working with literatures – love the uncertainty

I am frequently asked by doctoral researchers about reviewing literatures. As they talk, I often get a strong sense that their questions are accompanied by feelings of inadequacy.My guess is that they feel they ought to have more of a handle on the literatures, and the work that they need to do with them, than they actually do.

Now, this is not entirely guess work on my part as the kinds of metaphors that doctoral researchers routinely use to describe work with literatures are all about feeling out of control – floundering, drowning, being lost… (Barbara and I have researched and written about these metaphors and you can also hear me talking about them in this podcast interview with Ben at Lit Review HQ.) Even though these questioning doctoral researchers have been slogging away at the reading for some time, they haven’t yet got a neat map. They fear that everyone else probably does, and there is something wrong with them because they don’t. They would like me to give them a magic answer to the problem.

The bad news is of course that there is no simple, quick recipe to getting on top of the literatures. It is just a slow process of getting clear. And in order to get clear, you have to start out being uncertain. But the bad news is that you stay uncertain throughout the doctorate – it’s just that what you are uncertain about changes. So there’s no point fighting it, uncertainty is part of the process. It’s usual. It’s to be expected.

Rugg and Petrie (2010, p 68) have a useful set of ‘stages’ which describe different kinds of literature tasks that the doctoral researcher must do, with their accompanying uncertainties. These are worth knowing. I’ve added to Rugg and Petrie’s stages, so you need to read them knowing that this is my interpretation of what they say.

Stages of knowing and not knowing

The doctoral researcher at the beginning of their research:
(1) KNOWS the general area that they are interested in researching and
(2) READS to find our what’s already known about it.
(3) Their TASK is to survey the field, by collecting, reading, summarizing and synthesizing and reporting on what’s there.
(4) They feel uncertain and WONDER about how they can organise these sources in a way that makes sense.

A little later in the process, the doctoral researcher:
(1) KNOWS what their research topic is to be.
(2) They READ to find more specific information about relevant debates, methods and blank spots.
(3) Their TASK is to organise the information into categories and patterns so that they situate their topic in the field.
(4) They feel uncertain and WONDER about how they can frame their topic into a question.

Further on, but still in the first year, the doctoral researcher:
(1) KNOWS the research question and
(2) READS some – the most relevant – texts much more closely.
(3) Their TASK is to select the groups of literatures most pertinent to the research question to construct an argument for their research project.
(4) They feel uncertain and WONDER whether they have located all of the relevant material, as well as how what they are going to do might speak to what is already known. They can only guess at their potential contribution.

At the end of the research, the completing doctoral researcher:
(1) KNOWS generally what research is out there and
(2) READS to clarify what is most germane to their research and what has been published since they started. But they also read for what isn’t known about the topic, so that they can clarify their claims for contribution.
(3) Their TASK is to construct an argument in the thesis text which establishes the antecedents for their approach, which not only describes but also evaluates the field, and which clearly locates their contribution.
(4) They feel uncertain and WONDER about how to connect what they have done with what is already known, as well as what hasn’t yet been researched and all the projects that might therefore follow on from their research.


What I most like about Rugg and Petrie’s stages heuristic is that it makes very clear that there is no moment when the doctoral – or indeed any – researcher knows everything. They/we are always in a state of both knowing and unknowing. We are always working from one position of knowing/unknowing to another. Uncertainty about something – or wondering, as Rugg and Petrie very helpfully reframe it – is the norm. It actually is the process of research. After all, if you already knew, there’d be no point doing the research at all.

If understanding that to not know is how research – including working with literatures – is meant to be, then knowing that there are stages might be helpful. Maybe being able to recognize that you have actually moved from one stage of knowing/not knowing to another could help doctoral researchers adjust to, and deal with, living with uncertainty.

It’s really not the doctoral researcher who is inadequate because they don’t know it all, it is just the process. If that’s the case, it’s probably good to get VERY comfortable with the idea of uncertainty, because knowing/not knowing will just be part of life from now on.


