Literature Reviews: Making the Case for Your Research

Many of us are nearing the time of the semester for final projects and research proposals. Some of that work involves reviewing research articles, either to inform a planned study or to summarize a body of literature. Although there are plenty of great resources out there, I wanted to share my own top 5 thoughts and tips about what makes for a well-structured literature review.

  1. The original research process makes or break the review: (Yes, you read that numbering correctly.) Although this isn’t part of the top 5, it’s foundational to the whole process. Hopefully your original search for conceptual papers and empirical research articles has been thorough and current. Even if you don’t use everything you find, keep it; you at least have it in your back pocket if you find you should need it. Library databases are great resources, and Google Scholar is even more user-friendly and flexible. Check the reference sections of articles you know you’re citing, and you’re likely to be able to chain references to pull together the entire research landscape on your chosen topic.
  2. A literature review is a persuasive argument: You’re making a case to your audience. You’re demonstrating that you’re familiar with the research that’s been done in a given area to show that you’re a credible researcher. You’re telling a story that the folks you are citing are relevant to your research by incorporating their findings and insights with your own ideas. You’re convincing your readers that your research is built upon, and belongs alongside, the papers you’re citing.
  3. Build themes: Literature reviews are not meant to be chronological, rote lists of facts from previous research strung together. Group things together as they are useful to constructing your argument. Some articles may be cited because they relate to your subject matter or topic; some are good for supporting or explaining a theory or a model; some are significant for their findings or outcomes; and some discuss the use of appropriate research methods.
  4. Use organizational and visualization tools: Get yourself out of word processing mode. Whether you use a spreadsheet, a flow diagram, a chart, or a visual outline, group together the articles you want to use based on their usefulness or their strong points. Visualizations help you see the themes and clusters of ideas from your personal database of articles. You’ll be able to see the progress of your argument as if it were a roadmap and move things around, if needed, to make more sense.
  5. Mix and match your citations: There is no rule that an article can’t be cited as many times as warranted. Let’s say you found a great article that explicates theory well, has relevant findings, and solid methods. Be sure to cite it within all those themes or clusters where it helps to build your case. I use the metaphor of packing a bag for a trip when you have limited space. You have a shirt that looks good enough to wear to dinner or brunch the next morning. Use your options and let articles do double or triple duty.
  6. Think of your review as a funnel: Once you have the building blocks in the form of your themes or clusters, put them in order from the most general to the least general to hone your argument. For instance, let’s say I’m applying a theory to study a user population like graduate students in LIS. First, I’ll want to talk about studies that have used the theory more generally, then touch on how the theory had been applied to other larger or generic user populations (adults, schoolchildren, undergraduates), and then cite specific research about how it had been applied to graduate students, but in other fields like sociology and engineering. As a result, you’re leading your reader down the path to help them see how the whole research landscape narrows down to your specific interest, which, as you can tell from the lack of research, addresses a research gap.

Most importantly, to write a good literature review, I would encourage you to be a good observer and reader of research literature. Find those review section examples that are clear and persuasive, such that they make it easy to follow where they’re going. You’ll notice how good literature reviews guide you through previous research by hitting relevant landmarks and signposts, so you can anticipate where they’re headed. If they hadn’t already introduced it (and they should have), you can see their research question coming based on the course and structure of the review. You’ll also know how they want to study their question based on the themes they’ve funneled down to, which show how their study fits into the specific research gap that they want to address.

Networking and volunteering your way to success

Once upon a time, when I was about 30, I decided that I wanted to be a librarian when I grew up. I had received advice from numerous sources that when it came to getting a job, experience was more important than education. For about a year, I applied to all of the entry-level library positions that were posted in my city. All four of them. Clearly, that wasn’t going to get me anywhere – so I enrolled at Kent State to get started on my MLIS.

I was grappling with the age-old career conundrum: you need experience to get a job, but how can you get experience if you can’t get a job? So I decided to try volunteering to gain some experience. At first, I attempted to get in with the public library as it seemed like the most obvious option. Unfortunately, the few opportunities they had didn’t work with my schedule. That’s when I remembered the Bible college associated with my church. They had a library. Maybe they would want a volunteer?

I wish I could say that I hooked up with them immediately, but the fact of the matter is that I spent about six months trying to rally the courage to ask if they wanted free labor. In the end, I was describing my situation to a friend whose wife, unbeknownst to me, is the administrative assistant to the executive vice president of the college and was more than happy to pass along my interest.

Fast forward: after spending a year volunteering at the college one evening a week and interviewing for several jobs that I didn’t actually want, I was approached by the academic dean. It turns out that the current librarian needed to leave. Would I like to take over?

It’s only been about two months since I came on board. Looking back, I can see how networking and volunteering played a huge role in getting me my first job as a librarian. I will be the first to admit that my networking efforts were clumsy and still need a lot of work. But I also recognize how important the strategy is. It can be intimidating to reach out to people and ask for help, but as the saying goes, you don’t know unless you ask!

