Advice For Academics On Using Email More Effectively

Note: this blog was originally published on our career advice column on Inside Higher Ed. Dr. Tanya Golash-Boza is an associate professor of sociology at the University of California, Merced. Her most recent book is Deported: Immigrant Policing, Disposable Labor and Global Capitalism. She runs the blog Get a Life, PhD and tweets .

Three Rules for Email

Tanya Golash-BozaEmail has become a fact of life for academics. We all know that it facilitates communication, yet it can also be a tremendous distraction. As a tenured professor with more than my share of committee work and students, I receive about 100 emails every weekday. Without a system to respond to them, I would quickly fall behind. Instead, I finish out each week with a zero inbox. (See more about that here.)

If you are not ready to take the plunge and get to a zero inbox, you can still minimize the extent to which email controls your day. I offer three rules that will help you manage your email on a daily basis.

Rule #1: Don’t check your email first thing in the morning. I bet you have heard (and ignored) this advice. Many of us roll over in bed each morning, pick up our smartphones and begin scrolling through our email before doing anything else. I will admit it: I do it at times, as well, even though I know I shouldn’t.

But when you check your email first thing in the morning, you are attending to everyone else’s needs before even thinking about what is most important for you to accomplish that day. When you check your email, you are reminded of the paperwork you need to finish for grant applications, the papers you need to grade for classes, the bills you mustn’t forget to pay and the sibling you need to call, among other concerns. Because of the way memory works by association, each email that you open, or even delete, brings a flood of thoughts to your head.

Wouldn’t it be nice to wake up in the morning and see what thoughts come to your head if you don’t check your email first thing? Wouldn’t it be lovely to wake up your kids and have your coffee without thinking about the many mundane and stressful tasks that await you? Wouldn’t it be wonderful to sit and ponder what you’d like to accomplish in the day before finding out six new things people want you to do? Wouldn’t it be amazing to meditate first thing in the morning?

Usually, when we check our email, we are reminded of all of the tasks we need to accomplish, which can be distracting. Sometimes, however, email can provoke much stronger emotions. On rare occasions, these emails are great news: a book contract, acceptance of an article or an invitation to give a talk with a great honorarium. Other times, we get much less pleasant news via email: a student questioning a grade, a superior asking us to serve on yet another committee or some other request that somehow raises our ire. If you check your email first thing in the morning, you are opening a Pandora’s box and might find a message in there that could completely derail your day.

Wouldn’t you like to start your day focusing on something you see as valuable and important before opening those floodgates?

Instead of opening your email first thing in the morning, set aside a specific time of morning when you will dedicate 30 minutes or an hour to respond to important emails. Then set aside another time in the afternoon when you will take care of the remaining emails. In other words, respond to your emails intentionally instead of each time you get an email notification.

Rule #2: Close your email and all notifications while you are writing. Of course, you need to check email at some point during the day to manage the massive influx. That, however, does not mean that you need to check it all the time. You certainly do not need to check email while you are writing.

To write, you need to focus. To focus, you need to avoid distraction. Imagine yourself fully immersed in thought and composing the perfect sentence when you catch a glimpse of a notification on your computer or hear a little buzz from your phone. Now, instead of focusing on your writing, you are reminded of other tasks that you must complete — emotions that you feel with regard to certain people or worries you have over a pending deadline.

The solution to this is pretty straightforward: turn off those notifications. Both your phone and your computer should have “Do not disturb” settings. On a Mac, you can turn off all notifications under “Settings.” Your phone, your tablet and your PC should have similar options.

If you set aside 30 minutes or an hour each day to write, you can give yourself permission to be unavailable over phone, email or social media during that time. If you teach, I presume you turn off your phone during that time. Do the same when you are writing.

It may seem productive to be multitasking: alternately responding to emails, checking your social media, writing and preparing class all at the same time. However, it is not. It is much more productive to set aside specific times of the day for each task, giving it your undivided attention. (I explain one way to do this here.)

