Tips on Performing a Literature Review

Focus on relevant journal papers, textbook chapters, and to a lesser extent conference papers. Odds are you will learn more of what you need for your research from these sources than your graduate classes. Textbooks tend to be more polished and vetted, but they usually offer less cutting-edge content. Of course, you may not need cutting-edge content, especially when building up your understanding of the fundamentals. Conference papers are the opposite: they tend to be the latest-and-greatest work in the research area, but typically they are less polished and verified via peer review. Journal papers are the optimal balance: good peer review (for a strong journal), and relatively state-of-the-art.

Build in reading time to your daily routine, at least 30 to 60 minutes per day. Your bus ride to campus is ideal, or some other consistent time in your day when reading is easier than actively working. Establishing this habit is invaluable: there will be days when you don’t feel like reading, but then find yourself engrossed after starting.

As you read, write notes to yourself: I find that digital notes in a PDF file on my phone work well to capture ideas and questions. I use the official Adobe Reader application because it allows easy note creation, but any other app that does the same should work well. Using my phone means I don’t have to print and haul a stack of paper everywhere I go, and I always have access to my notes and papers anywhere, anytime. Similarly, it is handy to keep a digital up-to-date list on your phone of papers you have read, you’re currently reading, and papers to read next. The queue of papers to read next should be listed in order of importance, which is likely to change frequently. Having the papers in a cloud-based folder accessible from your phone makes it easy to start reading anywhere, anytime. If you remain a fan of printed paper, perhaps because there is less risk of distractions, try to have the paper with you as much as possible.

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