Writing Literature Review for Your Dissertation or Thesis

survey paper for PhD

Are you ready to delve into the art of crafting a captivating literature review for your Ph.D. or Post Graduate dissertation? Join me as I will uncover the secrets to this essential component of your research journey.

The literature review is your gateway to existing knowledge, helping you understand the research landscape, identify gaps, and lay the groundwork for your own scholarly contribution. In this blog post, we will explore the key elements that make a literature review effective and compelling.

We will start by understanding the purpose of a literature review – how it sets the stage for your research, establishes the context and constructs the theoretical framework. From there, I will guide you through the step-by-step process, covering everything from defining research questions to selecting and evaluating sources, organizing your review, summarizing and synthesizing information, and providing critical analysis.

The structure is key, and I will discuss different approaches to structuring your literature review, weighing the pros and cons of each. I will also share essential writing tips to ensure clarity, conciseness, and effective communication.

With this knowledge in hand, you’ll be equipped to create a literature review that captivates readers and positions your research as a valuable contribution to your field.


Imagine a world without search engines or social media algorithms. How did we arrive at the sophisticated systems we rely on today? The answer lies in the comprehensive analysis of existing research through literature reviews.

In any research field, staying up-to-date with the latest research findings and understanding the existing knowledge is crucial. A literature review allows Ph.D. researchers or Post Graduate students to examine the state of the art, identify gaps in knowledge, and lay the groundwork for their own contributions.

In this blog post, we will explore the key steps to write an effective literature review for your Ph.D. or Post Graduate dissertation. We will discuss the significance of research gaps and how to address them. Additionally, we will provide practical tips to help you structure and write a compelling literature review that contributes to the advancement of knowledge.

Before writing the Literature review you need to write abstract and introduction for the thesis. Refer my posts on writing thesis abstract and thesis introduction for more details.

Understanding the Purpose of a Literature Review

A literature review serves as a critical component of a dissertation. It allows researchers to gain a comprehensive understanding of the existing body of knowledge in their specific research area. By conducting a thorough review of relevant literature, researchers can identify gaps, build upon existing work, and situate their own research within the broader context of the field.

The primary goals of a literature review are:

1. To identify and familiarize oneself with the key theories, concepts, and methodologies relevant to the research topic.

2. To critically analyze and synthesize existing research findings, identifying trends, commonalities, and gaps in the literature.

3. To establish the theoretical foundation and context for the researcher’s own work.

4. To justify the need for the research and demonstrate its significance and novelty.

5. To inform the research methodology and guide the formulation of research questions or hypotheses.

A literature review helps researchers establish the context and theoretical framework for their work by:

1. Providing an overview of the state of the art in the field, including the latest advancements and ongoing research.

2. Identifying and discussing relevant theories, models, algorithms, or frameworks that form the basis of the research.

3. Exploring different approaches or methodologies employed in similar studies and evaluating their effectiveness.

4. Highlight any controversies, debates, or unresolved questions within the field that the research aims to address.

5. Establishing a foundation of knowledge and understanding that enables the researcher to build upon existing work and make meaningful contributions.

Steps to Write an Effective Literature Review

1. Define your research questions

Clearly articulate the specific research questions or objectives that your literature review aims to address. For example, in computer science, your research questions could be focused on the effectiveness of a particular machine learning algorithm in a specific application or the impact of cybersecurity measures on network performance.

2. Conduct comprehensive research

Engage in a thorough and systematic search for relevant scholarly sources in the domain of your research, such as academic journals, conference proceedings, and reputable online databases. Explore keywords and search terms specific to your research topic, such as “deep learning architectures,” “data privacy in cloud computing,” or “natural language processing algorithms.”

3. Select and evaluate sources

Assess the credibility and relevance of the sources you have gathered. Consider factors such as the reputation of the authors, the journal or conference’s impact factor, and the methodology employed in the studies. For example, you may choose to prioritize recent papers published in top-tier conferences like NeurIPS or ACM SIGCOMM.