Rule #3: Unplug every night. Decide on a time each evening when you will unplug yourself from the Internet. Just as it is not a good idea for you to be on your screen first thing in the morning, it also is not a good idea for you to be on your screen just before going to bed.

I recommend that about an hour before your bedtime, you put your laptop, tablet and phone away. If possible, keep all those devices out of your bedroom. At the very least, keep them out of arm’s reach when you are in bed.

In order to have a restful night of sleep, you need time away from devices that light up. Scientists have found that these devices send a subtle signal to your brain that it is not yet time to sleep.

These devices also send much less subtle signals. You may be just about to go to bed when you decide to check your email one last time, only to find out that your latest paper has been rejected. Now, instead of peacefully going to sleep, you toss and turn all night worrying about your publication record. Just because we now can get news instantaneously does not mean we should.

In sum, in order for email to have less control over your life, you need to start to take control of it. This article has provided three ideas for how you can establish boundaries. I’d love to hear from you about other ways you’ve found to be helpful in setting them.

7 Strategies For Success For Tenure-Track Faculty

Tanya Golash-BozaNote: This blog post was originally published on our Inside Higher Ed column. Tanya Golash-Boza is a professor of sociology at the University of California, Merced. Her most recent book is Deported: Immigrant Policing, Disposable Labor and Global Capitalism (NYU Press, 2015). She runs the blog Get a Life, PhD and tweets at .


Securing a tenure-track position in this academic market is difficult. Of course, once you have such a position, the trials are not over, as you now have to work to achieve tenure. And the very thought of working toward tenure can be overwhelming.

However, I encourage tenure-track faculty members not only to think about achieving tenure but to be strategic and focused to ensure you are on the right path. Even if tenure is a few years off, new tenure-track faculty can take a few important steps now (other than, of course, work on publishing their dissertations, improving their courses and developing new research projects). Here are a few examples.

Check out the tenure documentation. What forms are you going to have to fill out when you go up for tenure? If possible, secure a copy of those forms so that you can see what information you will be asked to provide when you make your tenure case. Many colleges and universities have a mid-career or third-year review process, which is identical to the tenure review. That can help familiarize you with the process.

Develop an aspirational tenure CV for yourself. You should include in it all of the things you would like to have accomplished by the time you are up for tenure. If you are in the humanities, that probably will include a book and perhaps multiple articles. (If you are unclear about the expectations, this post has some suggestions for how to figure those out.) Also include conference presentations, service obligations, teaching accolades, invited lectures and anything else that you think will help you make your case for tenure. This will help you to see the bigger picture more clearly. Once you have your aspirational CV, use it to develop your long-term plan for tenure.

Create a list of your external reviewers. One of the best pieces of advice that I received on the tenure- track was to make a list of 12 people in my field whom I admired, and then to make it a point to contact them while I was on the tenure track. If you write this list in your first year, you only have to contact two people per year over the next six years. You can reach out in a variety of ways. You can invite them to have coffee at a conference. You can send them a recently published article of yours that you think they might find interesting. You can send them feedback or questions about an article or book they recently published. I recommend contacting them in a way that feels natural or comfortable to you and that engages with your shared research interests. Most universities expect that external reviewers will be at similar or more highly ranked institutions than your own, so keep that in mind when you formulate your list.

Network to establish a national reputation. At many research universities, having a national reputation is a vital component of your tenure case. For that reason, it is important to make sure that other scholars are aware that you exist and know about your work. One example of a way to do this is to organize a panel at a national conference in your discipline. That will put you in touch with scholars in your field and increase your visibility. Another strategy is to invite prominent scholars to your campus. If your university has funds to do so, suggest people in your field to ask to deliver talks. (This also can permit you to check a name off your list from the previous suggestion.) In some universities, it is also expected that you will be invited to share your research at other campuses to demonstrate that you have a national reputation. Finally, if a blog in your field publishes guest posts, try to publish your own on it. (In my field, Border Criminologies is an example of this kind of blog, and they accept guest posts.)

