PhD Journey #1 – Literature Review Buckaroo

You remember Buckaroo, right? The game where you pile a series of unrelated and nonsensical items onto the back of a stubborn, uncooperative mule until, at an arbitrary point, it kicks off and sends said items flying, inevitably smacking you in the eye with a plastic approximation of a suitcase and making you cry?

Yes, that’s just like doing a literature review.

You know your subject (maybe). You can do some digging and read around the main topic. Other peripheral topics might present themselves to you as you go along – suddenly you’ve laid out a career in postdoctoral research all because of that one paper you read that’s made your own research seem like a primary school geography project in comparison. There are days when you bask in your knew found knowledge and the burgeoning body of evidence you have in support of your Big Ideas. You revel in taking apart an article that opposes your view. You delight in finding an entire journal edition dedicated to your topic. You gleefully line up a mass of internet tabs, all waiting in a line to be devoured.

But then you have those other days. The ones where you’re trying to force the square peg of a paper way outside your specialism into the round hole of your existing mindset, and it’s giving you the mother of all migraines. When you read a paper written in the early part of the 20th century and you can feel your eyeballs drooping out of their sockets from trying not to skim over the difficult prose and poor typesetting. When you’ve read four papers today and none of them are relevant so they contribute sweet Fanny Adams to your bibliography. When you start laying into a paper only to feel the creeping paranoia of imagining this individual being in on you VIVA, or worse, on the panel for your postdoc interview.

You build a monumental haystack of papers, and chuck them at the stubborn mule that is your draft literature review. You re-read what you wrote in the small hours of yesterday morning and realise it’s full of run on sentences that make Mrs Dalloway seem like a light read. You hastily add papers you’re fairly sure you’ve got the gist of, then panic that you’re misunderstood and you’ll look like a complete plank when your supervisor gets the red pen of doom out and goes “rethink this” in little cross letters.

How did it actually go? In the end the above worries were pointless as my draft literature review got a clean bill of health and only suggestions for more topics to add, rather than “rewrite this bloody nonsense”, so I can go and develop some different neuroses about my academic performance instead.

My top tips:

  • Read outside your comfort zone – get into other fields, translate articles (even just with Google translate), go off on tangents.
  • Enjoy exploring the landscape – find hilarious academic spats, the pained retractions, the grudging admissions of respect, the fascinating new research, the hidden gems of half-forgotten studies. A literature review is a treasure hunt.
  • Set targets and stick to them (flexibly) – I decided I would read 3 papers a day and add at least 350 words a day in the first 4 weeks, just to get into the swing of things. Some days I’d do 700, some only a few, if I was tweaking what had gone before. Targets should be an inspiration, not a punishment.
  • Allow yourself to go down the rabbit hole – I found some truly fascinating journals during this initial research stage, and now I save articles from them for a “treat” if I’m a good archaeologist.
  • Never be afraid to say “I need help” – ask anyone and everyone for leads on a good article. It not only gets you some quality reading material but also gets your face about as “someone who shares the good stuff”.

Now, onto the methodology, in which my prototype colour sensor does not behave itself.

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