An effective literature review (sometimes called “background and significance” or “theoretical orientation”) is essential to every successful proposal, from art history to chemical engineering, and from early graduate study fellowships and small grants to completion fellowships and postdocs. True, the role of this section depends partly upon your discipline. In the humanities and social sciences, this section identifies theories shaping the project and articulates the contribution to the current conversation. Biological or physical scientists discuss the previous findings that have inspired the question and consider how that research will open up new avenues for future inquiry and refine existing hypotheses. Engineers explain what others have done and justify the new approach to the problem.
Regardless of the discipline, a good literature review demonstrates to the reviewer the larger context in which your research question is situated, the current state of knowledge about your question, and why answering the question is critical to moving the field forward in a concrete way. The following set of dos and don’ts will help you craft a lit review that demonstrates your work’s intellectual lineage.
Do start by talking about your project and the relevant literature with your faculty advisor. Even before you begin writing applications, you will want to explore existing publications to familiarize yourself with the state of the discipline. Your advisor has already spent years engaging with that same literature, and can quickly help you identify the most influential papers or books from which to begin.
Do plan to devote approximately 20% of your entire proposal length to the literature review/background and significance/theoretical orientation section (two pages for a ten-page proposal, one for a five-page proposal, and just one paragraph in a two-page proposal).
Don’t attempt to describe all the relevant published literature on your topic. Instead, select the one to three most important bodies of literature that inform your understanding of the question, and then select only the most important citations from each of those fields. In a two-page proposal, this may mean identifying only a total of 3-5 sources!
Do use citations to appeal to the funding program’s goals and the reviewers’ expertise. For example, if you are applying for an NSF Doctoral Dissertation Research Improvement Grant in Geography and Spatial Sciences (which aims to advance the state of knowledge on geography and spatial sciences and is reviewed by scholars in that field), your literature review should focus on relevant scholarship and publications from geography and spatial science journals and researchers. Alternatively, the same scholar applying for a Social Science Research Council International Dissertation Research Fellowship (which emphasizes research that is interdisciplinary, cross-regional, and of broad humanistic significance, and is reviewed by scholars from across the humanities and social sciences) might use citations from multiple disciplines (perhaps geography, history, and film studies) to appeal to a broader review audience and illustrate interdisciplinary relevance.
Don’t assume that because your topic has not been investigated in your field, demonstrating this omission should be the emphasis of the literature review: Many topics have not been studied because they are not appropriate to a field’s accepted norms of knowledge production or interesting to ongoing discussions in the discipline. Do build an argument for the ways in which your work will benefit the field by engaging with current debates and by extending a similar methodology, approach, analysis, or theoretical framework. If you are building an interdisciplinary literature review, consider work on the topic by scholars outside your field, and how your discipline’s approach will complement those other perspectives.
Do stay up-to-date with the literature on your topic, and try to make use of the most current citations in your bibliography and background section. Drawing primarily on citations that are five or more years old can suggest to the reviewer that you are not well-informed about your topic and recent, relevant scholarship that should inform your approach.
Do maintain a positive tone when discussing previous studies. Rather than seeking to correct “flaws” or “gaps” in the literature, imagine the existing publications as creating the foundation for your work. Describe the scope of the prior work and the ways in which that literature points to the timeliness and relevance of your own research question and approach. Remember that in the small world of academia, the person whose work you have disparaged can easily end up being your reviewer!
Do use the literature review, background and significance, or theoretical orientation section to lead the reviewer directly into the next section of the proposal, the research plan and design (including the methods, approach, analysis, and timeline for research activities). For example, if your background section points to a need for greater documentation of the evolution of an idea, the examination of archival materials about that idea from a specific historical era, location, and type of source might be in order.
Don’t forget to schedule an individual appointment with a GradFund Fellowship Advisor for feedback on your lit review and overall application!