Why you can and you should make a contribution to your field

Is the literature review just an exercise? Is it something we have to do in order to receive our doctorate or another paper on the CV?

Sure. It could be. I think the literature review for my thesis was like this. But you know what? These are incredibly hard lit reviews to write.

On the contrary. If we feel like we’re making a valuable contribution to our field then we can feel proud of the work we are doing and it becomes matter of personal and professional pride to complete it and complete it well. As motivational factors go, pride works well for most people.

But how is this possible? We don’t have so much flexibility right? And there is already so much work out there? The thing is the more research that is done, the more possibilities we have to be creative.

The literature is like the exponentially growing branches of a huge tree. This is why it often feels unmanageable. However, the sheer volume of literature growing in every direction gives us a huge number of options. The thing we have to do when we’re starting out is to find something that matters. To find something inspiring.

The way you start is easy. You just step away from your computer and think. What do you need to know? What do you desperately want to know? What do you think the world should know?

Then go back to the computer and look for it.

There is a slim chance that you will find exactly what you are looking for which means you’ll have to start thinking again, but I doubt there is only one cool thing you’d like to explore within your subject right?

However, the odds are stacked against you finding exactly what you asked for, you’re more likely to find pieces of a puzzle i.e. the beginning of your literature review.

So as you systematically go through the literature you pick up the pieces of your inspirational story. You check it to see what other people are actually telling you about it. It’s like you’re gathering evidence from witnesses to solve a case. All the time you’re checking to where the facts are pointing, and being careful not to bias the results.

At the end of the literature review, you’ll be thinking wow! This is a cool research are I work in. People have done so much cool work. But there is so much more to do.

As in the tree analogy, the more branches that grow, the more that can come later one. It’s the same in research, every time we answer a question we ask 20 more. There is really no need to be competitive or dull in your work, there’s plenty of interesting research to go around.

So if you’re feeling a bit jaded by your literature review project, look at the direction you chose, given the multiple different paths you could have chosen. Think to yourself, is there anyway I can put this literature review on a different path, on a path that really matters to me and to other people in the world. Can I make a contribution. Can I imagine a grad student halfway round the world picking up my research paper and thinking “wow”.

If you can’t, change that today. There is no excuses. Go out and look for the threads and themes in your literature review that are important and inspiring and follow them.


  1. Keith says

    Great reminder to keep grounded on why we want to research our area and interests – to advance our profession!

    • says

      Yes Keith, it can be easy to lose track of this – I know I did. It’s only in hindsight that I really appreciate it so I always try and remind myself how important it is.

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