Figure out what kind of service you like. What is the right kind of service for you? Do you like serving on review panels? Do you like curriculum development? Do you like organizing seminars? Do you want to be on the athletics committee in the hopes of scoring free basketball tickets? Once you determine what kind of service you like, you may want to be proactive and search out those kinds of opportunities. That way, when other opportunities arise, you can say that you are already occupied with service tasks. It is, of course, crucial to know that you can say no to service requests, especially when your no is accompanied by a good explanation. When thinking about what kind of service opportunities you will seek out, be mindful of the expectations at your institution. Some institutions expect some form of departmental, university, community and national service. Other institutions are less concerned about national service yet have higher expectations for local service. Be clear about these expectations.

Teach effectively and efficiently. found that successful new faculty members spend no more than two hours preparing for each hour of class. Seek out advice from more seasoned colleagues about how to be a more efficient grader and more effective teacher. Ask your colleagues how much time they spend preparing for class and grading papers to make sure that your efforts are near the norm in your department. (See this blog post for additional tips.)

Know your evaluation criteria and use them as a guide. Your university may have straightforward criteria. When I worked at the University of Kansas, the evaluation criteria were 40 percent research, 40 percent teaching and 20 percent service, and I tried to make sure to spend about that percentage of time every week in each of those areas. (I actually printed out a document that said I would spend 3.2 hours a day on research, 3.2 hours on teaching and 1.6 hours on service and stuck it on my wall.) Your university may not have such clear criteria, but you should be able to estimate how much value is given to each area and make an attempt to align your work hours with those expectations.

It can be overwhelming to start a new tenure-track position. But life on the tenure track does not have to be torturous. Develop clear goals for yourself for tenure and work toward those a little bit every day. Six years is a long time to be stressed out and worried, so figure out ways that you can minimize that stress and worry. Do what you can not only to survive but also to thrive on the tenure track.

Advice On Writing An Effective Diversity Statement

Note: this blog was originally published on our career advice column on Inside Higher Ed. Dr. Tanya Golash-Boza () is a professor of sociology at the University of California at Merced. Her most recent book is Deported: Immigrant Policing, Disposable Labor and Global Capitalism (NYU Press, 2015). She blogs at Get a Life, PhD.

Tanya Golash-BozaFaculty job postings are increasingly asking for diversity statements, in addition to research and teaching statements. According to the University of California at San Diego website, “the purpose of the statement is to identify candidates who have professional skills, experience and/or willingness to engage in activities that would enhance campus diversity and equity efforts” (emphasis added). In general, these statements are an opportunity for applicants to explain to a search committee the distinct experiences and commitment they bring to the table.

So, how do you write an effective diversity statement? If you are a job candidate who actually cares about diversity and equity, how do you convey that commitment to a search committee? (Note that if you do not care about diversity and equity and do not want to be in a department that does, don’t waste your time crafting a strong diversity statement — and you need not read any farther in this essay.)

My first piece of advice is: do not write a throwaway diversity statement. Some job applicants think that writing a diversity statement that shows they actually care about diversity and equity may be too political. Thus, they write a blasé statement about, for example, how they encourage students to come to class in pajamas if they feel comfortable. That is not an effective strategy, because it does not show a genuine commitment to diversity and equity.

Of course, it is true that many faculty members overtly reject campus efforts to enhance diversity and equity. However, it is also true that search committee members who do not care about diversity do not read diversity statements. Just like search committee members who do not care about teaching gloss over teaching statements, those who do not care about diversity gloss over diversity statements. So, don’t bother writing a statement directed at faculty members who do not care about diversity. Write one for those faculty members who will take the time to read your statement carefully.

I can assure you that many faculty members truly care about diversity and equity and will read your statement closely. I have been in the room when the diversity statement of every single finalist for a job search was scrutinized. The candidates who submitted strong statements wrote about their experiences teaching first-generation college students, their involvement with LGBTQ student groups, their experiences teaching in inner-city high schools and their awareness of how systemic inequalities affect students’ ability to excel. Applicants mentioned their teaching and activism and highlighted their commitment to diversity and equity in higher education.

Here are seven additional suggestions to consider as you write your diversity statement.