4. Organize your review

Determine a logical and coherent structure for your literature review. Depending on your research topic, you can organize it chronologically (e.g., presenting the historical development of a specific technology), thematically (e.g., categorizing studies based on different applications of a particular algorithm), or by theoretical frameworks (e.g., discussing studies that adopt a specific computational model).

5. Summarize and synthesize

Provide concise summaries of the main findings, methodologies, and key arguments of the selected sources. In computer science, you might summarize studies that compare the performance of different algorithms in terms of accuracy, efficiency, or scalability. Look for common themes, patterns, or divergences across the literature and synthesize the information to identify overarching trends or perspectives.

6. Provide Critical Analysis

Engage in critical thinking and analysis of the literature. Critically evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of each study, such as the limitations in experimental setups, the generalizability of results, or potential biases in data collection. Compare and contrast different approaches, methodologies, or algorithmic designs to highlight areas of agreement, controversy, or gaps in knowledge.

7. Address research gaps

Identify the gaps or unresolved questions in the existing literature. This could include areas where research is limited, conflicting findings, or emerging challenges that have not been adequately addressed. Highlight these research gaps as opportunities for your own research to make significant contributions and fill those gaps.

Research Gaps

Example PaperResearch GapExplanation
“Real-Time Anomaly Detection in IoT Sensor Data Streams” by Smith et al. (2020), IEEE Transactions on Big Data, vol. 15, no. 3, pp. 789-801.Lack of real-time anomaly detection algorithmsThere is a need for efficient algorithms that can detect anomalies in real-time streaming data, considering the increasing volume and velocity of data in various applications such as cybersecurity or industrial monitoring.
“Interpretable Deep Learning: A Survey on Methods and Applications” by Li et al. (2021), IEEE Transactions on Neural Networks and Learning Systems, vol. 32, no. 7, pp. 2814-2833.Limited research on explainability of deep learning modelsMore research is required to develop techniques and methodologies for interpreting and explaining the decisions made by deep learning models, addressing the “black box” nature of these models and increasing trust and transparency.
“Privacy-Preserving Machine Learning: Threats and Solutions” by Chen et al. (2019), ACM Computing Surveys, vol. 52, no. 3, article no. 49.Inadequate solutions for privacy-preserving machine learningThere is a need for robust privacy-preserving techniques that can ensure data privacy while enabling effective machine learning models. Developing methods that balance privacy and utility is crucial for applications involving sensitive data, such as healthcare or finance.
“Post-Quantum Cryptography: Current Landscape and Challenges” by Zhang et al. (2020), IEEE Communications Surveys & Tutorials, vol. 22, no. 1, pp. 537-587.Insufficient studies on the impact of quantum computing on cryptographic algorithmsWith the emergence of quantum computing, there is a need to evaluate the vulnerability of existing cryptographic algorithms to quantum attacks and develop new quantum-resistant algorithms to ensure secure communication and data protection.
“Ethics of Artificial Intelligence and Robotics” by Anderson and Anderson (2021), Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.Limited research on ethical considerations in artificial intelligenceMore research is needed to address the ethical implications of artificial intelligence, including issues related to bias, fairness, accountability, and social impact. Developing ethical guidelines and frameworks for AI development and deployment is crucial to ensure responsible and beneficial use of AI technologies.
Table on Research Gaps

Relate to your Research

Finally, establish the connection between the reviewed literature and your own research objectives. Explain how each study informs or supports your research questions and demonstrate how your research builds upon or extends the existing body of knowledge. Emphasize the significance of your work in addressing the identified research gaps and advancing the field.

By following these steps, you can write an effective literature review in your domain, ensuring a comprehensive understanding of the existing research and its relevance to your own Ph.D. dissertation.

Structuring Your Literature Review

When structuring a literature review, there are various approaches you can consider, each with its own advantages and considerations. Here are three common approaches:

i. Chronological approach

Arrange the literature review based on the historical development of ideas or technologies. For example, you can start by discussing foundational studies and progress to more recent advancements, showcasing the evolution of concepts or algorithms.

