PhD writing workshop: the lit review

Dissertations are weird. You immerse and engage in a subject, becoming an expert. Unlike a book, written for an audience, your dissertation audience is your committee. You (probably) haven’t written a dissertation or doctoral thesis before and you’ll (probably) only do this once in your life. And when you do publish the fruits of your labor in books and articles, it’ll be a different kind of process. To make things more complicated, practice-based theses are a rare beast. There are fewer examples out there than there are of the huge dissertation that goes thunk when it’s dropped on a desk. We’re not in uncharted territory, but we are defining the terrain.

I hope I haven’t depressed you.

Precisely because of their weirdness, I love dissertations and theses. They’re the place that we experiment and try out ideas, advance claims, build ideas. They’re where we learn to undergird and substantiate ideas. They’re how we theorize and examine what we’re learning in the field. They’re the site of formulating a writing practice, in which we bounce ideas against each other, turn things upside down, argue the opposite point of view just for the heck of it. And they’re the place where your advisers and your peers will begin to comment formally on your work as it’s being born.

For the next seven weeks, we’ll meet to foster the lit review, but the scope of the workshop sessions will be broader, as we work together on writing and research in support of your endeavors. We’ll explore methods and tools, read and critique design dissertations, structure our arguments, read each other’s work, and invite guests to provide us with their perspectives. This workshop is defined by your needs, so we will take my skeleton as a jumping off point and define it accordingly. We will also share resources here.

Your lit review is due on May 6. You will have received feedback along the way from both me and your peers. You should expect that you will be working on it in the future: as your research develops, so should your view of the literature that supports your work.


ProQuest Dissertations & Theses Global: the huge database of all dissertations in the US and many abroad. When you submit your thesis and dissertation, a record will go here.

CMU Dissertations & Theses: it’s what it sounds like.

MIT DSpace: treasure trove of dissertations and papers

The plan

Each week, one of you will critique a dissertation that we will read (that is: skim and focus on the lit review): you will each choose one, circulate it in advance, and discuss the pros, cons, similarities and differences to our concerns, and questions that it raises.

3/16: Introduction, planning

3/23: Jillian Miller, CMU Design Librarian on tools and methods. Some things we discussed:

  • Research tools: citation managers: Mendeley (potential university partnership forthcoming), Zotero (open source and a favorite tool), Endnote… PDF managers such as Papers? Roll-your-own tools (Excel files ala Kakee; Molly’s Filemaker Pro database for images)
  • How can we capture a canon for design—how can we capture and share what we use in our courses, for design, and beyond?
  • Simon Lindgren, sociology professor at Umeå University turned me into a Scrivener convert because of this:

Then: a discussion of what it is to write academically: you have literary markers—key texts that you reference and ways that you contribute. Building a community of practice and audience.

3/30: Progress review and framing an introduction, chapter or lit review. Dissertation example discussion: Ahmed Ansari to present Syed Mustafa Ali (now at the Open University UK): “The Concept of Poiēsis and Its Application in a Heideggerian Critique of Computationally Emergent Artificiality.” It’s a hefty, philosophically-oriented dissertation but well structured and well-written.

4/6: [Molly may be out; may need to move this meeting] First half of review due (~10 pages)

4/13: Peer review and group critique session

4/20: [Molly & Kakee out: reschedule]

4/27: Peer review

5/4: No meeting; lit review due Friday 5/6 by midnight

You’ll get more and better feedback than this as you go along. I promise.

A provocation

Quinn Norton, a journalist, photographer & blogger said in a 5-minute talk about writing:

Hi my name is Quinn, I’m a writer, I write everyday. Some days more than others. I am not going to tell you how to be a good writer. That’s impossible in five minutes. There’s one thing they say can’t be taught even if you take years, and that’s how to open a vein. I figured years might be the wrong approach, and I’d see if I could do that in five minutes.
My floor. My lit review. My head hurts.

Approaches to writing

John Nash’s office in A Beautiful Mind. Obvious similarities?

From the authors of Destination Dissertation: A Traveler’s Guide to a Done Dissertation: a short piece that outlines their 6 steps in writing a lit review. Caveat emptor: I used this approach, but it left me with a big mess of paper not unlike John Nash’s connections in his most schizophrenic state. It helped me get my head around a lot of work, but it didn’t produce a document that made sense to my adviser. I go back to the document even now in my teaching and writing. The little pieces of paper are in an envelope at home in my office.

Writing Your Dissertation in 15 Minutes a Day is a good resource for getting your writing flowing.

They Say, I Say: The Moves that Matter in Academic Writing: helpful little book to help you make better transitions and phrasing.

Craft of Research. This is a necessity and only listed last here because you should already own it. I own three copies and they’re all dogeared. We will be using this in class.

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