Finding A Dissertation Topic

Attention Black women.

I said, attention all Black women!

We are entering a state of emergency!

It’s not just that you take what we create.

It’s that it always gets lost in translation.

Crystal Valentine & Aaliyah Jihad – “Hide Your Shea Butter” (CUPSI 2016)

I haven’t written much about my actual dissertation on my blog.

I want to change that.

Today, I will tell you the long version of how I came to my topic.

I will describe the context in which I came to my topic.

I would like to note that research topics can come from many places and points of inspiration.

Finding a topic is a messy process.

Qualitative research is a messy process.

This is my story.

A year ago, I just finished transcribing my first sista circle for my dissertation.

I knew that this was more than another research project.

Magic was happening, a spirit of connectedness that was screaming for recognition.

My dissertation was an experience, not just another item on my to-do list.

Wasn’t about a credential.

I was after something much bigger.

Here is the overview of my study that I gave during my first circle: 

*I use actual excerpts from my data (and real life). Names are pseudonyms to protect participants’ identities

Marvette: I’m gonna give a brief overview. So originally…how my mind works…I’m a big picture thinker. And so because we’re in student affairs and we’re always talking about what’s the future… umm for me, I don’t think as a field, we’re not paying enough attention to where our students’ attention actually is going towards. Umm we’re still using old theories and old understanding of how (laughter) to come to like how we think of ourselves.

Sasha Fierce: Cause I’ve been studying.

Marvette: I don’t see myself reflected in the academy or college. I don’t have anywhere to go to talk about being a Black woman from Chicago that comes from a working-class background. Umm I’ll go to YouTube and find someone who’s in college who looks like me who comes from a similar neighborhood and see how they’re doing it and that’s how I get my understanding one of me and how to navigate through college and so I was wondering…

How can we take what’s already happening and bring it back to the brick and mortar university and build those communities?

But first I really wanted to understand…as Black women…

Sasha Fierce: So your research is mainly focused on the representation of Black women.

Marvette: So how do you make meaning of those and then what does that do for your identity?

I used Sista Circle Methodology.

Meaning, I was a participant in my study.

This also means that I included my own words in my transcripts and in my write-up.

You will find excerpts like the one above throughout my findings section.

However, that is a blog post for another day.

We viewed Beyonce’s “Formation” and Crystal Valentine & Aaliyah Jihad’s  “Hide Your Shea Butter” before engaging discussion.

The next three weeks were full of love, revelations, tears, fears, and laughs.

Everything just clicked.

Searching For A Topic

Let’s rewind back about two and a half years (Fall 2015).

I could not figure out a topic. Too many options.

I knew I wanted to do something with Black women, identity development, and Beyonce.

Lemonade was not yet released.

My committee just gave me the collective side-eye about the Beyonce part. 

My advisor mentioned maybe I could do an updated version of Dr. Rachelle Winkle-Wagner’s  The Unchosen Me work.

We were floating around the idea of hosting a 10-week workshop for Black undergraduate women where we would discuss pop culture and identity development.

10 weeks though?!

I was trying to vibe with it though.

Working on pulling it together. Meeting with key gatekeepers to help me with the project. Drafting plans.

Just couldn’t quite get into it.

50th Anniversaries, Black Berets, and Surprise Performances

Fast-forward to February 7th, 2016 during a relatively boring halftime performance (#SorryNotSorry)

Beyonce’ appears with a new single, a tribe of Black women, and a message for the world.

February 8, 2016, I went to my counseling appointment with a nice, white lady.

Nice, white lady: How was your weekend?

Marvette: It was okay. Didn’t do too much. Enjoyed some much needed alone time.

Nice, white lady: Oh, I thought you would’ve mentioned Beyonce’ at the Superbowl.

Marvette: Oh yeah, that was a cool surprise.

Nice, white lady: Why would she do that?

Marvette: *confused look*

Nice, white lady: Why would she support that terrorist organization? The Black Panthers! I was just meeting with a client whose father (that was a cop) was killed by the Black Panthers.

Collective sigh.

That ended in an hour-long session about the Black Panthers, Black Lives Matter vs. All Live Matter, and other fooleries.

Noted to self that was my last session as I went home to get ready for the day.

A few hours later, I rolled into a school function that I showed up to only so I wouldn’t be fined.

During a break, another “nice, white lady” started a conversation about Beyonce’. This time it was about the Formation video.

I hadn’t seen it yet.

Nice, white lady 2: Marvette, what did you think about the Formation video?

Marvette: I haven’t seen it.

Nice, white lady 2: I’m all for art and expression but why does she have to be crass, so vulgar? I believe you can get your message across without having to do all of that. The middle fingers, the police car underwater….

Y’all, it was only the afternoon.

Beyonce’ could have sent out an email to the Black woman collective to provide a warning or something.

We could have been prepared or at least made the decision to not leave the house for a couple of days.

Get In Formation

Formation was just the prelude or the positionality to Beyonce’s dissertation, Lemonade.

Lemonade dropped and the Ashiest of the Ashy also came to join in the conversation with the nice, White ladies.

I couldn’t believe all of these discussions on Twitter.

It was as if Black women were in a different world than everyone else. Here are all of these beautiful images of Black women in the center of a discussion around empowerment, healing and self-definition and the Ashies on Twitter (and the Ivory Tower) could only feel threatened.

It made me wonder: how can I be a part of capturing this affirming moment for Black women?

Think piece upon think piece detailed Black women’s responses to Lemonade. What it meant for them. How it helped them to reconcile their past with their present. How Lemonade reflected what their bodies already knew.

