Two Ways to Do a Literature Review

In any research project, it is when to do the literature review which I think receives the least careful consideration, and yet, THAT may be a critical question you have not have even considered. Why not?! Because the process of dissertation research is so well defined and codified – there is no thought of questioning it!

When during the research process should that review be done?

It’s got to be very carefully thought out because, how you answer that question can make the difference between “doing” a dissertation, and writing a quality dissertation that will make a contribution to the field of study and to your career. That timing may help you consider the literature review as more than a required step in a process and may help you to get greater value out of doing that required process.


The Scientific Method
The basis for all research is an understanding of the essential starting point – the scientific method. You may know something about this, but don’t skip reading this, it may help you realize and capture an opportunity you may miss.

The steps in the scientific method are:

  1. Define the problem;
  2. Collect information about the problem;
  3. Form an hypothesis;
  4. Test the hypothesis;
  5. Reach and report on conclusions about the hypothesis.

How the Literature Review Fits into the Scientific Method
Step 1, defining the problem, serves to make the remaining steps more focused and more useful.

It is step #2 – “Collect information about the problem”, which is the focus of this article, because step 2 is the literature review.

Step 2 helps the researcher to avoid duplication of prior research and, therefore, to avoid making no contribution to the knowledge base in the field.

It also helps you transform the hypothesis from a blind guess into an educated guess. The hypothesis is formed to test out a natural and logical inference or next step in extending the current knowledge base. What happens in our thinking is something like, “Well, if that (the current knowledge base) is true, then I bet that (the hypothesis) will also be true.”

How the Literature Review Can Really Help
Careful work at step two helps you and  it helps your research in several ways:

1. It helps you to gain a broad view of what the prior research can tell us about the topic. That can help you find the gaps in that knowledge.

2. It also gives you a deep understanding of the current knowledge base in the topic. This is very helpful because that depth allows you to internalize the concepts, principles, and theories to the extent that you don’t just “know about” it. Instead, you really “KNOW” it. That gives you expertise, confidence, and the ability to make connections and inferences – very good stuff for a researcher at that point in the process.

3. That understanding of the current knowledge base can guide you to selecting a topic for research for which a contribution is really needed, a contribution that can deliver career benefits for you.

Without a solid literature review, those three benefits are not likely to be provided for you or the field of inquiry. WITH this understanding, you can complete a required dissertation step, AND gain personal benefits, AND deliver benefits to your chosen discipline. It really is worth doing it right.

Options – The Goals of the Literature Review

Option One
One way to frame the literature review is to think of the review as the step needed to discover the topic in mentoring for which there is a lack of research-based knowledge and a great need for guidance. If you really want your dissertation to make a significant contribution to the field of mentoring it should address these two issues (a gap in research and a great need for guidance).

A. This concept of the literature review would lead you to temporarily skip the first step in the scientific method (define the problem) and to first do a broad examination of what is and is not known, probably across the entire mentoring field.  In other words, after searching the literature across the entire field of mentoring, you will know what topics are not adequately addressed (a problem) and, of these, which also really needs to be addressed. For example, let’s say that you discover that there is little research about two topics.

  1. The contents of an effective mentor training;
  2. The relationship between mentor training and the defined roles and tasks of effective mentors.

B. The next question (need?) is, which topic would make a better contribution?

There is clearly a need for guidance in the content of mentor training, but mentor training topics might need to vary depending on how a program defines what it is that effective mentors need to be able to do. This is a more strategic way of thinking. In other words, what are we training mentors to do and why?  How will mentor training help mentors deliver progress on the mentoring program goals?

For example, if mentors must facilitate protégé self-assessment, goals setting, and professional development planning, the mentor training will look very different than that done in a program which defines the mentoring focus as supporting and challenging protégés to implement in their daily practice the things they have been learning in other training.

Given these ideas, it seems that a better understanding and defining of the link between mentoring roles and tasks and the mentor training is a prerequisite to designing an effective mentor training. In other words, the first is a more critical need than the second topic and a study that provided guidance on that would make a bigger contribution.

C. One last issue with this method – This use of the literature review makes a great contribution, but regarding the scientific method, it places step one before step two. It uses the literature review to define the problem for study. This is critical since, therein lies the potential for this method’s contribution. It ensures that the topic of study is not just a point of personal curiosity, but is also an area of great need in the field.

Think about it.

Option Two

This approach to use of the literature review is the more traditional because it keeps the sequence of steps in the scientific method in the “right” order. In this case, you would start with a well defined problem statement. then use that to narrow the focus of the literature review to just the prior research on that problem. It sounds so logical.

The problem with defining the problem before the literature review is that this makes it possible that you may then do the review, only to discover the problem is already well researched and there is little need to study it some more. Now you have wasted that time in the literature review, and you may need to do another review on a different problem.

Perhaps you’ll be lucky and find a problem in that review that allows you to use the review anyway. But think about it.  What you then have done is to put the literature review before the definition of the problem again, just as option one suggests.


Hence, we suggest the best method for planning a literature review is Option One.