As for volunteering, it did give me some of the experience I needed. It also increased my professional network. As the saying goes, it’s not what you know, but who you know! I am also convinced that my volunteer experience is the only reason I got the interviews I mentioned earlier.

I don’t know what my future holds any more than the next person, but I do know that because of networking and volunteering, I am in a much better place at the beginning of my career than I could possibly have imagined.

You don’t have to participate in GSAC

Dear fellow graduate students,

I know you’re busy. Life is tricky right now, with school, work, family, the pandemic, holidays, housework…. Life is heavy on your shoulders, and it sometimes sucks trying to balance it all.

How are we supposed to add the Graduate Student Advisory Council and iSchool listserv to the pile? Who wants to add one more thing when there is already SO MUCH to juggle?

Let me be the first to tell you: You don’t have to.

NO commitments necessary. You don’t have to participate in GSAC. (Silly name, yeah?)

I would like to share with you, though, my feeling of isolation during graduate school. Maybe you can relate?

When I started at Kent, I knew no one within my program, had no connection to my professors and felt as though I were floating in the ether, tied to no one and nothing, yet anchored by this idea that I must flourish, network, and learn to become the grand master of some profession within the next two years. I put pressure on myself to make this experience worth the investment, to the best of my capability. Yet, I wasn’t sure I knew where or how to start. Do any of us?

I made many mistakes – reaching out to those who weren’t interested, putting my foot in my mouth with professors, and trying to connect with someone who might be a mentor. I also got lucky along the way, creating exceptional friendships and finding not one, but two talented and wise advisors. But I know we don’t all have this luck. Some are still swimming in the ether or sinking in debt and writing assignments.

And here’s where GSAC might help. We’re a modge podge of individuals just like you, trying to do our best during grad school. We’re trying to connect with colleagues and mentors, find jobs, build research, and create a small space of humanity and connection within this remote and fairly private experience.

I’ve never even set foot on Kent State’s campus, have you?

Here is one place where you can connect with others to share stories, hopes, advice, knowledge, and experience. Meet experts in a comfortable setting to chat and ask real questions. Have someone with experience look over your resume/CV. Lift up others in this community to be the best that they can be.

You don’t have to. It’s hard being an introvert and being asked to share yourself. It’s tiring to be on the computer so much nowadays. It’s challenging to People when we’re out of practice.

You can be a fly on the wall, if you wish. Draw or play a game on your phone while listening to the conversations in your earbuds. I show up in my pajamas, camera off, with a drink in hand (tea, of course! Yeah, that’s right… TEA).

We’d LOVE for you to join and make these next few months, semesters, or years a little bit better. And maybe one day you’ll want to share something, too.

Please join me. Join us. Join GSAC. (Seriously, can’t there be a better name?)

Thanks for reading, friends. I hope to see your name pop up in one of our Zooms.

Heather Irvin Hauser
MLIS/MKM Representative

5 time management tips

As graduate students, there never seems to be enough time in the day to get everything done. Many of us have families and responsibilities beyond classes and coursework, and it seems we can never get ahead of the ever-growing list of tasks. Everyone manages their time differently, but here are five tips to get you started. 

to do list
  1. Use a To-Do List.
    To me, there is nothing more satisfying than marking off items from a to-do list. Seeing all that I’ve already accomplished gives me the motivation to continue on with other tasks. However, when you first start a to-do list, it can seem overwhelming. To avoid getting burned out before I even begin, I like to break my to-do lists up into shorter, more easily completed lists. If I need to do a lot of housework, I will write down everything I need to do in the kitchen, and then what needs to be done in the living room – making the large, Mount Everest sized to-do list of housekeeping into two shorter, much more manageable lists. 
  1. Plan Ahead.
    Planning ahead can be applied in most situations, from making lunches to working on projects. When planning ahead for classwork, I think about all of the steps I have to take to complete my work, and then do a few steps each day. For example, if I have a paper due in a week, I will take one day to find sources, then work on the introduction and body the next day, and then finish the conclusion and reference page. If I end up finishing ahead of schedule, great! And if I find that I have to push back on writing that conclusion a day later than planned, I’ve got the time to do so, and don’t have to worry about writing a 5-10 page paper in one night. 
  1. Use a Calendar.
    I know this is not an original tip, but I have found it to be the most helpful. Seeing my month on one page helps me to make my to-do lists, and plan out what I need to do and when. However, it is important to find a calendar that works for you. While I love my color-coded pens and endless pages of themed calendar pages, my roommate prefers to use TimeTree, an online calendar that has a connected app for the phone. In it, you can share your calendar with friends and also have more than one calendar set. My roommate has a “school” calendar, a “social” calendar, and a “personal” calendar to keep track of her time. 
  1. Take a Break.
    Especially when working on large projects, it is important to take small, frequent breaks, and to give yourself a moment to breathe. It can be very easy to hole yourself up in your workspace and try to get through a term paper in one sitting. Instead, work on one assignment for 20-30 minutes, and then take a 5 or 10-minute break. When I have a lot of projects due in the same week, I focus on one, then use my break time to unload the dishwasher or make my bed. It is important to move around and give your eyes a break from looking at the computer screen. 
  1. Do Bigger Tasks First.
    Do not fall into the trap of doing small projects before large ones. Instead, focus your attention and energy on that large project, whether it be the laundry that is slowly taking over your room or that paper that’s due in three days. You can do the smaller tasks after, with the knowledge that there is nothing major looming on the horizon. 