Lemonade was about more than a cheating spouse and father.

Lemonade and Formation was a call for Black women everywhere.

I took that call in the form of my dissertation work.

Black women in the Ivory Tower have been slaying for years, without recognition or support.

Our bodies hold the magic, the sacrifices, and the trauma of the past and present. As slaves, we were used to breed more property while matching the men in skill and productivity. Today, we are still expected to do the same. Except we are not harvesting cotton, we are now harvesting degrees. We are the silent ones behind the scenes. We are the ones on committees, running research projects, teaching courses, volunteering our time and emotion to our communities while still completing our class assignments and own research projects. We do so without praise or mention from the Ivory Tower. Oh yes, the academics celebrate our numbers, but it is hidden behind convoluted rhetoric that erases our efforts.

Ivory Tower, you give the gifts of trauma and pain, instead of support and assistance. And we keep rising; we keep spreading our magic. You tell us that we are not good enough; that our acceptance into your program was some sort of anomaly. As a result, we have to work harder, be the butt of your oppressive jokes and remarks. I acknowledge that this is not about one particular group of individuals. It is about the institution of higher education. This shit was not built for Black women. We are not asking for handouts and or special attention because we have been doing great without it. That excellence comes with its price though. And we continue to bear that price alone. We ask that you acknowledge us and that you hear us. We are asking to stop being lost in translation. 

I was working to provide a space for Black women to reconcile their personal development with their academic development.

No longer having to sacrifice the personal for the academic. I wanted a place of healing. Provide Black women a place to make their own decision about who they are in a holistic way.

That their experiences in their program along with childhood, sexuality, and spiritual experiences were all interconnected.

I did just that.

And became Dr. Lacy in the process.

Naomie: So umm that’s one thing that I think of the importance of having other Black women around you for multiple reasons to serve as a support umm bounce ideas off of each other whatever but it’s just having that network of other Black women umm I think that’s important.

Audre: the older I’ve gotten the more I’ve been around more Black women from different areas, different places different spaces seeing it doesn’t have to be this or this and that has been a strange, a challenge and just figuring out where I fit into all of that or creating my own space for all of that but it’s also a very freeing and so its an onward process but just getting out of that this or this just has been just liberating

(Collective hmmm)

4 Unexpected Things I Learned From Writing My Dissertation

Originally Published on SisterPhd

The first 5 months of 2017 are kinda a blur to me.

I started data collection on January 3rd, 2017 and successfully defended my dissertation on April 11th, 2017. I don’t suggest this timeline to anyone.

I sometimes have difficulty believing that I am Dr. Lacy.  I get questions all the time about the process.

Do I have any advice to give?

What did I wish I knew before starting the process?

The dissertation process is a very individualized process. This is a cliche response and a very true response. However, there are some things I’ve learned from this experience that I believe can help others.

Here are the 4 unexpected things I learned from writing my dissertation:


Make the decision to complete your dissertation.

Your dissertation is not happening to you. No one can make you complete it. The proposal is just the beginning. Getting to the dissertation defense is the part where it is all on you. The dissertation is the ultimate test in how bad you want to be #PhinisheD. You have to make the commitment EVERYDAY that this is what you want. It will be lonely. It will make you question if you really NEED this degree. Life will continue to happen. There will be celebrations, heartache, and everything happening in between that will make you question this process. You may have to miss some things, people, or events. How bad do you want it? It also doesn’t have to be all about sacrifice. It could also be the most enjoyable experience in your life. However, it is up to you make those decisions.

Write every day.

No doubt you’ve probably heard this often since beginning the doctoral process. It is especially true for the dissertation process. Writing every day is not only about sharpening your writing skills. Writing every day doesn’t mean just academic writing. Write whatever comes to mind. Writing can be therapeutic, reflective. Writing can capture your thoughts about what is happening with data collection, data analysis, your position on what is happening, and your life. You will not be able to hold all these thoughts in your head and accurately recall them later when you need them. Writing everyday will also develop your discipline in being able to sit and write for long periods of time, which you definitely need to do during this process.

Reading is also a part of writing. Reading will improve your writing. It is especially helpful to read as many dissertations as you can, particularly paying special attention to chapter 3 and 5. These are the chapters that are difficult for most. Chapter 3 is about outlining your plan and needs a level of detail that beginner researchers are not used to providing. Chapter 5 is explaining what should be done with this data. The “what now”. Chapter 5 is also the end of a tiring process. Your brain is done and over it. Strengthening these chapters requires reading other examples and giving yourself time to work through it.


Your advisor is on this journey with you; it’s not just about you and your timeline.

I have the BEST ADVISOR in the world and I dare you to challenge me on this. #FightMe

Seriously, I couldn’t have asked for a better advisor. In November 2016, after I defended my prospectus, she informed me that I would be graduating in May 2017 instead of August 2017 like I planned. She then proceeded to send out a direct and clear email to all of her advisees outlining that she will not be putting up with any foolishness and that there are some strict deadlines to be met.

