The Literature Review in the Master’s Dissertation

The Literature Review in the Master’s Dissertation. The review is a fundamental requirement to meet the ‘Mastery of Knowledge’ as dictated by the Quality Assurance Agency. I noted the requirements for the literature review in a video of the QAA requirements, and again when I mentioned the three essential elements of a dissertation.

Here is a short video clip on the content and structure used when writing a literature review.

How do I Write a Literature Review?

What is a literature review and how do I write it? What is the template for a literature review? Many students ask these questions. I think a better approach is to understand what the requirements from the literature review actually are. However, since these are common questions, I will provide a general structure for writing a literature review:

  • Start from a general and background point of view to set your research into a context
  • Make sure that the topics suggested in your research title are present in the literature review
    • Expand or outline these topics into main headings and sub-headings
  • Look at definitions and theories initially
  • Use books initially, starting from past experts moving towards the current day
  • State the views of various authors (experts) and look for differences that can be discussed
  • Find out who the professional bodies are (corporate experts) and quote them
  • Move from definitions to look at different approaches or applications in your subject area
  • Change to using journal articles and conference papers as you move towards a deeper specific technical area
  • Check that you are using the latest editions of books. Make sure most of your references are in the past 5-10 years
  • Ensure that what you are writing meets your objectives (or change the objectives)

Having outlined a structure, we will now look more deeply at some of those topics.

What is the Literature Review?

The Literature Review in the Master’s Dissertation should be a critical evaluation of the existing literature. Not merely a statement of what various authors say on a subject. However, this is a good place to start. Look at what various authors have to say regarding:

  • Definitions
  • Theories
  • Important Topics

If you are really lucky, the authors will disagree or certainly slightly differ from each other. This provides the student with something to discuss and debate later in the dissertation. At this point stating the differences is sufficient. Eventually, after looking at several authors views (all cited) you will be able to state your own definitions or opinions based on the researched literature.

Experts in the Field

The literature review should demonstrate that you know who are the experts in your field of research. Look at the appropriate professional bodies for their views to supplement the various authors. You also need to demonstrate an understanding of the current status of research in your subject. So, use the current experts to help you define what the current thinking is.



References dated prior to 2010 are to be avoided, these are already well over 10 years old. Look to use references and citations from the last 5 years.  Make sure that there are some very recent citations in your literature review. Do remember that books can take around 2 years to get to publication, so any books dated 5 years ago are really 7 years old. After establishing some foundation knowledge with books, move onto journal articles and conference papers. These are usually published every 2-4 months or so, and are far more modern reference sources than books.

You will need to identify the relevant journals and conferences for your research area. When you have found these, read a few papers and see which authors are being cited all of the time. It is not just finding a good article that is important. Rather it is ‘mining the references’ used in that journal article, and this opens up avenues for new material for your literature review.



Sometimes the giants of your discipline laid down some theories that are unchanged for 10-50 years or more. If your references are from these experts and they are from the 1950’s, this is OK. However, back them up with a confirmation that they are still true and valid from an author in the recent era (past 5 years).

As you browse the library (electronically) for books, note the edition number and publication date. A quick look at Amazon or similar will tell you if there is a later/newer edition, which may contain the same information, but with a far later (more recent) citation date. So please do use latest version of the books that are available to you.

Finally, the literature will need to conclude with the potential future direction of research in your research area.

Broad to Specific

When demonstrating your knowledge in the literature review, you need to set your literature review in context. So, start with a broad outline of the subject area before moving into any specific detail. You will certainly need to demonstrate knowledge of specific detail to demonstrate mastery of your subject area. This is why the project title needs to be detailed rather than general.

The Dissertation Title Suggests the Literature Review Content

At the start of the research project, the student will work on developing their Title, Aims, and Objectives. Following that they will start to collect literature on their research topic. At this point I will refer the students back to their titles to identify what topics must appear in the literature review chapter.

It is surprising how many times I point out that the title is about e.g. “automotive” and that there is no background to the automotive industry in the literature review. Therefore I recommend that you review the research title and note the areas that any reader (second marker?) will be expecting to find in the literature review.

Make Notes for Later Chapters

Work concurrently. As you discover the issues, differences, and limitations when your write the literature review, do make notes in the future chapters and sections to build on at a later date. You will get many ideas and thoughts for the later chapters including:

  • Discussion points
  • Limitations
  • Recommendations and
  • Further research required

So it is a good idea to make a note in the relevant chapter at this point so that this issue can be discussed further.

Check Your Objectives

Finally, do refer back to your objectives frequently. It is very easy to get carried away writing in depth on various topics, but are you meeting your research objectives? Do the objectives need to change to match the interesting new direction of your research? Does the content you are writing about add value to the argument contained in your dissertation?

In summary, the Literature Review in the Master’s Dissertation is a critical evaluation of the past and current literature. Use modern citations, and the latest authors. Suggest where the research is going, and make sure that the review matches the research title. Remember to add notes into later chapters, and always keep an eye on your objectives.

Edit September 2019:

The legitimacy of sources is also important. Sources that a ‘peer reviewed’ by experts are better than a book. Websites (including this one!) can publish anything without review, and are not good for basic information, although they may contain the latest information. If using websites use trustworthy and independent sources (BBC, Trade bodies, Professional bodies) rather than company websites (and never Wikipedia!).

Posted On: 30th September 2017

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