancing their career development learning and career decision-making

My three main concepts here are: career information literacy, career decision-making, and career development learning.

Taking into account all of the guidance on literature searching outlined above, I first deconstructed my research topic into smaller concepts, and then turned these concepts into actionable items. I created my own Search Plan Template, which consisted of four main sections: ‘Research questions and objectives’, ‘Fields considered’, ‘Schedule’, and ‘Keyword log’.

Armed with this Search Plan Template, I first conducted a scoping literature search, so that I could get a good overview of where I could find the most relevant literature for my topic. I then conducted two targeted literature searches: one of the treatment of information in Career Studies, and one of the treatment of employability in the Information Literacy field. I plan to use the results of the scoping literature search for the context-setting parts of my literature review. The two additional searches will form the basis of the heading structure of the literature review.

I will tell you more about the literature I gathered and the types of sources I will include in my literature review in Part 2 of this series, which will be all about the transitional stage between the literature search and the literature review. Watch out for this in the coming weeks!

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