“I think you’re planning to graduate in May, so I wanted to review these deadlines with you and give you something to work toward from my end.  As you all know, I strive to be direct, clear, and good with boundaries and not make our emergencies other people’s (e.g., your committee!) emergencies.  I don’t want to sound like a jerk, yet I also don’t want there to be surprises later, so I want to say up front that for me, there is no compromising on the two weeks time required for your committee to review the dissertation and then if you have edits to make (and you will – everyone does!), you need time to make those.  In some cases, committees will want to see your edits before submitting them to the graduate school, which will mean you need even more time.  I have been on too many committees where students have expected me to drop everything and review their dissertations as soon as I get them and I don’t want to put other people in that position, so we won’t be doing that!  Give yourself (and the people supporting you) plenty of time!” Dr. Chris Linder

This means that a completed draft of my dissertation had to be completed by March 6, 2017. I thought I was going to have a heart attack. I didn’t. I made it. The truth is I forgot that advisors are also being evaluated on their advisees. This year, my advisor would hood her first Ph.D. students and she waited (over) 4 years to do so

Redefine your personal understanding of productivity.

It took 3 hours to write chapter 3, 1 day to write chapter 1, and three months to write chapter 2. I started my proposal June 2016 and had a completed draft in September. I completed data collection February 6th, 2017. Chapter 4 was due two weeks after. Chapter 5 due on March 6th, 2017. If you’re following along with the math then you know there is a lot of time in between. Writing is a process (see point 2). The pressure was on! Plenty of days where I felt in the groove. Other days I cried, laughed, or just couldn’t even look at my laptop. And all of that had to be okay. There was no other choice. I just told myself to keep moving forward. I didn’t beat myself up about “wasting time”. I had no time to think about if it was perfect and I honestly believe my dissertation is better for it. Because the beauty is in the editing process. First drafts are meant to be shitty. No (successful) writer exists in isolation.

Completing a dissertation is more of a mental exercise than it is about actually writing 200 pages (arbitrary number). Some days the writing will just flow. Other days you will spend five hours staring at your screen. Both are productive. Have kind and realistic expectations of yourself. There is no “should” “supposed to be” or “right way” to this process. Already there is enough pressure and expectation built in this process, try not to put extra on yourself. Cry if you need to, have that shot of Crown, spend hours on Facebook, re-watch all 13 seasons of Grey’s Anatomy. It’s all a part of the process. You will need breaks. Just don’t stay there too long.

There is so much more I could say about lessons learned. These four lessons had the most impact. My dissertation allowed me to connect more with beautiful souls who graciously shared their time and their stories with me and each other. The beginning of the year was more of a spiritual journey where I learned about who I am as a writer, a researcher, a person and who I want to be in the future.

Dr. Marvette Lacy currently resides in Milwaukee, WI where she is the Women’s Resource Center Director at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. She also works with graduate students to better understand qualitative research. Need help with your dissertation or research assignment? Sign up here for a free 30-minute consultation.

Just Tell Me What I Need To Know: Participants, Research Sites, And Methods

Writing is more about collecting and organizing information when describing your participants, research sites, and data collection methods. Most people will skip the details of this section. This may be because of space limitation. I find that novice researchers don’t think to include these details.

Whatever the reasons, I have included some prompts below for you to consider when writing your methodology section.

Some things to remember:

  • I’m providing a starting point. This is not meant to be taken as the right way to write. It is intended to give you some guidance during a confusing process.
  • It is easier to edit an existing thing than to start from scratch. So…the goal is to write the worst draft ever! This is not about spending hours and hours making the perfect first sentence. Writing is a process. You will spend more hours editing than you think. So the goal is to have something to edit.
  • Show up with something! Always, always, always refer to the Graduate’s school guidelines, your program’s manual, and your advisor/chair. This guide is meant to give you something to show up with.


Think about who the ideal person would be to help you achieve your research purpose.  Additionally, decide how many people you will need in order to “substantiate your claims” (thank you Dr. Corey Johnson). There is no right  number for participants and it does depend on your methods.

The more in-depth your methods, the fewer the participants you may need. Especially, when you are designing your first research project (i.e., dissertation). If you are only interviewing your participants for one interview, then you may want to aim for about 6 – 12 participants. Either way, here are some things to think about when deciding on participants:

  • How many?
  • Identity considerations (e.g., race, gender, sexual orientation)
  • Age?
  • Membership (e.g., organizations, degree programs)
  • Socialization (e.g., born and raised in the U.S.A.)
  • Any other?

Ex. Participants included 7 self-identified women of color activists attending a state university in the western United States. Participants defined their identities in their own words (see Table 1) and were active in campus and community activities, including a campus social justice retreat, multicultural sororities, living–learning communities, a student organization for multiracial students, and women’s studies and ethnic studies.

Ex. The present study represents a secondary analysis of data collected from an 18-month critical collaborative ethnographic study alongside nine trans* collegians at the City University (CU, a pseudonym). Specifically, the data used for the present analysis were drawn from participant observation (Wolcott, 2008) alongside, and a series of ethnographic interviews (Heyl, 2001) with, two black, non-binary participants, one of whom also identified as having multiple disabilities.

Research Sites

Where will your participants come from and where will the data collection process take place? These are the main two questions to consider when writing about your research site(s). Here are some things to consider:

  • Name (usually you will use a pseudonym)
  • Location (maybe not the exact the location, enough information to help the reader understand the context)
  • Overview of the site (how would you describe it and why did you choose it for your study)

Ex. CU is a large, urban, public four-year institution in the Midwest in the city of Stockdale (a pseudonym). Stockdale has a history of both racial and LGBTQ tension and ongoing systemic marginalization due to recent episodes of violence as well as an historic legacy of redlining, gentrification, and anti-queer legislation. Also of note for the present study, the percentage of black students at CU, at just under 10%, is vastly lower than that of the black population of Stockdale, which the 2010 Census data suggested to be 45%.


How did you reach out to participants and inform people about your study? The more detail you can include in this section, the clearer it will be for the reader.

