Tips for writing literature reviews

This posting aims to help graduate students write a good literature review for their qualifying exam, proposal, or thesis.

In the Department of Mechanical Engineering at the University of Utah, the qualifier examination is not a proposal, so there is no expectation that your Qual paper should propose new research.  Your literature review should, however, critically assess existing research in the subject area by pointing out specific limitations of (and, if applicable, errors in) existing published work.   The qualifier paper is meant to show that you can string together a coherent scholarly discussion.   The qualifier paper can have a fairly broad literature review as long as it still limits attention to mechanical engineering topics. The proposal document, on the other hand, should include a literature review that is more tightly related to your proposed research, as your aim is to convince the committee that your proposed work is (1) important to the field of Mechanical Engineering and (2) has not been done. The thesis document should include an updated literature review that suggests no one else has accomplished the same thing during the time you were working on it (or prior to your efforts, but inadvertently overlooked in your original literature review). The final thesis literature review should also thoroughly compare/contrast your own accomplishments with alternative approaches in contemporary literature.

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Recommended reading for aspiring writers

I’ve been doing a lot of writing lately.  I’ve come to believe that writing well is at least as important for engineers as calculus.  This past semester I took a dissertation writing class from the writing department here at the University of Utah.  It was very interesting to read dissertations from fields as diverse as literature, material science, nursing and nuclear engineering.  I think that it’s safe to say it was beneficial for everyone involved.  One nice resource that another student suggested, is a book title “The Elements of Style” by William Strunk and E.B. White.  Yes that’s E.B. White of “Charlotte’s Web” fame.  I picked up a copy of the book at the library and have found it an excellent, and readable, resource for writing well.  I’ve also discovered that nearly everyone else on the planet knew about it and I was somehow left in the dark.  So for any of you who might still be in the dark about this wonderful resource I highly recommend it.