The second chapter of a PhD thesis proposal in most cases is the literature review. This article provides a practical guide on how to write chapter 2 of a PhD thesis.
The format for the literature review chapter is discussed below:
Introduction to the chapter
This section is about a paragraph-long and informs the readers on what the chapter will cover.
The theoretical review follows immediately after the introductory section of the chapter.
In this section, the student is expected to review the theories behind his/her topic under investigation. One should discuss who came up with the theory, the main arguments of the theory, and how the theory has been applied to study the problem under investigation.
A given topic may have several theories explaining it. The student should review all those theories but at the end mention the main theory that informs his study while giving justification for the selection of that theory.
Because of the existence of many theories and models developed by other researchers, the student is expected to do some comparative analysis of the theories and models that are applicable to his study.
After discussing the theories and models that inform your study, the student is expected to review empirical studies related to his problem under investigation. Empirical literature refers to original studies that have been done by other studies through data collection and analysis. The conclusions drawn from such studies are based on data rather than theories.
This section requires critical thinking and analysis rather than just stating what the authors did and what they found. The student is expected to critique the studies he is reviewing, while making reference to other similar studies and their findings.
For instance, if two studies on the same topic arrive at contrary conclusions, the student should be able to analyse why the conclusions are different: e.g. the population of study could be different, the methodology used could be different etc.
There are two ways of organising empirical literature: chronological and thematic:
Chronological organisation of empirical literature review
In this method, the empirical literature review is organised by date of publication, starting with the older literature to the most recent literature.
The advantage of using this method is that it shows how the state of knowledge of the problem under investigation has changed over time.
The disadvantage of chronological empirical review is that the flow of discussion is not smooth, because similar studies are discussed separately depending on when they were published.
Thematic organisation of empirical literature review
In this method, like studies are discussed together.
The studies are organised based on the variables of the study. Each variable has its own section for discussion. All studies that examined a variable are discussed together, highlighting the consensus amongst the studies, as well as the points of disagreement.
The advantage of this method is that it creates a smooth flow of discussion of the literature. It also makes it easier to identify the research gaps in each variable under investigation.
While the choice between chronological and thematic empirical review varies from one institution to another, the thematic synthesis is most preferred especially for PhD-level programs.
After the theoretical and empirical review, the student is expected to develop his own conceptual framework. A conceptual framework is a diagrammatic presentation of the variables of a study and the relationship between those variables.
Developing a conceptual framework
The conceptual framework is informed by the literature review. Developing a conceptual framework involves three main steps:
- Identify all the variables that will be analysed in your study.
- Specify the relationship between the variables, as informed by the literature review.
- Draw a diagram with the variables and the relationship between them.
The main purpose of conducting literature review is to document what is known and what is not known.
Research gaps are what is not yet known about the topic under investigation.
Your contribution to knowledge will come from addressing what is not yet known.
It is therefore important for PhD students to first review existing literature for their area of study before settling on the final topic.
Additionally, when reviewing literature, the student should review all of the most recent studies to avoid duplicating efforts. Originality is important especially for PhD studies.
There are different types of research gaps:
- Gaps in concepts or variables studied e.g. most studies on maternal health focus on pregnancy and delivery but not on post-partum period. So you conduct a study focusing on the post-partum period.
- Gaps in scope of study. These can be:
- Geographical coverage: rural vs. urban or rural vs. urban slums; developed vs. developing countries etc
- Time: past vs. recent
- Demographics: middle class vs. poor communities; males vs. females; educated vs. uneducated etc
- Gaps in research methodology. These can be:
- Research design: quantitative vs. qualitative or mixed methods
- Data collection: questionnaires vs. interviews and focus group discussions
- Data analysis techniques: descriptive vs. inferential statistics etc
Final thoughts on how to write chapter 2 of a PhD thesis proposal
This article provided some guidance on how to write chapter 2 of a PhD thesis proposal as well as the format expected of the chapter by many institutions. The format may vary though and students are advised to refer to the dissertation guidelines of their institutions. Writing the literature review chapter can be the most daunting task of a PhD thesis proposal because it informs chapter 1 of the proposal. For instance, writing the contribution to knowledge section of chapter 1 requires the student to have read and reviewed many articles.