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Research skills for HDR students

Literature reviews

As part of a thesis, literature reviews allow you to demonstrate your knowledge of previous work in your field and to situate your own research in the context of this work.

How the review is incorporated generally depends on the field of study. It could be one or more distinct chapters of your thesis, part of your introductory section, or be incorporated as background for a number of chapters.

A literature review can have a number of purposes within a thesis. These include:

  • to show gaps in the research
  • to justify your own research
  • to demonstrate understanding of your field
  • to generate new research hypotheses
  • to place your own research in its context
  • to summarise and evaluate past research
  • to show similarities and differences (or consistencies and inconsistencies) in previous research
  • to give an overview of controversies in past research.

You need to identify, analyse and interpret key themes in relevant previous studies and relate them to your own research focus. Rather than describing the contribution of each study in a list-like chronological sequence, you need to make connections between the studies and integrate them. Plan and experiment with the best analytical framework to present your analysis and synthesis of the studies you’ve reviewed.

In order to justify your own research, you need to show limitations or gaps in existing research. In other words, you are not just summarising the contributions of each study, but are also evaluating the literature to ‘make space’ for your own research. In some disciplines, this purpose determines the organisation (analytical framework) of the entire literature review, while in others it determines the organisation of particular sections.

Your review should be focused and up to date; concise, yet comprehensive; and your approach should be critical and original.

If you would like to enhance your literature review skills, complete our free, short unit 'Writing a literature review' in the Open Learning Environment.


This material was developed by the Learning Hub (Academic Language and Learning), which offers workshops, face-to-face consultations and resources to support your learning. Find out more about how they can help you develop your communication, research and study skills.

See our handout on Writing a thesis proposal (pdf, 341KB).

Last updated: 14 October 2022

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