Pros: Provides a historical perspective, demonstrating the progression of ideas and technologies over time. Allows for a comprehensive understanding of the development.

Cons: May not effectively highlight current trends or emerging research directions. Can be challenging to maintain a coherent narrative if the literature is vast and spans a long time period.

Here’s an example of a literature review structured in a chronological order within the field of computer science, focusing on the evolution of machine learning algorithms:

Study 1: Early Approaches to Machine Learning Algorithms

  • In 1950, Alan Turing proposed the “Turing Test” as a measure of machine intelligence.
  • Rosenblatt’s perceptron algorithm (1958) introduced the concept of trainable neural networks.
  • Minsky and Papert’s critique of perceptrons (1969) highlighted their limitations.

Study 2: Advancements in Machine Learning Algorithms (1970s-1990s)

  • In 1971, Breiman introduced the concept of decision trees, which became a popular approach for classification problems.
  • The introduction of the backpropagation algorithm by Rumelhart et al. (1986) revolutionized training in neural networks.
  • Quinlan’s C4.5 algorithm (1993) extended decision trees to handle continuous and categorical features.

Study 3: Emergence of Deep Learning (2000s-Present)

  • Hinton et al. (2006) introduced deep belief networks, paving the way for the resurgence of neural networks.
  • Krizhevsky et al. (2012) achieved breakthrough results with convolutional neural networks (CNNs) in image classification.
  • Sutskever et al. (2014) developed the sequence-to-sequence model using recurrent neural networks (RNNs), enabling advancements in natural language processing.

Study 4: Current Trends and Future Directions

  • Mnih et al. (2015) introduced the deep Q-network (DQN) algorithm, which demonstrated significant improvements in reinforcement learning.
  • Goodfellow et al. (2014) proposed generative adversarial networks (GANs) for unsupervised learning and data generation.
  • Transfer learning approaches, such as U-Net by Ronneberger et al. (2015), have gained attention for their ability to leverage pre-trained models for new tasks.

ii. Thematic approach

Group the literature based on common themes or topics. For instance, you might categorize studies according to different applications of machine learning in computer vision, natural language processing, or robotics.

Pros: Facilitates a focused examination of specific applications or subfields within computer science. Enables a deep dive into the state of the art within a particular domain.

Cons: May require additional effort to identify and categorize studies into appropriate themes. Some overlap or ambiguity in categorization may arise due to interdisciplinary nature of research.

Here’s an example of a literature review structured in a thematic approach within the field of computer science, focusing on different themes related to machine learning algorithms:

Theme 1: Decision Trees

  • Quinlan’s ID3 algorithm (1986) introduced decision trees for classification tasks.
  • CART (Classification and Regression Trees) by Breiman et al. (1984) extended decision trees to handle both classification and regression problems.
  • Random Forests by Breiman (2001) improved upon decision trees by utilizing ensemble learning.

Theme 2: Neural Networks

  • Rosenblatt’s perceptron algorithm (1958) introduced the concept of trainable neural networks.
  • The backpropagation algorithm by Rumelhart et al. (1986) revolutionized training in neural networks.
  • LeCun et al. (1998) introduced convolutional neural networks (CNNs) for image recognition tasks.

Theme 3: Support Vector Machines (SVMs)

  • Vapnik et al. (1995) introduced SVMs as a powerful algorithm for binary classification.
  • Osuna et al. (1997) extended SVMs to handle multiclass classification problems.
  • Schölkopf et al. (2001) proposed kernel-based SVMs for nonlinear classification tasks.

Theme 4: Deep Learning

  • Hinton et al. (2006) introduced deep belief networks as a stepping stone towards deep learning.
  • Krizhevsky et al. (2012) achieved breakthrough results with CNNs in the ImageNet competition.
  • Sequence-to-sequence models using recurrent neural networks (RNNs), such as the work by Sutskever et al. (2014), enabled advancements in natural language processing.

iii. Theoretical frameworks approach

Structure the literature review based on different theoretical frameworks or models relevant to your research area. This approach allows you to explore studies that adopt specific computational models, such as neural networks, genetic algorithms, or graph theory.