  • Tell your story. If you have overcome obstacles to get to where you are, point those out. If, in contrast, you are privileged, acknowledge that. If you grew up walking uphill to school carrying two 20-pound sacks of rice on your back, by all means, tell that story. If you were raised with a silver spoon in your mouth, acknowledge your privilege. Either way, use your story to explain how you can empathize with students who confront challenges on their way to achieving their educational goals.
  • Focus on commonly accepted understandings of diversity and equity. Concentrate on issues such as race, gender, social class and sexual orientation. Don’t try to tone down your statement by writing about how it is hard to be a Kansan in Missouri, for example. Instead, write about racial oppression, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, ableism or some other commonly recognized form of oppression.
  • Avoid false parallels. By that I mean do not equate the exclusion you faced due to being a Kansan in Missouri with the exclusion an African-American faces at a primarily white institution. You do not have to be an African-American to have insight into the challenges they face, but if you do not have experiential knowledge of racism, then do not claim it. Instead, focus on writing about what you do know. If you feel comfortable getting personal, you can write about your own experiences of privilege or oppression. But you don’t have to get personal; you can cite statistics or studies to make your points.
  • Write about specific things you have done to help students from underrepresented backgrounds succeed. If you have never done anything to help anyone, then go out and do something. Sign up to be a tutor at an underperforming school, build a house with Habitat for Humanity or incorporate antiracist pedagogy into your teaching. In addition to having a rewarding experience, you can write about it in your diversity statement.
  • Highlight any programs for underrepresented students you’ve participated in. If you have had any involvement with such programs (e.g., McNair Scholars Program), describe that involvement in your statement. This involvement can either be as a former participant or as a mentor or adviser to someone who has participated. These kinds of specific examples show that you understand what effective programs look like and how they work.
  • Write about your commitment to working toward achieving equity and enhancing diversity. Describe specific ways you are willing to contribute. You can mention your willingness to contribute to pre-existing programs on the campus or you can express interest in creating new programs based on models at other campuses.
  • Modify your statement based on where you are sending it. Your statement for a land-grant institution in the rural South should not be the exact same one you send to an elite institution in urban California. Look up the demographics of the institution to which you are applying and mention those demographics in your statement. For example, if the university you are applying to is a Hispanic-serving institution, you should be aware of that. Or if it has a well-known scholarship program for underrepresented minorities, you should mention that program.

Diversity statements are a relatively new addition to the job application packet. Thus, search committees are still developing assessment tools for such statements, and many campuses lack clear guidelines. Nevertheless, you can use this novelty to your advantage by writing a stellar statement that emphasizes your record of contributions to diversity and equity as well as your commitment to future efforts

Five Tips For A Successful Co-Authorship From Dr. Tanya Golash-Boza

Below, Dr. Tanya Golash-Boza has offered another post on the writing process from her (amazing) blog, Get A Life, Ph.D.  See her full writing tips series here.


Five Tips That Will Help You Have a Successful Co-Authorship

88a27-tanya-travista-caraCo-authorships are very common in some fields, and hardly existent in others. When these collaborative ventures are successful, they can enhance the scholarship of the collaborators. In many cases, scholars consider co-authorship to be one of their most rewarding activities.

I have co-authored several articles and book chapters with colleagues. Some of these ventures have worked better than others. Others have not worked at all. When co-authorships are well-planned, they can be mutually beneficial and take your scholarships places you had not foreseen. In contrast, when the terms of the co-authorship are murky and the power dynamics unfavorable, co-authorship can turn into a nightmare, especially for junior faculty and graduate students. The good news is that these pitfalls are often avoidable.

In this post, I discuss some strategies you can adopt to ensure that the co-authorship works out.

Tip #1: Begin with an outline of the article

When you begin a co-authorship venture, sit down with your co-author and come up with an outline of the final article. Once you have a skeleton of the article, you can use that to agree on who is responsible for which part, and how long you plan to spend on each part.

