A literature review now? At this stage?

Next week is my Annual Progress Review. I feel pretty confident despite the fact that, at first sight, it looks like I have taken a step backwards in my research. I suppose that is okay, and it happens to everybody. I am preparing a presentation for it, and I expect the panel to come up with the million dollar question: “What are you working on right now?”. And the honest answer to that is “I am rewriting a complete chapter that will NOT make it into the final thesis, and a literature review”.

A literature review, you say? But are you not in second-to-third year?

It is odd, isn’t it? The common perception is that a Literature Review gets ‘done’ and written at the very beginning. In my College, it is one of the requirements for passing your first year annual review. So it’s okay to wonder if telling the panel that I am writing a literature review at the moment will make them go “hummm, really?” and raise questions about my research. I am ready.

There are several ways to see it, I believe. Writing a literature review is never easy, and since it is meant to help you ‘locate’ yourself within the research, that doesn’t necessarily mean you will ‘find’ yourself whilst doing it. It is particularly daunting at the very beginning, because the amount of sources to deal with and the absolute zero knowledge on how to go about it are an additional burden in my opinion. That doesn’t mean I am finding the task less of a burden now, but I reckon I have a slight sense of perspective of how things work in my field to have a hint of confidence that the lit review is going to work out for me.

Because of the rationale behind doing this review, doing a lit review half way through your PhD might appear like a step backwards. In a sense, this is true. Having to locate yourself within the research in order to do more research is going backwards. However, it is not going backwards for the sake of it; it’s one or two steps back in order to take a few further steps forward. I have changed the focus of my PhD. It’s the same sort of topic, and the same sort of area, but there are many blank spaces to fill that I could only possibly address by going back to a lit review. So whilst it is happening at an odd time, it is the right time from a general perspective.

Whilst writing this review, I have found that some things are made easier by the fact that I am doing this so late into my PhD. First of all, I have previous experience of doing one. It was not a very good one, but it was still a lit review, so I have the knowledge of how it feels to ‘locate’ yourself within the field. I also know how not to do it, since my first attempt was only mildly successful, and I have read a lot about how to improve this. The best point though is the ease to find yourself compared to doing a lit review at the very beginning. I know how the field roughly looks like – all I need to do is fill in the blank spaces. I can tell by the quick review of an article whether it is relevant and its degree of relevance towards my research. And I can understand where other scholars are coming from when establishing their knowledge of the field. I can see how every source is set around my contribution, and how my contribution fits within the wider framework. And that is a feeling that you don’t get at the beginning.

Speaking to my supervisor about this, she argued that lit reviewing is something that needs to occur throughout the research, one way or another, to keep up with the development of the field over the four years of research. It is a very valid point. She also agrees that the process of establishing my voice within the field at this point in time is better than never really finding your niche. This is all great news – at the end of the day, if your supervisors have your back, you’re good to go.

So whilst it may still be hard to argue to the Annual Progress Review panel why doing a new lit review is important, the sense of clarity I have at the moment is something I would not change for, say having a few obscure chapters written. Changing the focus of my research meant stepping away from not knowing where I was going (whilst having written over 40k words) to knowing exactly how I want every piece of my thesis to work, albeit with only about 5,000 words in the bank. It is a risk I am glad I took. And I am confident the panel will see it that way too.


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