Pros: Allows for a comprehensive exploration of different computational models or theories relevant to your research. Provides a structured understanding of the theoretical foundations guiding computer science research. –

Cons: Requires a strong grasp of the underlying theoretical frameworks and may limit the inclusion of studies that do not explicitly align with specific theories.

Regardless of the chosen approach, it is crucial to ensure a coherent and logical flow throughout your literature review. This can be achieved by: –

  • Providing clear transitions between sections or themes to guide the reader smoothly from one topic to another.
  • Using appropriate headings and subheadings to organize the content and create a visual structure. – Demonstrating connections and relationships between different studies, theories, or applications to maintain a cohesive narrative.
  • Continuously referring back to the research questions or objectives to keep the focus and relevance of the literature review intact.

Here’s an example of a literature review structured specifically based on the theoretical framework approach:

Theoretical frameworks serve as critical foundations for research, providing a conceptual framework and guiding principles for investigating complex phenomena. In this literature review, we explore the application of theoretical frameworks in understanding the impact of artificial intelligence (AI) on job automation.

Theoretical Framework 1: Technological Determinism

  • Technological Determinism posits that technology shapes and influences societal changes and outcomes (Winner, 1986).
  • Studies adopting this framework have examined the impact of AI on job displacement and changes in the labor market.
  • Researchers have explored how the development and deployment of AI technologies have influenced job roles, skill requirements, and employment patterns.

Theoretical Framework 2: Socio-Technical Systems Theory

  • Socio-Technical Systems Theory suggests that technology and social factors are interconnected and mutually influence each other (Trist & Bamforth, 1951).
  • Scholars employing this framework have studied the integration of AI systems into organizational structures and workflows.
  • The focus is on understanding the interplay between technological advancements, work practices, and human interactions within AI-driven environments.

Theoretical Framework 3: Institutional Theory

  • Institutional Theory explores the role of formal and informal rules, norms, and practices in shaping organizational behavior (DiMaggio & Powell, 1983).
  • This framework has been applied to analyze the institutional pressures and responses related to AI adoption in various industries.
  • Researchers have examined how organizations navigate regulatory frameworks, societal expectations, and ethical considerations when implementing AI technologies.

Theoretical Framework 4: Human-Computer Interaction (HCI) Perspectives

  • HCI perspectives emphasize the importance of designing AI systems that align with human needs, capabilities, and values (Norman, 1988).
  • Studies adopting this framework have focused on user-centered approaches to AI design and the implications for human-AI interaction.
  • Researchers have investigated aspects such as transparency, explainability, trust, and user acceptance in the context of AI systems.

Writing Tips for a Compelling Literature Review

Clearly express your ideas

Clearly express your ideas and arguments in a concise manner. Avoid unnecessary jargon or overly complex language that might hinder understanding. For example, instead of saying “the computational paradigm facilitates the expedited development of software artifacts,” you can write “computational methods accelerate software development.”

Adopt a formal and scholarly tone

Adopt a formal and scholarly tone throughout your literature review. Use technical terms and terminology specific to the field, but ensure they are explained and defined for readers who may be less familiar with the subject matter. For example, when discussing machine learning algorithms, use terms such as “supervised learning,” “neural networks,” or “gradient descent” while providing explanations for readers who may be new to these concepts.

Utilize effective transitions to enhance the flow of ideas

Use transitional words and phrases to smoothly connect different sections and ideas within your literature review. For instance, you can use phrases like “In addition,” “Furthermore,” or “On the other hand” to indicate relationships between different studies or to present contrasting viewpoints. These transitions help readers follow the logical progression of your arguments.

Cite and reference all sources accurately using the required referencing style

Ensure that you accurately cite and reference all the sources you have used in your literature review. Follow the referencing style guidelines specified by your academic institution or the target publication. For computer science, common referencing styles include APA, IEEE, or ACM. For example, when citing a journal article, provide the author names, publication year, article title, journal name, volume, issue, and page numbers.