For example, your outline could look like this:

  • Introduction (500 words: Author A): First draft: 1/30
  • Background (1000 words: Authors A and B): First draft: 12/1
  • Literature Review (1500 words: Author A): First draft: 12/15
  • Methodology (500 words: Authors A and B): First draft: 12/7
  • Case Study One (2500 words: Author A): First draft 12/22
  • Case Study Two (2500 words: Author B): First draft 12/22
  • Discussion (1000 words: Author B): First draft 1/15
  • Conclusion (1000 words: Author A): First draft 1/22
  • First draft review (Author B): Due: 2/7
  • Second review; citation check; copy-editing (Author A): Due 2/14
  • Final check for accuracy and proofreading (Author B): Due 2/17
  • Submission to xxx journal (Author A): 2/18

Tip #2: Agree on as much as possible up front

If you agree up front on as much as you possibly can, things will go much more smoothly. Here are some things you can agree on up front:

  • Agree on how long the paper will be, how long each section will be, and who will write the first draft of each section.  One of my most successful co-authorships was when my colleague and I agreed to work together to write a 25-page article. At the beginning, we decided on how long each section would be; for example, we decided that the intro and conclusion would each be 2 and ½ pages, that each of our background sections would be 1 page, etc. We also agreed on who would write the first draft of each section.
  • Set clear deadlines at the beginning.
  • Agree on theoretical framework and proposed methodology.
  • Agree on which journal you are targeting for the first submission.

Tip #3: Keep the communication lines open

Establish a weekly check-in with one another by phone, in person, or over email to ensure that both of you are keeping on task and to resolve any potential issues.

Tip #4: Keep track of the files by clearly establishing who is in charge of the most current draft

If you assign sections of the paper to specific co-authors, make sure it is clear who is working on what section at which time. Once you have a complete draft of the manuscript, it is usually best for one person to work on it at a time. When one author has the manuscript, the other author will not make any changes to the file. That also gives the other author some time away from the manuscript and a chance to look at it with fresh eyes when it comes back their way.

Tip #5: Be positive, encouraging, and courteous.

If one co-author is not keeping up his or her end of the bargain, make sure to let them know as soon as it becomes apparent. But, do so in a positive way and offer to help. Your shared goal is to produce a high-quality paper in a timely manner. Keep that in mind as you work through any unexpected difficulties.

Collaborative scholarship can be very rewarding. Following these guidelines can help to ensure that you get the most out of this venture. I look forward to hearing from you if you have any additional suggestions for fruitful collaborations.

“Draft First, Edit Later” – Dr. Tanya Golash-Boza’s Three Step Approach To Writing

Below, Dr. Tanya Golash-Boza has offered another post on the writing process from her (amazing) blog, Get A Life, Ph.D.  See her full writing tips series here.


Draft First, Edit Later: A Three Step Approach To Writing

88a27-tanya-travista-caraMany people imagine elegant prose flowing from their fingertips onto the computer screen, perfectly ordered and composed. When they sit down to write and find that the perfect sentences they had imagined are not materializing, they get frustrated and give up.

I have never met anyone who has told me that they succeed at writing like this. Instead, most successful writers first write what is often called a “shitty first draft,” and then get to the work of revising and revising again. I think that drafting and then revising works best because we access different parts of our brain for drafting, restructuring, and then revising. For this reason, I suggest writing in three separate steps.

Step 1: The Shitty First Draft

In her book, , Anne Lamott explains that the best way to figure out what you want to say is by sitting down and writing your shitty first draft. This initial draft is where you get that brilliant idea you have in your mind onto paper, or onto the computer screen. Do not worry about organization, sentence composition, spelling, grammar, or even how silly or simple you might sound. Just get the ideas down. Remember, we are no longer in the Stone Age, so revising will be easy. Your writing will not be carved in stone, but will flicker on a computer screen, and you will have access to backspace, cut and paste, delete, and erase before anyone but you and your inner critic have to see your writing. So, sit down and write and forget everything you know about style and grammar. You can get to that later. For now, you just want to get the ideas onto paper.

