MSc: "So, You Have to Write a Literature Review"


The end-game of my MSc is almost in sight! I've written up 6 assignments. Now all I need to do is write a 10,000 word dissertation in the form of a Major Project Report.

Oh, and go through an End-Point-Assessment with my portfolio to make sure I actually know what I'm talking about.

But, back to the report. I need to write a 1,000 word literature review. The only problem is… I've never done one of those before!

Sadly, my MSc provider aren't particularly proactive in providing resources to students - so I started looking for something to help me. I stumbled across the book "So, You Have to Write a Literature Review: A Guided Workbook for Engineers" by Berdanier & Lenart.

It's a fun and friendly book - and reasonably short! It presents a series of exercises to go through for conducting a literature review, with separate pathways for those doing multi-month reviews for their PhDs & those of us attempting something a little less ambitious.

This book is absolutely excellent. It helped me immeasurably. Every step was useful, the advice was reassuring, and it gave me several practical actions to take.

I 100% recommend it to anyone writing a literature review.


The authors encourage users of the book to scribble notes to themselves - so that's what I'm doing in the rest of this blog post.

Activity 1.1 Brainstorm Your Thoughts on Writing

Spend some time reflecting on the following questions: How do you feel about writing? Have you had positive experiences with writing? Negative experiences? What made those experiences bad? What writing-related anxiety do you bring into the present writing experience?

I enjoy writing. Well, I enjoy blogging. I like crafting a series of statements and refining them. My writing for academic assignments is a lot more formulaic. I find that frustrating. I also dislike being hemmed in by a word-count. I find that rigid and constricting. I'd much rather write where my mind takes me. Despite that, I've received good marks for my previous essays - so I'm obviously doing something right. Similarly, my blog posts can be pretty popular. That's either a sign of good writing, being in the Zeitgeist, of my tendency to be deliberately inflammatory. I quite often write what I feel - which isn't very polite. I then edit it down - usually after the good counsel of my wife.

I don't think I have any specific anxiety about writing. I mostly want to make sure that I can fit my argument into a brief word count. I worry that without room to expand example and provide counter-examples, I won't be able to sufficiently make a convincing case. Very occasionally I have a bit of writers'-block - but I find writing any old nonsense helps shake that away.

I think I'm looking forward to writing up this dissertation. It will be a lot less repetitive than other things I've written (another bugbear).

Activity 1.2

Develop Your Plan for Writing and Accountability
1) What is your goal? Why are you writing a literature review? What is the venue?

My goal is to write 1,000 words of adequate literature review. I genuinely want to review what other people have done. I want to learn from their mistakes and hope that I can learn something useful. I will be writing in my home office. Mostly. Occasionally on the sofa if I'm tired from standing.

2) When will you write?

I usually have Wednesdays as an OTJ day. I also tend to work on Sundays as well.

3) What are your strategies for writing accountability? Who can you reach out to as an Accountability Partner or to develop a Shut Up & Write group?

My long-suffering, and delightfully patient wife will be my accountability partner. I'll also use the student Discord server to let people know what I'm doing. I'll see if anyone else wants to "shut up and write".

But, ultimately, I'm accountable to myself.

4) What happens if you start to fall off your writing plan?

Fuck… Errr… Panic? My algorithm for writing is pretty good. I just need to repeatedly go back to that. I usually find I write too much. So I will try to front-load what I write.

Activity 3.2 Determine a Naming Convention for Your Literature

How do you want your literature arranged when you open your digital file folder?

If it were in a folder, YYYY Keyword1, Keyword2, Title. I don't think I care about the author. But I anticipate putting my reading into Zotero.

2) What information is most necessary for you to remember about each article?

A short description of what things it covers.

3) Does your advisor have a preferred file naming convention?

TBD.

4) Is there information that you would prefer to have in a different case (e.g. all caps) to separate it from other pieces of information?

Nope. Well, maybe "TO READ" or similar?

5) What file naming convention best fits the answers to the above questions?

Metadata at the start is generally useful. That can include keywords or notes.

6) What benefits does your chosen convention offer to you with respect to how you remember information?

Author isn't important. Most text can be grep'd, so a summary is most important.

7) Are there any downsides to this convention? If so, tweak your convention to mitigate these if possible.

Basically having anything is a file-system is a problem. Blockchain Zotero fixes this.

8) How will you organize your literature in digital folders?

In folders, I'd probable have a different folder for each "theme". But I'll probably settle on a folksonomy.

Activity 3.3

Select a Reference Manage

Zotero! I've been using it throughout this MSc. I'm aware that I haven't unlocked the full potential of it. So I should probably work out what things I'm missing.

Activity 3.4 Articulate Keywords and Main Players

1) What keywords might I use to begin to search databases for literature related to my project? (Consider both topics and methodological approaches.)

VR, metaverse, tree data structures, visualisation, security visualisations - things like that.

2) Am I aware of any “main players” or primary scholars who research in this space? (Your advisor may be one of these main players, and she or he, or a more experienced grad student in your group, can recommend others.)

Nope! And, sadly, the way QA have set up their MSc means that I get a generic academic supervisor. She's excellent - but not an expert in this subject.

Activity 3.5 Generate and Save Your First Batch of Literature

Search the keyword terms and/or researchers you have generated above. Open as many articles as you deem relevant – this is not the time to read them, though. Resist the temptation to read! If the title seems to be relevant to your particular literature review, open it, and then continue to find more literature.
...
If the article is somehow not at all related to your search terms, close that article without saving it. However, if you judge the article to be relevant to your project, proceed to save the article in the naming convention you already selected.

This is a good exercise! Helped me find a ton of stuff.

Activity 3.6 But Professor, How Many References Do I Have to Have?

Open about 10 articles that mimic the venue for which you are writing. ... If you are writing master’s thesis or dissertation, look at past theses or dissertations from your research group.

Again, QA really hate the idea of sharing past work with us. It's a real weakness of their approach.

The rest of the book continues in this vein. By this point, I'd written enough of a literature review for my academic advisor to sign off.

I kept reading out of interest. I've no idea if it'll be useful in the future, but I certainly found it handy for my MSc.


One thought on “MSc: "So, You Have to Write a Literature Review"

  1. I suspect "What is the venue?" refers to the journal (or wherever) where the literature review will be published.

    But thank for your the laugh.

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