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Avoid These 5 Literature Review Pitfalls | Issue 305

Summary: Proven tips to avoid five common pitfalls in writing the dissertation literature review.

Estimated read time: 5 minutes.


By Gayle Scroggs, PhD, PCC

Are you struggling with your dissertation literature review?

You are not alone. Given its length and importance, the literature review can challenge even the most determined doctoral student. But are you making it harder than it needs to be? Let us show you how to avoid these five common pitfalls:

1. Lack of clarity about the purpose and scope of the lit review
2. Failure to find sufficient relevant and reliable sources
3. Reading overwhelm & failure to organize materials
4. Limited higher-level thinking
5. Forgetting to follow academic conventions and standards

1. Lack of clarity about the purpose and scope of the literature review

Without understanding its purpose, students may include either too little or too much information. Some wait to begin it after settling on their research questions. The best practice is to delve into the literature at your earliest opportunity, reading widely before you choose a topic and formulate research questions. (Yes, this means you will read some works that you will never cite.)

Consider the lit review as a persuasive essay that justifies your research as worthy of a doctoral degree, not an encyclopedia on the topic. As such it serves as the backbone of your dissertation. It establishes your scholarly expertise in the area while demonstrating a "need to know" for your particular research questions. It must convince the reader that your proposed research questions are both (a) worthwhile and (b) solidly based on prior academic studies.


When you write, limit your discussion to the theories and variables that relate directly to your research questions. Keep them on hand to remind you. Resist temptations to pad your work with needless information just to show how much you learned. Offer just two or three good citations to support an assertion rather than every article you read on the topic. In short, be a rifle, not a shotgun.

2. Failure to find sufficient relevant and reliable sources


Your review should cover classic and recent publications. Your chair can advise you on a reasonable number of articles and books for your reference list.


Conduct a preliminary search using keywords related to your field of interest using online databases relevant to your field of inquiry. Your advisor or reference librarian can point you in the right direction. Google Scholar is free but not sufficient. You probably have access to others, e.g., PsycINFO and ProQuest, via your institution. Scan titles, abstracts, and keywords of sources that match your interests. Also note authors and journals that appear most frequently.


Let the university reference librarian become your secret weapon in widening or narrowing the scope of your search. As you clarify your research questions, do another search with any additional key terms that have emerged.


3. Reading overwhelm & failure to organize materials


A good search should turn up ample resources for you to read. Don't get dismayed by the sheer volume—no one expects you to read every single word. Instead hack each article by first reading the abstract, introduction, and conclusion to get an idea of its purpose and content. Then skim the headings and tables, focusing on keywords that relate to your topic and research question.

When you've identified a critical reference, go beyond merely highlighting passages. Take notes using this template or your own for later use in drafting your manuscript. Use your own words and include your own thoughts and questions—this gives you a jump start when you start writing.

There is no one best way to keep track of all your references. You may want to compare available reference management software, e.g., Zotero, Endnote, and Mendeley (in its new form). Many swear by Zotero, which is free to install with abundant video tutorials. Still others prefer to keep notecards or paper files organized by topic. What matters is finding a system that works for you and using it.

4. Limited higher-level thinking


Your writing must reflect a critical understanding of major theories and empirical findings. Do not make the mistake of merely regurgitating what prior scholars have published. You are expected to demonstrate an ability to analyze, critique, and synthesize material.

Dissertation advisors offer critical feedback in this regard—but do not expect them to teach you how to think and write. At the same time, do not beat yourself up if you fall short in this ability but take responsibility for honing your skills now. Take advantage of any assistance your university offers to improve your writing ability. Find peers or others you can trust for practice in discussing and critiquing ideas. Check these useful tips here based on Bloom's taxonomy for incorporating higher-level thinking in your work. Most of all, keep a growth mindset by focusing on improving your writing rather than proving yourself.

5. Forgetting to follow academic conventions and standards


If you struggle with academic writing, follow the advice above in finding assistance in developing your ability. Also, pay close attention to the writing styles and conventions in the academic journals and books that you read. Your writing should not be pretentious, but it should not be casual either.

Before you submit a draft to your advisor, take time to format it according to your department's requirements, e.g., APA or MLA, and proofread it carefully. Your advisor should not be expected to slog through careless prose, much less correct it. Writing aids such as Grammarly and Microsoft Editor will catch many errors. Qualified friends and others can also be recruited to copyread your drafts. You can also outsource the formatting and copyreading to a professional dissertation editor.

Take time to peruse some of your department's recent dissertations, taking note of format, style, length, etc. Reading them may also help you set reasonable expectations for your own performance. If you only read published works, you will probably place the bar far higher than it actually is.


Seasoned dissertation coaches offer two final tips that apply not only to the literature review but to your entire doctoral journey:

1. Back up your files. Do this regularly to avoid losing your hard work to a computer glitch. Save your work often and back it up the cloud (e.g., Google Drive or Microsoft OneDrive) or an external device such as a USB flash drive. Services such as IDrive or Carbonite automatically back up your computer files.

2. Get expert help as needed. For detailed help with the literature review and other chapters, consult The Dissertation Journey (Third Edition) by Carol Roberts and Laura Hyatt. These respected dissertation advisors have distilled expert advice to create a clear roadmap with handy checklists that will facilitate your best work and stave off anxiety. Think of it as the Lonely Planet Guide for the doctoral journey. If you get stuck, consider a dissertation coach who can help you leverage your strengths and cultivate success habits that will ramp up your progress and sense of inner peace.


Finally, be aware that even when you turn in good work, your advisor will likely ask for revisions. It is part of the apprenticeship process. Mine such feedback for gold to make your chapter shine. Once your literature review is complete and approved, you will be justifiably confident of yourself as a scholar and well on your way to finishing your doctoral degree.

Image Credit: Above Photo by Unknown Author is licensed under CC BY

Want someone in your corner? Request a free consultation from an ICF credentialed positive psychology dissertation coach. Start using science-based strategies that will take you to the PhD finish line and beyond! For Dr. Scroggs's free e-book of proven strategies for overcoming dissertation hurdles, click here.

An accomplished coach, workshop leader, keynote speaker, and educator, Gayle earned her doctorate in social psychology from the University of New Hampshire. Her deep expertise in positive psychology allows her to help clients build their personal strengths, positive habits, and confidence to overcome procrastination, self-doubts and other blocks in order to reach vital academic and personal goals. In addition to editing the ABD Survival Guide, she contributed two chapters to the positive psychology anthology, Women's Paths to Happiness. Contact her at for coaching, presentations, and workshops on thriving in graduate school and beyond, and find free resources

BEN DEAN, Publisher, ABDSG
Ben holds a Ph.D. in psychology from the University of Texas at Austin. He began writing the ABDSG in 1997. Over the years, the ABDSG has published hundreds of articles and provided thousands of hours of pro bono coaching and teleworkshops to ABDs all over the world. Ben is also the founder of MentorCoach (, a virtual university focused on training accomplished professionals to become part-time or full-time coaches. You may wish to subscribe to the Coaching Toward Happiness eNewsletter! It's on applying the science of Positive Psychology to your work and life (131,000 readers). Ben lives in suburban Maryland with his wife, Janice, their two children, and Dusty, their Norwegian dwarf bunny.



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