Step 2: Restructuring

Now that you have your brilliant ideas onto paper, it is time to reorganize them into a coherent second draft. Take out a blank piece of paper and make an outline that organizes your ideas in the best way possible. Type your outline into a new Word document, and then cut and paste from your shitty first draft into your outline. Once you have done that, go through and reorganize your paragraphs and sections in the way that makes the most sense.

Step 3: Editing

With a full draft of your paper, it is now time to edit for style and grammar. Here is your chance to pull out your perfectionist and search for those dangling modifiers, misused words, split infinitives, run-on sentences, and fragments. I keep a style sheet that lets me know what my most common errors are and I look through my finished drafts for those mistakes in particular. I have learned what my most common errors are by getting my work edited both by friends and professional editors.

Saving the editing for last is a great strategy for two main reasons: First of all, it frees you up to be creative without being stifled by your worries over whether “loose” or “lose” is the correct word or thinking of another way to say “purgatory.” You can mark those places in the text with italics or using the highlighter, and then go back to them when you are editing. When you edit, it will become apparent that you have used “ameliorate” six times in three paragraphs, and you can go back and change it. Secondly, editing last is much more efficient than editing while writing because the revision process often involves deleting paragraphs or even pages of writing. It will be much easier to delete from a shitty first draft than it will from pages of painstaking prose.

If you are a person who tries to write the perfect first draft and your strategy is getting in the way of your writing productivity, I encourage you to try this method and see if it works for you.

“How To Move Through Your Writing Block” – Tips From Dr. Tanya Golash-Boza

Below, Dr. Tanya Golash-Boza has offered another post on the writing process from her (amazing) blog, Get A Life, Ph.D.  See her full writing tips series here.


How To Move Through Your Writing Block

88a27-tanya-travista-caraIf you have not written for a while, it can be a challenge to get back into writing. If you have been meaning to get back into your writing for a while, but have not actually made any progress, this week’s post is for you.

For many writers who work in academia, the end of the semester means that it is time to submit grades, attend a wide variety of events, wrap up service commitments, and get back to that looming writing project. If you have been working on your writing project all year long, transitioning to the summer should be fairly straightforward. You just keep trudging along. However, if you have not been writing all year or all semester, moving back into writing can be daunting. For this reason, I suggest you not write today, but dedicate today to making a plan for writing.

Make A Plan

If you keep telling yourself today is the day you will begin the second chapter of your book or pick up that Revise and Resubmit or begin that article, yet have not actually made any progress, then a simple solution for you might be to make a good plan for moving forward. By a plan, I simply mean that you break your large task down into small chunks and decide where to begin. That way, instead of having on your agenda: “Begin to work on Chapter Two,” you have: “Take notes on Parenti and Gilmore articles and write one paragraph on deindustrialization in the 1980s.”

There are two ways to figure out how to break your large task down into smaller tasks. The first way is to break it down in a list. The second is to draw a mindmap. Both work equally well. The first way works better for linear thinkers, the second for visual thinkers. I will explain both below.

Make A List, Check It Twice…

Let’s say one of your summer goals is to finish Chapter Five. Here is an example of how you would break down Chapter Five into manageable tasks.

Goal: Finish Chapter Five.

  • Write introduction that provides a roadmap to the chapter.
  • Finish Mass Incarceration Section
    • Use notes from Alexander, Schlosser, and Wacquant to explain Mass Incarceration
    • Get data from BJS to show rise in incarceration rates since 1980
    • Use Tonry and prison studies work to discuss global context
    • Use Alexander and Western to explain racial disparities
  •  Complete War on Drugs Section
    • Use Parenti and Wilson notes to discuss deindustrialization
    • Use Alexander and Parenti to discuss history of war on drugs
    • Write up timeline of important legislation…

The idea behind this sort of listing is that you plan today, and then wake up tomorrow, not with a task that says: “Finish Chapter Five,” but with a manageable task: “Use notes from Alexander, Schlosser, and Wacquant to explain Mass Incarceration.” Once you finish that task, you can check it off and move on to the next.


