Acing the Education Dissertation Literature Review

Authors: Dr. Priya Goel, Assistant Professor, The University of Hong Kong
Rubén Sanchez, Doctoral Candidate
Lihuan Chen, Doctoral Candidate
Clive Lee, Doctoral Candidate

A Proposition: Literature Review as the Foundation of Becoming a Scholar

The literature review is arguably the heart and soul of doctoral dissertations. A research investigation in its own right, the review of literature develops scholars’ understanding of the historical and contemporary conceptualizations and evidence surrounding the phenomena under focus. Doctoral students’ undertaking of literature review forms the basis of their expertise in education and the sub-discipline(s) in which the dissertation research is situated. But more importantly, the preparation and development of the literature review take doctoral students through the crucial processes of argumentation, ideation, authorship, and continuous refinement. Simply put, literature review research is essential for early career scholars because it is a space where we learn to construct, critically evaluate, and continue to improve our claims about education and educational problems.

In a year-long research workshop at HKU, Drs. Priya Goel and Margaret Lo led a group of doctoral students through training on literature review (see References for key resources). Three doctoral students who participated in these workshops have since developed robust literature reviews for their doctoral theses. These literature reviews examine multiple geographic and school contexts, covering topics such as Culturally Responsive Leadership, rural school leadership, and adolescent student well-being. In the following reflections, three doctoral students reflect on how they ‘aced’ the literature review. They describe and explain how they applied specific strategies to their literature review development.


Rubén Sanchez, Year 3 Ph.D. Candidate: Bring Several Literatures Together to Construct Critical Arguments

My dissertation literature review argues that culture- and diversity-centered leadership frameworks can help create educational opportunity for minoritized students. I examine this argument in the context of South Asian students in Hong Kong, who have historically been underserved in education and society in Hong Kong. While important advancements have been made in policy and practice, there remains pervasive structural and systemic inequality that impacts South Asian students’ educational outcomes.

My literature review examines multiple concepts in the phenomena of culturally responsive leadership and educational opportunity. During the review process, I had to be mindful of efficiently synthesizing the scholarship by directly linking it to my research and presenting a novel argument on existing ideas (Snyder, 2019). To do this, I explored both theoretical and empirical literature. This allowed me to connect interrelated concepts and develop theoretical arguments, backed by empirical knowledge. I was careful not to summarize several studies. Instead, I kept in mind my research questions, the phenomena I was curious about, and what I could contribute to advance the ideas in the existing literatures.

Lihuan Chen, Year 3 Ph.D. Candidate: Use Policy History to Identify Pressing Research Questions 

My dissertation literature review argues that rural school leadership needs to support student and community development unique to rural schools and societies. I examine this in the context of the profound social and educational changes in China’s Rural Revitalisation. I examined China’s rural education policies from the 1990s to the present. The volume, breadth, and complexity of these policy documents were daunting. However, guidance from Lunenburg and Irby (2008) fostered a strong organizational structure for the development of my review of rural school policy. I organized materials in a funnel from broad to specific, outlined for a focused prose, and I used headings and transitions to facilitate the organization of contents and topics. Throughout this process, In continuously cut and tightened the text, focusing on the aspects of the policy that were directly relevant to my research study and to my emerging arguments.

Clive Lee, Year 2 Ph.D. Student: Have the Courage to Change Your Focus 

My dissertation literature review argues that universities should work to foster well-being among low-income, first-generation students. I took a semi-structured systematic review to detect “themes, theoretical perspectives or common issues within a specific research discipline or methodology or for identifying components of a theoretical concept” (Snyder, 2019). I searched electronic databases using keywords “student” and “well-being.” This review helped me understand how student well-being research has “developed across research traditions” (Snyder, 2019). I developed foundational knowledge on the well-being characteristics, barriers, interviews, and its relationships with learning. During this process, I realized I was more interested in well-being in university contexts. Thus, I augmented my theoretical knowledge of adolescent well-being with additional reviews of literature on low-income, first-generation undergraduates, academic readiness, community and cultural capital, and university supports. Through this process, I identified a research gap in the role of community and cultural wealth in the well-being of low-income, first-generation students.


Lunenburg, F. C., & Irby, B. J. (2008). Writing a successful thesis or dissertation: Tips and strategies for students in the social and behavioral sciences. Corwin Press.

Snyder, H. (2019). Literature review as a research methodology: An overview and guidelines. Journal of Business Research, 104, 333–339.

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