  • Did you talk to anyone (gatekeepers, organizations)?
  • Did you send out an email, post on social media, have a website?
  • What happens once someone was interested in participating?
  • Did they complete consent forms before meeting you?

Ex. Recruitment for this study specifically sought self-identified women of color activists. Chris was serving as a facilitator at a campus based social justice retreat and sent an e-mail to all retreat participants and to the seven campus student diversity offices to recruit participants. We chose not to define activist, allowing those who identified as activists to self-select into the study. We selected all participants who responded.


Describing your data collection method section is about the how you will obtain the data you need to answer your research questions. Please note: Qualitative research is more than INTERVIEWS! Now that that’s out of the way, here is what to consider:

  • What is the method?
  • Describe method?
  • Why is it relevant to your study?
  • Be sure to use citations in this section. Who and what is guiding your understanding of this method?
  • Include example prompts or questions
  • Note: This may be brief depending on what type of paper you are writing.

Ex. To better understand the experiences of self-identified women of color activists, one researcher conducted 1-hour individual interviews with each participant. Participants provided a pseudonym to assist in protecting their confidentiality. A sample of the semistructured interview questions included: Please describe your campus activism. How would you say your activism has impacted your identity and how you see yourself?

Ex. The present study represents a secondary analysis of data collected from an 18-month critical collaborative ethnographic study alongside nine trans* collegians at the City University (CU, a pseudonym). Specifically, the data used for the present analysis were drawn from participant observation (Wolcott, 2008) alongside, and a series of ethnographic interviews (Heyl, 2001) with, two black, non-binary participants, one of whom also identified as having multiple disabilities.

Overview of Methods

One of the most common confusion of dissertation committee members is understanding a clear picture of the student’s research process. Try thinking about this part as the participant’s journey through your research project. Representing this journey visually can severely improve your chances of avoiding this common pitfall.

  • What is the process of your research design?
  • How would you describe the participant’s journey?
  • Display this using pictures, graphs, etc. that you can use during your defense.

Participant: Who is the participant?

Step One: How will the potential participant find out about your study?

Step Two: Now the potential participant is interested in the study, how do the signup or contact you?

Step Three: They have contacted you, what do they need to do next? (Consent forms, schedule a time, etc.)

Step Four: What will happen when you two meet at your designated time? (Consent forms, Overview of study, interview, schedule follow up)

Step Five: After initial data collection, are there other things the participant will need to do? (second interview, focus group, member checking)

Step Six: Any additional follow up, gift, raffle

Try to write out this step-by-step. No step is too small. The more details you can add, the clearer it will be for all.

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Just Tell Me What I Need To Know: Problem, Purpose, and Research Questions

I remember feeling frustrated and confused during my first year of the program. Like all I wanted was for someone to tell me what I needed to do!

People would speak in this very theoretical, heady way and had no idea what they were saying let alone meaning.

I just wanted someone to just tell me what I needed to know and do.

I understand that this is not as easy because there is no one way to do a thing and some people are just not good teachers.

Some things to remember:

  • I’m providing a starting point. This is not meant to be taken as the right way to write. It is intended to give you some guidance during a confusing process.
  • It is easier to edit an existing thing than to start from scratch. So…the goal is to write the worst draft ever! This is not about spending hours and hours making the perfect first sentence. Writing is a process. You will spend more hours editing than you think. So the goal is to have something to edit.
  • Show up with something! Always, always, always refer to the Graduate’s school guidelines, your program’s manual, and your advisor/chair. This guide is meant to give you something to show up with.

Part one is about how to write your problem statement, purpose statement, and research questions. For each section, I will provide:

  • A brief overview,
  • Questions or points to address,
  • A fill-in-the-blank guide, and
  • Examples (one I made up and two from published journals)

Let’s jump right in!

Research Problem

The research problem: the “why” of your study. The problem explains the history and context of why your study needs to be conducted. The problem statement should address such questions as:

  • What is going on?
  • What are some reasons that it may be happening?
  • Who does this effect?
  • What is being done about it?
  • What information is missing or needed to solve the problem?

Problem statement: (Existing literature), yet (this is missing).

Ex. Researchers have examined the experiences of first-generation college students at historically White institutions, yet there is little that is known regarding first-generation college students’ experiences at historically Black colleges and universities.

Ex. African American women tend to enroll in institutions of higher education at far greater rates than their male counterparts, with women accounting for approximately 60% of the total enrollment of African American students (Allen, Jayakumar, Griffin, Korn, & Hurtado, 2005). Yet, much of the African American college student literature that has explicitly explored gender has focused on African American men, often comparing them to the racial/ethnic counterparts or documenting their experiences at predominantly White institutions (PWIs; e.g., Bonner, 2010; Harper, 2008b, 2012; Harper & Griffin, 2011). [Greyerbiehl & Mitchell Jr., 2014, p. 282]

Ex. Some popular media outlets have described the importance of social media in sexual violence activism (Ludden, 2014), yet little scholarship has examined the role of social media in campus-based sexual violence activism (Linder, Myers, Riggle, & Lacy, 2016, p. 232).

Research Purpose

The research purpose is the “what’ of your study. The purpose clearly states the goal of your project. Your research problem informs your research purpose.

Think about it as a funnel. The problem section provides a broad overview of the issues. Your writing become more narrow as you get to the purpose statement. The goal is to have a concise statement that provides the reader an overview of your study. Think about a thesis statement. The purpose statement may also include information about the following:

  • Paradigm
  • Methodology
  • Central phenomenon
  • Participants
  • Research Site
  • Theoretical Framework

Purpose statement:

The purpose of this____________ (paradigm) (methodology) study is to _____________ (understand, explore, describe, develop) _____________ (central phenomenon) for _______________ (participants) at _____________ (the site).

