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Dissertating in the Open: Designing a Comprehensive Literature Review

I think every doctoral program is different in what they expect from students for qualifying comprehensive examinations, but in my program, there are two components: a literature review of about 50-60 single-spaced pages that offers an overview of the student’s research interests and addresses theoretical, methodological, and topical literature related to the expected dissertation, and a brief prospectus for the dissertation.

I wrote the prospectus first. Honestly, I think everybody should. Then my advisor and I met and discussed what should be in the comprehensive literature review. We wanted to have five areas to propose to my committee, with the understanding that these might change after our first meeting with my committee. Based on the prospectus, we settled on the following five areas:

Information literacy. As my central research question is about information literacy practices, I need to have a thorough definition of information literacy as a concept and an understanding of the historical development of that concept.

Cosplay. Since the cosplay affinity space is the locus of my research, this was an obvious choice.

Theory. It’s expected that all comps packages in my department will have a theory section. I chose to focus on theories Martin (2012) used in her dissertation: earlier models of information literacy, Sonnenwald’s (2005) framework of human information behavior, James Paul Gee’s (2004) concept of affinity spaces, Levy’s (1997) concept of collective intelligence, and Jenkins’s (2009) concept of participatory culture. There are other theories that may come into play, but I haven’t identified them yet. Theories I’ve researched in the past include possible selves, situated learning and communities of practice, and cultural-historical activity theory (especially horizontal learning). None of these are necessarily going to show up in my comps, but each of them has the potential to be useful for my dissertation work, so depending on how thorough I end up being with the theories mentioned earlier, they may end up in there.

Methods and Data Analysis. This is another section that is expected by the department. My proposed methods are primarily qualitative, involving interviews and qualitative coding, so this section will focus on those. It does have one quantitative element, however: analytic description, “an analysis
method to illustrate transforming qualitative data into numbers and coupling that with qualitative description” (Martin, 2012, p. 78), so I included mixed methods in here as well.

Connected Learning. Finally, although it isn’t mentioned explicitly in my prospectus, my advisor and I decided to include Connected Learning in my comps package. Connected learning in libraries is my central research interest, and cosplay definitely has all of the characteristics of connected learning, so this is a good fit for my fifth area.

I hope this has been helpful as you think about your own qualifying exams and which areas you should be reviewing to prepare for your dissertation.

Next on Dissertating in the Open: Contacting Potential Committee Members!


Martin, C. A. (2012). Information literacy in interest-driven learning communities: Navigating the sea of information of an online affinity space. The University of Wisconsin-Madison. Retrieved from




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