Conceptual Synthesis Spreadsheet

I have been chipping away at the comprehensive literature review my program requires that I write to prepare for my qualifying examination for more than six months now. My progress has been achingly slow. I am finally in a (slow-moving) groove, though, so I thought I’d share a little bit about my process.

I began by following Raul Pacheco-Vega’s advice. I read each piece, doing his Abstract-Introduction-Conclusion extraction process (a process similar to the advice offered in my doctoral seminar, but his is a bit more streamlined). [A note on tools: I do all of my reading digitally as I have limited printing availability, work in multiple offices, and sometimes need to read with a toddler napping on me. I use Zotero, store all my Zotero attachments in Google Drive, sync files to read on my tablet with ZotFile, make those files available offline using Google Drive on my tablet, then read and annotate them in Xodo.]

After this, at first I started writing a rhetorical precis for each piece but I found it didn’t help me that much. I wasn’t ready to write full synthetic notes, because I didn’t have enough of a grip on the literature landscape to determine what would qualify a study as something I would want to come back to and read later for more detail or expand into a complete memo. So I skipped ahead to the conceptual synthesis spreadsheet dump stage, leaving several of Raul Pacheco-Vega’s columns to return to later – I only used the concept, citation, and main idea columns to begin with. I added a column for which type of library setting the paper was addressing, because I thought that might be important later. I used the concept column not to tell me which concept in my lit review the paper was for, as I’ve created separate tabs in the spreadsheet for each of the five areas I’m exploring, but instead as sort of a tags column.

Conceptual Synthesis Spreadsheet

After filling out these columns for all the readings, I went back and re-read the main ideas column. Then I did some concept grouping (not really mapping yet) and a free-write of brief notes about all of the ideas I was synthesizing based on my reading.

Concept Map


Then, based on my concept groupings and freewrite, I created a preliminary outline.


I typed up this outline, filled in the introduction section based on earlier literature reviews I’d already written, and now I’m ready to come back and go through each study I have in my conceptual synthesis spreadsheet and write a full synthetic note with the ability to tell how helpful it would be to do a close reading and full memo of any given piece.

15 thoughts on “Preparing for comprehensive (qualifying) exams: My process so far


  • Juanma García


  • Dr Raul Pacheco-Vega

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