Ex. The purpose of the critical narrative inquiry is to examine sense of belonging for first-generation college students at historically Black college and universities.

Ex. In this study, we documented the experiences of African American women involved in historically Black sororities at a PWI using an intersectional social capital framework (Greyerbiehl & Mitchell Jr., 2014, p. 282).

Ex. In this study, we examine the strategies of campus sexual violence activists, including the role of social media in sexual violence activism (Linder, Myers, Riggle, & Lacy, 2016, p. 232).

Side Note On Significance:

Providing a statement of significance is often overlooked by novice researchers because…well…simply, we just want to research what we want to research.

As great as that feels, it’s important to be clear about who this study is for and what they should do with the data. Your significance statement(s) may address:

  • So what?
  • Why are you doing this study?
  • How will this contribute to your field?
  • What are readers supposed to do as a result of reading your study?
  • Who are your ideal readers?

Ex. The findings and implications of this study may benefit practitioners at HBCUs to develop and maintain more intentional programming for first-generation college students, which may also increase retention rates.

Ex. In turn, researchers and practitioners may gain more insight on the experiences of African American women involved in historically Black sororities and build on the findings (Greyerbiehl & Mitchell Jr., 2014, p. 284).

Ex. Finally, we describe and discuss findings from our observations and interviews with sexual assault activists, and provide implications for those supporting campus-based activists (Linder, Myers, Riggle, & Lacy, 2016, p. 232).

Research Questions

Research questions help guide your study. There are different schools of thoughts about questions. Some will say it is the most important thing and that you should only look for information related to those questions.

My philosophy is that your questions provide boundaries to your study with a lot of wiggle room. You don’t know what you are going to find and you shouldn’t limit the possibilities. This comes down to paradigms and understandings of qualitative research. For the purposes of this workshop, we will develop one main research question.

Golden Rule: Always check with your advisor/chair regarding their specific expectations.

What are the experiences of ______________ (participants) who ____________ (central phenomenon) at _________ (the site)?

How do ______________ (participants) who ____________ (central phenomenon) at _________ (the site)?

Ex. How do first-generation college students experience sense of belonging at HBCUs?

Ex. The research questions for this study included: What are the strategies of campus sexual assault activists? What role did social media play in campus sexual assault activism? (Linder, Myers, Riggle, & Lacy, 2016, p. 235)

Ex. The following research questions shaped the study: (a) What are the experiences of African American women who joined historically Black sororities at a PWI? (b) How does the intersection of race and gender shape their experiences within historically Black sororities at a PWI? (Greyerbiehl & Mitchell Jr., 2014, 282)

There you have it, folks!

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Naturally Surviving: Lauren

Name: Lauren Harper

Program: Ph.D. Counseling Psychology

Year In Program: 3rd

Where can people find you (website, social media, etc.): Facebook is your best bet! You can find me under Lauren Simone Harper

Words of advice/helpful information: I hope you either hear yourself or hear what you need and that this launches you closer to who you’re destined to be.

Anything else you would like to add: Thank you Dr. Lacy for your steadfast commitment to Black women and the Black scholar community. It’s been an honor to know you, work with you, and call you my sista-scholar!

8 Steps To Writing A Qualitative Literature Review

Literature reviews are not the most exciting things to write (IMO).

I often get so lost in the reading and research that there is often no energy to actually write the review.

And exactly what are you supposed to put in a literature review?

Do you include EVERYTHING that has EVER been written on the subject?

What do you include? Leave out?

Do I need a conceptual framework? A theoretical framework? What’s the difference again?

It can all be so frustrating and irritating.

Let’s take a deep breath.

Today, I’m going to walk you through what to do.


In this post, I will:

  • Give an overview of literature reviews and the 3 main things you need to know.
  • Explain the difference between conceptual and theoretical frameworks.
  • Identify the 8 steps to take when writing a literature review.

Literature Review

A literature review should provide an overview of concepts that will be discussed in your study. It should better prepare the reader for your study and results. The literature review sets the context, the stage of your study.

Three things to consider when writing your literature review:

  1. Write a synthesized synopsis of current literature; not a list of everything that has ever been written about said subject.
  2. The review should include 3-5 important concepts the readers need to understand in order to be properly setup for your study and findings.
  3. Include any theories that you will use in data collection and data analysis.

Where people get confused is when the terms of conceptual framework and theoretical framework are used instead of the term, literature review.

Some Definitions

Concept (Constructs)- abstract or generalized idea about an object or phenomenon.

Ex – Activism, Self-Esteem, or Anxiety

Framework – a basic structure, boundaries, guidelines

Conceptual Framework provides a general structure of concepts that help inform the boundaries of your study. It is the 3 or 5 topics your readers need to understand in order to better understand your results.

Theoretical – concerning theory

Theoretical Framework:

  • Is there a particular theory that relates to your study that helps guide your individual understanding of your study, data collection methods, and/or data analysis? It generally provides an overview.
  • You may be applying to a specific context to see if you get similar results.
  • The theory (theories)  may also explain relationships between concepts.
  • The theory can be a part of your literature review or it can be separate. You will make the decision.

8 Steps To Writing Your Literature Review

I have identified 8 steps to follow when you are writing a literature review. I used this when completing chapter 2 for my dissertation. These steps helped me to write the most painful section of the dissertation.