Don’t be afraid to experiment with time management tips, and remember that what works for one person does not always work for everyone. If you find that you cannot keep up with a calendar if your life depended on it, then don’t waste time trying to do so. Move on and try something else. Maybe a time management app or online calendar would be better suited for you. There are a thousand different ways to manage your time, you just have to find the one that works for you. Luckily, there are also a thousand different articles and blogs you can look through that all have great suggestions.

Here are five articles filled with great time management tips to get you started:

Forbes: Manipulate Time With These Powerful 20 Time Management Tips

Work Smarter, Not Harder

5 Essential Time Management Techniques 

5 Remarkably Easy Time Management Tips

Easy Time Management Tips

Surviving (and Thriving) as a Parent in Grad School

Not long after I graduated with my undergraduate degree, I began to get the itch to go back to school. The only problem was that I didn’t really know what I wanted to do, and for some reason my husband wasn’t on board with spending tens of thousands of dollars without a clear purpose!

Seven years and three children later, I’m finally pursuing an advanced degree, and let’s face it, grad school is no walk in the park. We all face our own challenges. As students with children, however, these challenges are a little more challenging.

Obviously there’s no one-size-fits-all technique for completing a graduate degree while parenting. Each student’s situation is unique. For my part, I occasionally do some freelance writing and proofreading, but my main gig is as a homeschool mom of three destructive darling boys who are at home with me 24/7. With some ADHD and autism added to the mix, our world is rarely boring.

As crazy as our house can get, through trial and error I’ve figured out some strategies over the last two semesters that have helped me not only survive grad school but also thrive while I’m at it. The following are all suggestions that have helped me. Feel free to take whatever works for you and make it your own!

Plan when and where you’ll work.

Have you ever heard the saying “Fail to plan and you plan to fail”? Well I don’t know about you, but it’s very true for me. Sure, I might get the important things done, but I’ll be super stressed about it and probably won’t do it well.

For my part, I require my boys to take a quiet time every afternoon. They think it’s an hour long, but it’s really an hour and a half. (Sidenote: I didn’t lie to them. I just never corrected their assumption!) They are in separate rooms, and I’m on the couch. It’s good for them to have time to play or read independently, but let’s be real. This time is for me. 

After taking care of my basic physical needs (power nap, anyone?) I get to work. This is when I get the bulk of my school work done.

I’ll often do some more work after the kids are in bed, but I’m also careful to reserve an evening or two to spend time with my husband. He’s kind of important to me!

Figure out what helps you focus.

Once you figure out when and where you’ll do your school work, figure out what helps you to focus. I like to make sure I have all of my stuff together at the beginning of a study session. I find it very irritating to get up when I just sat down. 

Some of the things I try to remember are my noise canceling headphones, a cup of water or tea, my Chromebook, and lapdesk. I also keep a sweater or blanket on hand in case I get cold.

I’ve also curated a playlist on Spotify called Study Playlist. I know, the originality of the title is astounding. Only soothing and/or inspiring instrumental pieces are allowed on this exclusive list.

Take the time to make a game plan.

Online classes are the best and the worst. I love the flexibility they offer, but they lack the structure that I desperately need. So I create my own. 

At the beginning of each week, before I tackle any course work, I review and write down all readings, lectures, and assignments for the module. It helps me to visually see in one place everything that needs to happen. I also get a small thrill from crossing things off of my list, but that’s a whole other discussion.

Once I have it all in front of me, I break up the work in chunks. I usually focus Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday for reading, Thursday for lectures, and assignments on Friday and Saturday. When everything goes according to plan, that leaves me Sunday to rest and be with my family. It sometimes actually happens!

Take care of yourself.

This really should be the most obvious point, but it unfortunately usually takes the back burner. Between children, work, school, and any other responsibilities you’ve taken on, adding one more thing to the list probably doesn’t sound feasible. The reality, however, is that you can’t afford to not take care of yourself.

Make sure you’re getting enough sleep to meet your personal needs. Eat foods that nourish your body and don’t just fill up space or give you a dopamine hit. Move your body to keep the blood flowing. And for the love of all that is holy, lay off the coffee! Caffeine doesn’t actually give you energy, it just blocks your brain from receiving the signal that you’re tired. This often leads to us pushing ourselves beyond our limits which makes us even more tired, creating a vicious cycle.

Graduate school is a daunting task for anyone. Whether you’re parenting a newborn or teenagers, working full-time or job hunting, you can figure out a way to make it work.