Rugg M and Petrie G (2010) The unwritten rules of PhD research. Second edition. Maidenhead: Open University Press.

About pat thomson

Pat Thomson is Professor of Education in the School of Education, The University of Nottingham, UK
This entry was posted in doctoral research, literature mapping, literature review, literature themes, metaphor, uncertainty, wonder and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

11 Responses to working with literatures – love the uncertainty

  1. Pingback: Working with literatures – love the uncer...

  2. Hello, this is very timely for me, thank you. I like your ”fitting an octopus into a glass’ metaphor to describe the process of taking charge of the literatures. I also like the ‘dinner party’ metaphor because of the active agency it ascribes to the researcher, rather than the passive victimhood that other metaphors suggest (eg drowning). I am at a very early stage of the research process and I think different metaphors apply at each stage. Recently, I’ve lost sight of my original research question – which, I think, at my early stage, can also explain why the lit review process fuels the uncertainty you mention. I was (re)explaining my research to my 9 year-old yesterday whose inescapable and unhedged pragmatism has brought me crashing back down to earth and forced me to re-articulate what my research problem is, why it is a problem and for whom, and what evidence there is (basically, the ‘so what?’ issue). Having these questions in my line vision at all times, will, I am hoping, help me to navigate for a while. So, a metaphor for me right now would be that I have the ingredients for ‘a’ meal laid out on my dinner table (not necessarily my ideal meal, but these are the ingredients I have available to me right now so have decided to do something with them before they reach their best before date)…….. I am mixing them, tasting them, preparing them, etc., but I have forgotten what the actual meal I am cooking is! I’m wondering whether I may end up cooking something completely different ….. or unintended, or have to chuck it all and start again :-/. I also think I just need to cook them (i.e. write!), rather than keep weighing and mixing and speculating over what else could go in (i.e. read!), and take it from there.

    Liked by 1 person

    • pat thomson says:

      Yes you have to work at it consistently, rather than hoping for an aha. These come occasionally, but usually only because working at it has been ongoing….


      • Jutel says:

        I am glad you have taken on the metaphor, as it provides so much insight about how we are making sense of what we do. One that I find helpful for my early-on doctoral students that can replace the negative metaphors of “floundering” or “drowning” is the pool. Literature is a big pool, and somewhere in it there is a nugget that it’s our task to bring to the surface. we’re still talking about water, and we’re still submerged, but with purpose.


  3. Interesting read, thanks. We try to collaborate with different researchers to be sure that we have an overview of the most important articles.


  4. Something I have always found fascinating is the lack of methodology in literature reviews. We go to painstaking efforts to detail every element of our research process. But we spend very little if any time, telling the reader what literature we read, did not read, what ‘counts’ and doesnt count for us, and how we came to the conclusions that the next several chapters deserved to be written and researched about.


  5. Excellent and timely advice. I’ve been writing my literature review since the middle of April, thinking that it would be a quick job of ‘writing up’ the reading I had been doing over the years but finding that I stalled unpleasantly through lack of a real framework to use. Mine is quite a new field so there isn’t yet an established set of theories and perspectives to work through. I think I now have a structure that I’m happy with but populating it is taking longer than I am happy with. Recognising that my crippling uncertainty here is quite common and to be expected is refreshing and helpful to me. Thank you.


  6. Emily nelson says:

    It was interesting participating in the Cambridge student lice conference from this perspective. Over the three days I got a confirmatory sense of where the field was at and where my research contributes. It really brought to life the dinner party metaphor for me.


  7. Hello Pat…
    Thank you so much for sharing your words.! I’m really touched by … “So there’s no point fighting it, uncertainty is part of the process. It’s usual. It’s to be expected.” Thanks again …


  8. Pingback: Organising and searching the literatures | The Digitally Connected Researcher

  9. Pingback: working with literatures #phdknowhow | patter

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