  1. Get A System
  2. Gather Literature
  3. Read, Read, Take Notes, and Read Some More
  4. Outline The Mess
  5. Write It Out
  6. Include Theoretical Framework
  7. Send to Your Advisor and Celebrate
  8. Review Feedback and Go Back to Step 2

Let’s get started!

Step 1: Get A System

I think it’s helpful to figure out your organization system before you begin reading. This will help make life so much easier in the long run. You will be reading so much information and you may think that you will be able to keep everything in your head. At some point, it will become overwhelming and everything will just disappear out of your head.

I started off using Refworks and it just wasn’t working for me.

I would suggest a spreadsheet or a plain document where you begin your reference page.

The spreadsheet will track each thing that you read by it’s citation and any notes that you found while reading. You will see sections Primary Construct and Secondary Construct. Remember, construct = concept (see above for the definition). These sections will become imperative when you begin writing your literature review.

Here is an example of a spreadsheet you can use:

Here is an example of using a document. I used Evernote because I can have access to it wherever I go . Feel free to use whatever you are most comfortable with.

When using the document method, I also had a different document for each of my constructs.






What will you use to organize your literature?

Step 2 – Gather Literature

Find a reference librarian.

You will try to do this alone and ultimately you will come back to the first sentence.

Go find a reference librarian.

They LOVE searching for information and know all tricks and hacks to getting all of the articles.

Also, don’t be lazy. If an article does not have the pdf attached, order it through the interlibrary loan system. The article (or book) will come fast enough. Limiting yourself to just what you instantly have access to will severely hinder your literature review.

Figure Out Online Database

I would also suggest that you ask the reference librarian to give you a crash course on your school’s library’s online database system. You may have had a long presentation during orientation or your first class. Trust me, you want to go through it again. One-on-one training is so much different than class training.

Where To Save Documents

Save your pdfs and readings a specific place. I suggest Google Drive or Dropbox. Again, you can take it everywhere with you.  This also saves storage on your personal device.

Naming Documents

Additionally, how you name your documents is also important. One suggestion, 1st Author’s Last Name, Year, First few words of title (Ex. hooks.1992.BlackLooks). Organizing your documents by name will help make the search process easier later when you need to review a specific article.

Unlikely Places to Search

Lastly, it does not hurt to do a search on Google Scholar and Google. You never know what you may find.

Step 3 – Read, read, take notes, and read some more!

Read each article, book, or document.

Avoid the urge to highlight the entire article because you think it’s all important. It’s not.

When you are new, you think EVERYTHING is important. The authors are saying everything you want to say exactly the way you want to say it. This is especially true when you are new to research or the topic.

Here are few things to do:

  • Create two new word documents and label them Literature & Methodology.
  • The Literature document is where you will write down citations that you find when you are reading the introductions and literature reviews of the articles you have found. You will come back to this list and find these articles at a later time. This will help you avoid going down the rabbit holes and distractions.
  • The Methodology document is similar. You will write down any cool methods you find or methodologies that you may want to explore when you begin to write this section. Remember, come back to it later.
  • Focusing on one task at a time will help you be more efficient.
  • Pay special attention to findings and discussion sections of the articles. This information will inform your literature review.  
  • Most important: Give yourself a deadline. At this date, you will STOP reading and begin writing. You will write even if you have not finished reading. This is a process. There is no ultimate endpoint. Please refer to my last article (LINK). Reading is never done. However, if you never stop to write then you don’t progress. Fuck perfectionism, just write!
Step 4 – Outline The Mess

Picture of handout

  • What are the 3 – 5 topics that seem to come up over and over as you were reading?
    • Also, refer to your research questions for guidance and the terms you used when searching for materials.
    • These 3 -5 topics should be broad and still relate to your topic.
    • Example:  Evaluation of a Bystander Education Program
      1. Principles of Bystander Education
      2. Five-Step Model of Bystander Intervention
      3. Evidence to Support Bystander Interventions
    • Example:  The Comparative Impacts of Social Justice Educational Methods on Political Participation, Civic Engagement, and Multicultural Activism
      1. Service Learning
      2. Intergroup Dialogue
      3. Lecture-Based Diversity Course

  • For each concept, what are 3-5 things that are important to say about this?
    1. These are main ideas
    2. Repeat often throughout existing literature
    3. May also provide something contradictory to repeated points
    4. May not be as clear until after data collection and analysis
    5. How does this concept relate to your study?
    6. How does it fit/not fit for your study?
    7. Any critiques?

The outline does not have to be perfect. Just put whatever words come to mind. You can always change it later. It’s going to be okay.

Step 5 – Write It Out!

Begin to write your literature review following your outline.

  1. Start with your organizing sentences. Just used what you wrote on your outline for these sentences.
    • (Concept 1) is (Main Idea 1), (Main Idea 2), and (Main Idea 3). I will conclude with a critique of the current literature related to (Concept 1) and explain how (Concept 1) relates to my study.
  2. Brain dump everything you know about this topic.
  3. Read through the brain dump and organize it according to your first sentence.
  4. Edit the section for mechanics, word choice, etc.
  5. Go to the next section
  6. Remember: we are not trying to be perfect, just making progress
Step 6 (Bonus)- Theoretical Framework

Are there any theories that explain the relationship between concepts or that you will use in your study?

  • Provide an overview of the theory.
  • A concise explanation of major points (think elevator pitch).
  • Explain why it is relevant for your study – why are you using it?
Step 7 – Show to your advisor/major professor. Celebrate while you wait.

