Writing your PhD: Reviewing the Literature

This course is intended for PhD students in their second year.

Course Content and Unit Aims

Unit 1

Criteria for success, purpose, and citation skills

  • To explore the criteria for a successful literature review, as proposed by the literature and by University of Edinburgh academics.
  • To discuss the purposes of a literature review.
  • To raise awareness of citation practices, including direct quotation, paraphrase, summary, and the avoidance of plagiarism.
  • To provide practice in paraphrasing and summarising sources.

Unit 2

Organisation and Structure

  • To explore different potential patterns for organising a literature review.
  • To examine (and practise writing) introductions, transitions and conclusions within a literature review chapter.
  • To raise awareness of ways of identifying a research gap.

Unit 3

Expressing Your Voice and Writing Critically

  • To explore how sources can be used to support your own position.
  • To focus on language features which can be used to guide your reader through your text while making your argument clear.
  • To discuss ways of expressing a stance towards previous studies, and explore appropriate relevant language features.
  • To examine the use of personal pronouns in a literature review.

Unit 4

Synthesising Sources

  • To explore the language and structure of an effective definition.
  • To practise synthesising definitions, where more than one exists in the literature.
  • To explore ways of organising a literature review thematically rather than by author/study.
  • To identify appropriate language used to make the organisation of your literature review explicit.
  • To give you practice in synthesising sources.

Unit 5

  • You will have the opportunity for a one-to-one on-line tutorial with your teacher, to discuss any remaining questions you may have.


Course Days/times

  • In-person – Thursdays 14:00 - 16:00 
  • Online – Fridays 11:00 - 12:00 

The in-person course will be held at both Holyrood Campus and King's Buildings.


Teaching Methods and Learning Outcomes

The course involves: discussion of aspects of reviewing literature; analysing sample extracts from University of Edinburgh doctoral theses; expanding your repertoire of useful academic English expressions; drafting short pieces of writing.  

Your tutor will meet you for a class once per week, either on-line or in-person, depending which option you have chosen. If you choose the on-line version of the course, you will listen to a brief introductory lecture and work through a series of tasks before the class. You can expect to spend around 3 hours per week altogether to fully benefit from this course.

After the class, you will write a short assignment, which you should send to your tutor, who will respond with feedback on your writing, focusing on overall clarity, style, the use of sources, organisation, and linguistic appropriacy.   

In the final week (week 5) of the course, you will have the opportunity for a one-to-one online tutorial with your tutor to discuss any remaining questions you may have. 

By the end of the course students should have a better understanding of:

  • ways of structuring a literature review
  • appropriate language for reviewing literature
  • the skills involved in summarising and paraphrasing
  • the skills involved in synthesising sources
  • ways of expressing critical evaluation
  • ways of expressing authorial voice


PhD students in their second year, or who have passed their First Year Board, and students doing MSc by research in their second semester. Final year students are also eligible, if they have not had the opportunity of taking this course earlier.