An anonymous blog post by a current PhD student …



1. Use you supervision team and talk to them.

  • It’s tough to start writing to a blank criteria.
  • Have conversations early on and establish what is expected of you.
  • It is unlikely that they are expecting perfection at this stage. A lot of anxiety for me came from a belief that I had to make perfect what did not need to be perfect at this stage.
  • It turned out that it was okay to have not read everything. It was okay for me to put little notes in the draft document that said ‘I intend to address this theory at a later stage’.
  • Agree on a proposed word count, structure, writing style and tone.
  • This will vary depending on your supervision team.
  • Are the supervisors looking for a specific academic tone, or are they okay with a more creative approach?


2. A literature review is NOT a “greatest hits”.

  • A literature review is not about stockpiling the highest list of references possible. It’s not about trying to crowbar in as many citations as possible and it’s not about selecting the best quotes and weaving them into a narrative.
  • Be selective with what you cite.
  • Ask yourself ‘does this serve my argument?’ and ‘how does it serve my argument?’
  • If you quote something or explain someone else’s theory, then explain why this is useful and why it serves your own argument.


3. It is unlikely that supervisors are expecting a ‘ready to publish’ literature review.

  • Everything you write is subject to change, but do not see this activity as a waste of time.
  • I promise you everything that will go into this literature review will be useable, with a little reworking.
  • You really are making the first steps towards writing your thesis here.. this is NOT a box-ticking exercise. This is exciting.


4. Build your list of references intermittently.

  • Do not leave it all to the last minute, but also do not interrupt your flow to create new reference entries.
  • Every few days, or every week, enter your citations into your reference list. I wish I had done this early on as I’m still paying the price now.
  • Two recommendations – Cite This For Me and Zotero
  • Look them up. They will help you across your academic career.


5. Know when you are not being productive.

  • We’ve all been there – spending up to an hour working on three sentences worth of content.
  • If you are struggling, walk away and believe in the power of the unconscious mind.
  • Take a break and do what works for you. For me, I like to get active and I’ll head to the gym or go for a walk. When I get back I can churn out three paragraphs in one go. Often, whatever problem I had before is resolved or I know exactly how to go about solving it.


6. Make your work portable and organized. This eliminates huge obstacles to working.

  • If you want to use cloud storage, use Dropbox. If you prefer keeping your work offline, use a memory stick. But make sure your documents can be with you at all times and make sure they can open up on Mac or PC.
  • If you are at a friend’s, a partner’s or your parents’ and they decide they need to walk the dog, go shopping or whatever.. you can use that time to work.
  • If you need to go somewhere.. your laptop can come with you. DO NOT store all your work on a tower PC in your office.
  • In terms of keeping your work organized, use computer folders in a way that works for you.
  • If your lit review is structured into three sections, then have three folders within a folder called ‘Literature Review’
  • Within each subfolder folder, have your document, and all the eBooks or journal articles that you’ll cite for that section too.
  • And keep a ‘notes’ document. A little todo list that applies only to each section. Use this to clear your mind when ideas emerge.
  • Consider buying ebooks and not paperbacks, so that work is portable. You can find PDF editors that allow you to annotate. Mac’s PDF reader already allows for this.
  • On the topic of organization. Keep your working document tidy. And end your working session with a tidy up.
  • Its almost better to spend five minutes tidying up than writing another 100 words. Because when you go back to that document, you know where everything is and precisely the point at which you should begin writing again.
  • The biggest cause of being unproductive is mess. ‘I cant be bothered to tackle it now.. it’s too messy’.


7. Stay backed up.

  • Synchronise your Dropbox to a couple of systems.
  • If you are working offline and from a memory stick, then synchronise your memory stick to another couple of systems.
  • Here’s a recommendation for an App. ‘Free File Sync’. Mac or Windows. It lets you automate backups with a click of a button. I plug in a memory stick with a ‘PhD’ folder to either my laptop or tower, press a button, and they synchonise. Whichever folder is most up to date takes priority. Look it up. 🙂
  • Save different versions of your drafts. If you get to a stage where you are about to make monumental changes (example, you might want to restructure a truck load of paragraphs), then save a current version and save a new version to begin working on.


8. Aim for greatness, but not perfection.

  • No two people are going to write the same literature review in the same way. The choice of words is down to you. There may be some benchmarks you have to hit, but there are no detailed blueprints. Have confidence in the words you choose.
  • Be positive. You want your supervisors to read your document and think ‘this is really interesting’. They probably don’t want to be saying ‘yes, this ticks all the boxes but, wow, it’s dull’.
  • Yes, you must tick the boxes, but believe that you will make this interesting in a way that is entirely your own.


In Summary…

  1. Use you supervisory team and establish what THEY expect of you before you begin writing. Maybe even draft out ten points you can agree to stick to.
  2. A literature review is NOT a greatest hits. Include only things that service your argument. Explain WHY you are engaging with certain literature. How does this help you, the researcher, to understand the questions you address.
  3. Remember that this does not necessarily have to be perfect, but remember also that everything WILL be useable, even if your research develops and changes.
  4. Build your list of references intermittently and use an online or offline tool to help you.
  5. Know when you are not being productive, take breaks and come back with fresh energy. When you DO have energy and you are in flow, then run with it!!
  6. Make your work portable and organized. Make it accessible on the go. The desk can get boring… sometimes you just need to move into the kitchen! TIDY UP AFTER EVERY WORK SESSION. Write one line or three points that tell your future self from where you need to pick up and carry on working.
  7. Stay backed up and also save different versions in progress.


Some other points.

  • The anxiety is not worth it. You can do a better job if you are calm. Do what you need to do to keep your mind in a good place for work.
  • Do not get insecure about what you don’t know. And do not be overwhelmed.
  • Its okay to not understand what other academics are talking about.
  • You are carving out your very own area of research and within a year you will have learned enough to say to other people.. “Hey, wanna know something interesting?! It might even inform your research..?!”


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