Step 8 – Review feedback and start back at step 2.

Want to know more?
Get your own copy to the Literature Review Guide!

4 Ways to Read More as a PhD Student

You get your new syllabi for the semester.

You’re all excited to see what books will be used, what assignments you will have to do, and how much the class is going to require from you.

However, you turn to the weekly view and see ALL THE READING that is required for this class.

How will you get it all done? #How Sway

The first thing I want to say is
Yes, I’m yelling!



This is usually the hardest lesson for most who are new to a Ph.D. program to learn.

More reading is assigned than is expected to actually be read.

Look at the list as providing you more options for understanding a concept. Many different viewpoints exist on a concept. No more are things as simple a right and wrong.

The whole point of getting a Ph.D., it is to teach (or show) you that you have your own viewpoints. The program through classes and research activities give you practice on how to articulate your viewpoints in a more informed matter. Informed by the voices of other people who have been deemed “experts” in your field. People such as old White men who wrote

something of the top of their heads a billion years ago (IMO).

The theory is the more you engaged with a concept from various viewpoints, the more you will be able to uncover your own viewpoint. However, a lot of people merely treat reading assignments as separate items on a weekly to-do list with no connection to each other.

But who has time for all of that reading? You have a billion other things you need to get done than to sit around thinking about thinking. Am I right or am I right?

Truth bomb: That’s exactly what you signed up for!

4 Ways to Read More

Either way, I understand that life is busy. There are a lot of things that need to get done. Today, I’m going to share with you some ways to navigate getting all of your reading completed.

Set aside 3 hours a day, every day for reading.

This is for my readers who want to read every word assigned. Especially if you are not a speed-reader, you are going to need a significant amount of time to get the reading done. Your number may be different than 3 hours; however, the more you get into it, the more accurate you can plan out reading. It would be helpful to make these three hours the same every day.

Why three hours?

Reading is more than words on a page. Notes about the meaning of these words strung together need to be made. You have to organize it in a way that will help you remember this information for later. Unless you a photographic memory you will no doubt have some mechanism like highlighting important points, writing notecards, writing in the margins, typing out notes and thoughts, or some combination of all. The more you read, the faster you will get and it will still take a considerate amount of time to get it all done.

Speed-Reading Hacks

When I want to read something to get an idea of what the authors are saying and I don’t want to read word-from-word, I use this hack. Read the first and last sentence of each paragraph.

If the authors are true academic writers, their manuscripts will give all the important information at the beginning and end of each chapter, sections, and/or paragraph. That’s what makes doing academic writing difficult, tedious, and boring to some. However, as a reader, it makes following along easier and more efficient.

I also had a friend who would read every other word. These hacks require that your mind stay in the moment and focused on what you are reading. As you will likely be going faster than you normally would go, you are going to need to focus more. I especially use this hack when reading articles.

Pick some and leave the rest.

Honestly, you can generally get an idea of the reading if you are paying attention to class discussion. Still, in order to be a participating member in that discussion, you have to do some reading. That does not mean all of the reading.

Look at the list for the week, what stands out to you? Are there titles or authors that grab your attention? Pick those and leave the rest. Now the ones that you pick, you are going to want to read them and be very familiar with them. These selected articles will be what you use to inform your comments in class. You can choose to read these words from word or using one of the reading hacks like the ones mentioned above. You may feel like you are somehow cheating however these are your own thoughts of wanting to be perfect. Perfectionism is a disease.

Group Notes

You can find a few people, I say no more than three people, who you trust. Each person reads their assigned readings, take notes, and shares it with the group. This is for those who are not comfortable with not reading everything and do not have time to read everything.

It is critical for everyone to set their own expectations. The discussion should address such questions as:

When will you assign readings (each week, beginning of the semester)?
How detailed should the notes be?
What should be included?
How will you make sure it is equitable? Not all titles are created equal.
When will the notes be due to the group by?
Where will said notes be kept?
If someone else wants access to the notes, how will that decision be made?

Going with the flow and skipping this conversation will cause headaches and frustration later. Even if you are all friends and deeply love each other, a discussion of expectations is needed.

You can download me!

There are four ways to attack your reading for the semester. How do you handle your reading? Is there anything from this article that you can take with you? Let me know in the comments.

How To Write A Research Question

First, figure out:

Topic: What is the general thing you want to talk about?

Problem: What issue will you research address?

Purpose: What will be the point of your research project and how does it connect to the problem?

Once you know those two things, then you can write your main research question. Some other things that you can do to figure out your first question:

  1. Get all of the thoughts out of your head. Take a brain dump, either writing, talking to someone, or recording yourself. You want to say or write everything that you are thinking in relation to your topic. This will help get clear and to focus down on your topic.
  2. Read existing literature. You have to know what has already been done regarding your topic. What have other people found? If there is nothing, what does that mean? WARNING: Please don’t get stuck here. Using reading as an excuse will hinder your progress. [CONNECT ARTICLE]
  3. What is your time frame and capacity with this project? How much time do you have? Is this a project that you can do alone or will you need others? There is more time to do more research projects, however, let’s get this one done first.

Need help writing your research question? Share it in the comments or email me at and I’ll give you feedback on it.

