Writing a Thesis #4: Gathering the Literature

So far, we’ve covered three critical steps to writing a master’s thesis in this series: picking a topic, selecting an advisory committee, and utilizing your classes. In this post, I’ll offer advice for gathering literature for your thesis.

Writing Thesis 4When starting a review of scholarly literature, a comment from my media theory professor always comes to mind: “I want you to be swimming in it.” Of course, once you plunge into the volumes of literature on a topic, it becomes easy to extend the metaphor to “drowning” in it. If you’re starting a literature review for your master’s thesis, consider this post to be a life preserver.

The “literature” refers to all scholarly articles, books, and other publications on a topic. Chances are, researchers and scholars have published work on your thesis topic. Remember, a good study builds upon past research, so you need to know what’s out there on your topic before you conduct your own research. Wading through the sea of articles can be a daunting task, so here are some tips for making the process go more smoothly.

Start With What You Have

Writing Thesis 4If you’ve managed to pick a topic early and utilize your classes to develop your thesis, then you already have a body of literature on your topic. Look through past papers to see what’s still relevant and useful. Avoid the temptation to simply plug in big sections of old papers unless they truly fit, but at the very least, you have partial sections written and a firm grasp of theories and concepts that relate to your topic.

Talk to Your Advisory Committee

These individuals should know a lot about your topic. If you ever feel awash in information, ask them to help you sort through it. They are likely familiar with scholars in your field whose work you should read, if you haven’t already. For example, my outside committee member in natural resources recommended a study that has become crucial for my research. Since my topic is often buried in seemingly irrelevant articles, I may not have found this critical study if not for her knowledge of the literature.

Utilize Library Resources

As an online or distance student, you have access to CSU Libraries. Check out the homepage for distance users and don’t be afraid to contact the librarians for help. They are masters at searching databases and can save you from wasting hours – even days – sifting through articles and books.

Refer to Reference Sections

Writing Thesis 4A professor once told me that pilfering the reference sections of scholarly articles is a “dirty little secret” of academic research. In other words, let others do the work for you. While you can’t rely on reference sections to reveal all of the relevant literature on your topic, they can be handy resources for guiding you toward useful articles or the names of other scholars. Besides, reading the work that spawned studies that inform your own only helps you understand and build upon past research. But you must always, always take the time to find and read articles cited by others and then cite sources appropriately in your own work.

Know When to Say When

This is much easier said than done. At a certain point, you have to be satisfied with the literature you have and make peace with what you don’t. With your thesis, you’re joining a conversation among scholars about your topic, and there can be only so many voices in the room. When to call it good is up to you … and hopefully this post helps you get to that point more quickly.

If you’d like to read more about gathering literature, many universities and colleges have posted guides for this. After a review of literature reviews, I’d start with these two resources:

If you have tips for gathering literature, leave a comment below. Good luck on your review!


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