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How to Write a Systematic Literature Review for Your PhD?


Students enrolled in a PhD are expected to produce compelling literature reviews. This is because such reviews are a key component of the studies that they undertake. A good literature review allows students to build a strong understanding of the topic while also making sure that they are familiar with the results obtained by others. In order to write a compelling literature review, it is extremely important that students choose the right methodology. This is where they can choose to adopt a systematic literature review approach, which is based on pre-specified techniques, in contrast to a regular literature review. This article will help you in understanding how to write a systematic literature review for your PhD.

Systematic Literature Review

A systematic literature review can be defined as a process under which a body of literature is framed by making use of standardised techniques. This type of literature review is considered to be more effective than a non-systematic one as it reduces bias and helps in summarising the existing evidence more appropriately (Robinson and Lowe, 2013). In order to write a systematic literature review, students should focus on various other parts of their study before analysing the literature. This includes defining the rationale of the study, finalising the hypothesis, and being certain about the methodology that will be followed for the study (Perry and Hammond, 200).

Having a basic understanding of other parts of the study can help a student in making sure that they are fully prepared to write a systematic literature review. This ensures a logical flow, which makes the final study much more compelling and has a significantly positive impact on the reader (Fisch and Block, 2018). Therefore, students must be clear about the key objectives of their study, the research design that they will adopt, as well as the key data sets that they will be analysing. Once these elements have been finalised, a student is ready to write a systematic literature review (Piper, 2013).

Steps to be Followed

A systematic literature review is much more comprehensive than a non-systematic one. It can be written by following a six-step process. The first step of the process is to define the key objectives of the literature review. If a student is fully aware of the objectives of the review, then they can be better prepared for writing a compelling one. Such objectives need to be defined in the form of structured research questions. Students need to have complete clarity in terms of what they are seeking to achieve by writing the review. The second step includes developing an understanding of the methodology that will be followed for the review. Such a methodology needs to include the type of studies which you want to review. For instance, a student must decide whether they want to include empirical results in their literature review, based on the topic. It also needs to include the specific components of the studies that will be included in the literature review. This step can help a student in ensuring that the contents of their literature review are accurate and completely related to their topic (Siddaway, 2014).

The third step of the process is to retrieve the literature that you need to review. As part of this process, you need to be aware of the search strategy. Students must choose the right sources that allow them to aggregate and review relevant studies. Further, once the relevant studies have been sourced, students must review their abstracts in order to filter them even further (Khan et al., 2003). Students need to define clear inclusion criteria that will ensure that their final literature review is not only relevant but also captures all important information sets. The fourth step of the process is to narrow down the chosen studies even further. This can either be done on the basis of the quality of the studies, or on the basis of the journals in which they have been published. The students must create a list of reputed journals that they want to focus on. This will help them in choosing higher-quality studies for the purpose of their review (Kitchenham et al., 2009).

The penultimate step is to choose the specific theories and findings that you want to include in the literature review. This will help you in structuring your literature review in a better manner. Such a structuring can help you in categorising similar studies under a single sub-heading. Choosing the right headings and sub-headings is an extremely important component of a literature review because it provides flow to your review. It also helps you in analysing different viewpoints and helps in reporting conflicting findings in a more structured manner (Burgers et al., 2019). The final step of a systematic literature review is to interpret the results in an objective manner. Students must not be biased while reviewing the work done by others. The review must be done in a comprehensive manner and needs to include all relevant aspects of the work done by other researchers. Further, students must also ensure that the interpretation is made in a consistent manner. This means that students must connect the information provided by other studies, and not just summarise them the way in which they were reported (Okoli and Schabram, 2010).


This article was aimed at helping PhD students in understanding the key components and benefits of a systematic literature review. It is evident that such a review has several benefits compared to a non-systematic review, such as helping the students in developing a deeper understanding of the topic and also making sure that the structure of the review is more appropriate compared to a standard literature review. Students must follow a standardised process in order to write such a systematic review. Such a process includes comprehensive planning and creating a logical structure for the review. Following this process will ensure that the final literature review is more compelling and covers all aspects related to the topic.



Burgers, C., Brugman, B.C. and Boeynaems, A. (2019) Systematic literature reviews: Four applications for interdisciplinary research, Journal of Pragmatics145, pp.102-109.

Fisch, C. and Block, J. (2018) Six tips for your (systematic) literature review in business and management research, Management Review Quarterly, 68, pp. 103-106.

Khan, K.S., Kunz, R., Kleijnen, J. and Antes, G. (2003) Five steps to conducting a systematic review, Journal of the royal society of medicine96(3), pp.118-121.

Kitchenham, B., Brereton, O.P., Budgen, D., Turner, M., Bailey, J. and Linkman, S. (2009) Systematic literature reviews in software engineering–a systematic literature review, Information and software technology51(1), pp.7-15.

Okoli, C. and Schabram, K. (2010) A guide to conducting a systematic literature review of information systems research, Sprouts: Working Papers on Information Systems, 10(26), pp.1-51.

Perry, A. and Hammond, N. (2002) Systematic reviews: The experiences of a PhD student, Psychology Learning & Teaching2(1), pp.32-35.

Piper, A.R.J. (2013) How to write a systematic literature review: a guide for medical students, National AMR: Fostering Medical Research, 1, pp.1-8.

Robinson, P. and Lowe, J. (2015) Literature reviews vs systematic reviews, Australian and New Zealand journal of public health, 39(2), pp.103-106.

Siddaway, A. (2014) What is a systematic literature review, and how do I do one, University of Stirling, 1, pp.1-10.