Naturally Surviving: TJ

Program: College Student Affairs Administration at UGA
Year In Program: 2nd
Where can people find you (website, social media, etc.): I am TerahJay on any and all social media where I want to be found haha! (Twitter, IG) and
Words of advice/helpful information:
It’s never too late or, in my case, too early to be whoever you want to be. There’s no time limit, stop whenever you want. You can change or stay the same, there are no rules to this thing. We can make the best or the worst of it. I hope you make the best of it. And I hope you see things that startle you. I hope you feel things you never felt before. I hope you meet people with a different point of view. I hope you live a life you’re proud of. If you find that you’re not, I hope you have the strength to start all over again.

How To Be A Successful Doctoral Student

Happy August!

Are you ready to start your new adventure?

For some of you, this is not your first year. However, you may still feel like you need some direction in life.

There is no pressure to feel like you need to have it all together. I still didn’t feel like I had it all together when I became Dr. Lacy.

I do think it is helpful to know how other people organized their doctoral lives. Even if these things don’t click with you, hopefully, it will give you some ideas of what will work best for you.

Also, there is not one thing that is going to work…or work the entire time you are in your doctoral program. You will change and your needs will change.

Practice grace and patience with yourself. You will come out on the other side.

3 Things I Needed The Most

This week I will discuss the three major things that will have the most impact on your life right now. I will talk about how to organize all your to-dos and events, talk about managing your readings and notes, and talk about building routines to further productivity.

Planners, Planners, Planners

I love planners, calendars, and notebooks; all things related to stationery and office supplies.

I have used a planner since middle school. Mostly, I used my planner to write down important dates, birthdays, assignments, and exams. I would spend a lot of time writing everything I needed in the beginning of the semester only to not use it on a regular basis throughout the semester. I had it with me all the time but for some reason, I just didn’t refer to it everyday. It was something about writing it down helped me keep it in mind. Plus, in K-12, teachers and grownups are constantly reminding you what you need to do and when.

However, being in a doctoral program changed all of that for me. It was difficult to keep up with all of the readings, the assignments, the other dates like research meetings, and things I needed to do for my graduate assistantship. Transitioning to a new city and a new school was a lot for me! This additional stress did not leave a lot of room for me to remember everything together in my mind.

During my first year, I thought I would manage everything digitally. I would use my Google calendar, write my assignments in Google Documents, and buy only digital books. It was a disaster. It was difficult to focus constantly reading a screen. I learned that I love the feeling holding an actual book or document and being able to handwrite notes on the pages. Yes, there are apps to do this with digital books and documents; however, it was not the same.

My first key piece of advice: Please do not try anything new when you first begin your doctoral program. The transition will be stressful enough and adding a new system to the mix can make it more chaotic.

Needless to say, I went back to using a paper planner. I went to Target and got a regular ole horizontal planner. This was before the days of my addiction to planners, stickers, and decorations. I was only concerned with keeping everything in one place.

What will you use to keep track of everything? Will it be a paper planner, a digital calendar, a combination, some other things?

The takeaway is to have something. At the end of this post, I have linked to a few tools that may help keep you on track.

There are so many options. Maybe just having a notebook where you write down everything is enough for you. Whatever it is, keep it consistent to save yourself some headaches.

Note Management System

You will be confronted with an endless amount of reading as you begin your doctoral program. How are you supposed to read it all, let alone keep track of everything you are reading? This reading can be overwhelming. You will make it through it. Next week, I will be speaking about how to crush your reading without stressing yourself out.

Today, I want to give you some tools you can use to keep track of the notes and other important things from your readings. You will be thankful that you took time to have a comprehensive note management system when it comes time for final exams, preliminary exams, or writing various manuscripts. You will remember random things and your system, depending on how well organized it is, will help you to locate that random thing.

I mainly used Evernote for my note management system. You can organize things into notebooks. And every time you make a new note, you can give it a title and tags to helps it be more searchable for the future. Evernote also keeps track of dates and authors. There is also an option to share with others.

I additionally like that you can add pdfs, pictures, and web pages right into the note. So you can have it all in one place. The best part is that it is free and you can take it along with you without having to carry around any physical storage device.

You can also use other systems to do something similar, such as Google Drive and Onedrive. I just prefer Evernote for my notes. I have also used a Word document to keep all of my notes in one place. Microsoft Word gives you the option to put the document into a notebook layout. It really is going to depend on what works best for you.

Digital books and pdf did not work for me; however, writing notes or brain dumping was better in a digital space because I type faster than I write. I could just brain dump about what I read or things I heard in class. For some classes, I did use a paper notebook but mostly I used a Word document and Evernote.

Work Routine/Place

I’m a person who is not the biggest fan of routines and after this doctoral experience, I cannot deny the power of routines for productivity. During my first year, I worked on my readings and assignments whenever I felt the urge. The deeper I got into the year, the less I felt the urge. So I had to come up with some routines.

First, I had to stop working at home. I found that it was better for me to physically go to another location to get more work done. There were too many distractions at home to stay focus. I found a coffee shop that had great internet, plenty of seating, and decent coffee. I would go to this place at least four days a week to get things done. I even asked classmates to join me because that also helped me to focus. 

What is your place where you will go just for work? What does this place need to have? Comfortable seating? Quiet area? Do you need others to be around?

I would also encourage you to treat this as a job where you go to this place the same days and times every week. It will train your mind and body to know it is now the time to be productive and do school work.

If you prefer to stay home, designate a specific space where you will go to complete work. The bed may not be the best place though.

Tools That May Be Helpful

There are so many things that you can use to help yourself stay focus and to be successful. I will say keep it simple at first. I only shared three things as I do not want to overwhelm you but there will be more great tips to come. Until then, check out this resource guide of tools and let me know if you have any to add to this list.

What tools are you using to keep everything together?