Some people think more visually, and it is easier for them to come up with a list of tasks to do through the use of a mind map. Let’s say your task is “Finish Chapter Five.” Write that on the left hand side of a blank piece of paper. Now, draw lines out from the circle that explain the big tasks you need to complete in order to finish the chapter. Next, draw lines from each of those circles that break the tasks down into smaller pieces. Keep doing this until you get to manageable tasks.

Here is an example:

If you have not begun planning yet, I strongly recommend that you plan first, and execute later. Use today to plan, and tackle the tasks tomorrow. Once you finish planning today, take a break and give yourself a treat. Relax and prepare for your big writing day tomorrow.

“Six Steps To Writing A Literature Review” – Tips From Dr. Tanya Golash-Boza

Below, Dr. Tanya Golash-Boza has offered another post on the writing process from her (amazing) blog, Get A Life, Ph.D.  See her full writing tips series here.


Six Steps To Writing A Literature Review

88a27-tanya-travista-caraIn their book, , Sonja Foss and William Walters have a chapter that describes a highly efficient way of writing a literature review. I think it provides an excellent guide for getting through the massive amounts of literature in any field.

Step One: Define the area you will be studying. Before you begin to search for articles or books, decide beforehand what areas you are going to research. Make sure that you only get articles and books in that area, even if you come across fascinating books in other areas.

Step Two: Gather the literature. Conduct a comprehensive bibliographic search of books and articles in your area. Read the abstracts online and download and print those articles that pertain to your area of research. Find books in the library that are relevant and check them out.

Step Three: Find relevant excerpts. Skim the contents of each book and article and look for these five things.

  1. Claims, conclusions, and findings about the constructs you are investigating
  2. Definitions of terms
  3. Calls for follow-up studies relevant to your project
  4. Gaps you notice in the literature
  5. Disagreement about the constructs you are investigating

When you find any of these five things, type the relevant excerpt directly into a Word document. Don’t summarize, as that takes longer than just typing the excerpt. Make sure to note the name of the author and the page number following the passage. Do this for each article and book that you have in your stack of literature. When you are done, print out the document.

Step Four: Code the literature. Get out a pair of scissors and cut each note apart. Now, sort the pieces of paper into similar topics. Figure out what the main themes are and place the notes each into a pile. Make sure that each note goes into a pile. If there are excerpts that you can’t figure out where they belong, separate those and go over them again at the end to see if you need new categories. When you finish, place each stack of notes into an envelope labeled with the name of the theme.

Step Five: Create your conceptual schema. Go to your computer and type, in large font, the name of each of your coded themes. Print this out, and cut the themes into individual slips of paper. Take the slips of paper to a table or large workspace and figure out the best way to organize them. Are there ideas that go together or that are in dialogue with each other? Are there ideas that contradict each other? Move around the slips of paper until you come up with a way of organizing the codes that makes sense. Write the conceptual schema down before you forget or someone cleans up your slips of paper!

Step Six: Write it up. Choose any section of your conceptual schema to begin with. You can begin anywhere, because you already know the order. Find the envelope with the excerpts in them and lay them on the table in front of you. Figure out a mini-conceptual schema based on that theme by grouping together those excerpts that say the same thing. Use that mini-conceptual schema to write up your literature review based on the excerpts that you have in front of you. Don’t forget to include the citations as you write, so as not to lose track of who said what. Repeat this for each section of your literature review.

Once you complete these six steps, you will have a complete draft of your literature review. The great thing about this process is that it breaks down into manageable steps something that seems enormous: writing a literature review.

I think that Foss and Walter’s system for writing the literature review really can work for a dissertation, because a Ph.D. candidate has already read widely in his or her field through graduate seminars and comprehensive exams.

It may be more challenging for M.A. students, unless you are already familiar with the literature. It is always hard to figure out how much you need to read for deep meaning, and how much you just need to know what others have said. That balance will depend on how much you already know.

For faculty writing literature reviews for articles, this system also could work, especially when you are writing in a field you are already familiar with. The mere fact of having a system can make the literature review seem much less daunting, so I recommend this system for anyone who feels overwhelmed by the prospect of writing a literature review.