practical phd

a transparent source for all things PhD

One of the biggest black holes to fall into during the research process is the literature review.  This is particularly true early in your career when it’s easy to feel like you’re not yet an expert in a substantive area.  No matter how much you read, there is always more to read.  So when should you read?  When should you stop reading?  Below is my answer to these questions for those of you who find yourself drowning in the prior literature.  

When Should You Read?

I firmly believe that project specific reading is most useful at the beginning and the end of an empirical project.  Project specific reading is not the same as reading to keep up with the literature, which is a different type of reading with a different purpose that requires different strategies.  

At the beginning of a research project, you should read to justify your project.  This means reading the prior literature to ensure there is “space” for your intervention.  By space, I mean that your study will contribute to the field in some way. This may be a theoretical intervention such as bridging two literatures that aren’t in conversation.  But it could be an empirical contribution such as studying a new case or comparing two or more types of cases that few have studied or compared. During this process, you may find that someone has already done something you thought was a novel contribution.  Don’t be discouraged! There is no original thought left that no one had ever studied. BUT there is almost always a new angle on an old topic. So even if you find that someone has done something similar already, you can still demonstrate space for your study by demonstrating that there isn’t overcrowding in that areas.  The goal of reading at this point in the process is to make sure you have enough information about the prior literature to position yourself in the debates already underway. For grad students, this type of reading is the foundation for your prospectus or proposal. However, this does not mean you have to read each and every potentially relevant article and book ever published.  It means you need to read enough (more on this below) before moving onto implementing the study.  

Once you’ve conducted your study and analyzed the data, you’ll want to come back to the literature to connect the main argument of the paper, chapter, dissertation, or book that you’re writing with some broader literature(s).  At this point in the process, don’t be surprised if the literature you read to justify the study no longer fits the project. Oftentimes the literature about the case you are studying still applies, but you might need a new literature to explain how a specific finding that you present in an article or chapter is a contribution to the literature.  Don’t force a literature to fit if it’s not working in what you’re writing!  

Let me give you a brief example from my own work.  As I wrote my dissertation prospectus, I read to be certain there was space for a study of media representations of gentrification that focused on connections with Americans’ racial stereotypes of neighborhoods.  So I read studies of and summaries of the literature on gentrification, as well as studies at the intersection of media or cultural sociology and urban sociology. This reading let me identify that even though there is a theory about how the media contributes to urban development (the urban growth machine from Logan and Molotch), most empirical studies investigating that theory have focused on the role of politicians and corporations rather than the media.  There is a small literature about media and gentrification, but race is not a central focus in the analysis in most of those studies. “Enough” for my prospectus was being able to write about 9 pages double spaced about the prior literature and referencing about 50 books and articles. That was also “enough” to convince my committee that the study was worth pursuing.  

Once I had identified the key findings for each of my empirical chapters, I returned to the literature to identify new readings.  The reading I had done for my prospectus about the literature on gentrification and studies of media/culture in urban sociology was still relevant, but I realized I needed to move beyond the urban literature to justify the study by bringing in literature on culture and media sociology.  I also found that each chapter needed some new literature. For instance, I added the (e)valuation literature from cultural and economic sociology to a chapter about the news media’s descriptions of the benefits and drawbacks of gentrification, which I hadn’t engaged with previously. Once I knew what the main findings were for each chapter, I was able to see which additional literatures I needed to situate my study and findings.  

When Should You Stop Reading?

So when do you know that you’ve read “enough”?  Unfortunately, there’s no set number of references or pages of reading.  BUT you will know when to stop by assessing whether you can write a well cited argument.  The easiest way to do this is to start formulating and writing your argument about the prior literature, which is often called the literature review section of a paper or chapter.  Try it on in a memo or an outline or a free write, but add in citations so that you can see where your have holes that indicate that you might need to read more. Keep in mind however that holes don’t necessarily mean that you missed something.  Holes can mean that there’s a gap in the literature, so be ready to prove to yourself that you have looked thoroughly for information that would fit there and that you didn’t find it.  

If you decide you need to read more, that doesn’t mean doing another deep dive into anything and everything.  Reading more means doing a targeted search to find additional citations and to fact check your assumptions.  In fact, I often start with the references from a source I’ve cited and the works that cite that source.  On Google Scholar, you can get a list of sources that cite a work and then search within that list. So, for example, when I thought there was not a lot of literature using the growth machine theory that focused on the media, I used this function of Google Scholar to search for other works that investigated the media side of the theory within those that cited Logan and Molotch’s book.  

Reading is a really easy source of productive procrastination.  You can almost always find more to read and it’s easy to use the excuse of “needing” to read more to prevent you from moving forward with data collection, analysis, and writing.  If you find that this is true for how you have engaged in the reading tasks of research, set limits to how much you will read or deadlines for when you will stop to push yourself past the black hole of reading.  Unless someone (like a committee member) is telling you that you have to read more to get their approval on your prospectus, move forward. There’s always an opportunity to do more informed reading later.  

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