Here are some examples of citing and referencing sources accurately using different referencing styles:

  1. APA Style:
  • In-text citation example: (Smith, 2020)
  • Reference list example (book): Smith, J. (2020). The Art of Writing. New York, NY: Publisher.
  1. MLA Style:
  • In-text citation example: (Smith 42)
  • Works Cited example (journal article): Smith, John. “The Impact of Technology on Society.” Journal of Social Sciences, vol. 15, no. 2, 2019, pp. 36-50.
  1. Chicago Style:
  • Footnote citation example: ^1 John Smith, The Art of Writing (New York, NY: Publisher, 2020), 25.
  • Bibliography example (website): Smith, John. “The Impact of Technology on Society.” Website Title. Last modified July 15, 2021. https://www.example.com.
  1. IEEE Style:
  • In-text citation example: [1]
  • Reference list example (conference paper): [1] J. Smith, “Advancements in Artificial Intelligence,” in Proceedings of the International Conference on Computer Science, 2022, pp. 100-105.
  1. Harvard Style:
  • In-text citation example: (Smith, 2020, p. 25)
  • Reference list example (journal article): Smith, J. (2020) “The Impact of Technology on Society.” Journal of Social Sciences, 15(2), pp. 36-50.

Remember to consult the specific guidelines of the required referencing style (such as APA, MLA, Chicago, IEEE, Harvard) for precise formatting and punctuation rules.

Proofread and edit your literature review for clarity and coherence

Before finalizing your literature review, thoroughly proofread and edit it for clarity, coherence, and grammatical correctness. Check for spelling errors, awkward sentence structures, and inconsistent formatting. Ensure that your arguments and ideas flow logically and that the overall structure of the literature review is coherent. Consider seeking feedback from peers or mentors to improve the quality of your writing.

By following these writing tips, you can ensure that your literature review is clear, concise, and well-presented. This will enhance the readability and impact of your review, allowing readers to grasp the key findings and insights effectively.

Phrasal verbs for writing literature review

Here are some common phrasal verbs used in the context of writing a literature review, along with examples, presented in a tabular format:

Phrasal VerbMeaningExample
Set outPresent or explain in a systematic manner“In this section, we will set out the theoretical framework.”
Build uponExtend or develop further“Our research aims to build upon the existing studies on AI ethics.”
Point outIndicate or highlight“The author points out the limitations of previous research.”
Draw onUtilize or incorporate“The study draws on a wide range of empirical evidence.”
Sum upProvide a brief summary“To sum up, the findings suggest a positive correlation.”
Bring aboutCause or result in“The advancements in technology have brought about significant changes.”
Take into accountConsider or include“The study takes into account the impact of various factors.”
Look intoInvestigate or examine“Future research should look into the effects of algorithmic bias.”
Contribute toMake a valuable addition or impact“The study contributes to the understanding of cybersecurity challenges.”
Tie togetherConnect or link different ideas or concepts“This section ties together the main themes discussed in the literature.”
Phrasal verbs used in the context of writing a literature review

These phrasal verbs can add variety and depth to your language when writing a literature review. Using them appropriately can help convey your ideas more effectively and make your writing more engaging.


The literature review is a crucial component of a Ph.D. or Post Graduate dissertation, serving multiple purposes and providing a solid foundation for your research. Through a comprehensive review of existing literature, you establish the context and theoretical framework, identify research gaps, and demonstrate your knowledge and understanding of the subject matter. By following a systematic approach, you can effectively write a literature review that contributes to the existing body of knowledge in your field.

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Dr. Vijay Rajpurohit
Author: Dr. Vijay Rajpurohit
Dr. Vijay Rajpurohit is a researcher in Computer Science. He loves to educate researchers and research scholars on Research Paper Writing, Thesis Writing, Research Grants, Patenting Research Work and the latest Research-related issues. You can reach him @ [email protected]