RA 101: The literature review gig

I haven’t written about writing for a while so I thought is was high time. I have been hired as an research assistant (RA) to write a literature review for a grant application. I am writing this post to both give advice and make sure I’m taking my own as I embark on this new project.

I literature review is a pretty basic gig. It has excellent advantages in that you get to read studies wider than your own area of expertise. You get to see what other disciplines are saying and you may see some potential for interdisciplinary publications. For example, I am working on a learning at work project and this literature review gig is about learning transferable skills for work. My project is in Education and the lit review gig is in Business. It’s only taken me a few hours of reading to identify journals I would never have thought of pitching publications for but now I am aware of them.

My tip for being young in academia is to constantly look for opportunities. They might come from an area you least expect.

Here are some ways I go about organising an RA literature review gig:

The initial request for your help

  • Ask for a face to face meeting. You need to look people in the eye when you advocate for yourself.
  • Ask for a key paper to read before your meeting. Is this a field you can exploit for your own purposes? Find some interdisciplinary interconnections, papers, networks? Is it interesting to you?
  • Find out how quickly the review is needed. If the academic team has a deadline (like a grant submission) you will need to submit your final product a few weeks beforehand.
  • Be open about your time restrictions. I only work three days per week. They are long days but I need to be realistic about what I can accomplish. Can you actually do 40 hours of literature reviewing in two weeks with all your other responsibilities?
  • Decide whether to do the job. I chose to do my latest one because the extra money is nice but also because it is for another faculty. I want to expand my network. There may lurk a future opportunity.

At the meeting

  • Find out what format the literature review is required in. Graphic organiser, EndNote library, written literature review
  • Get a promise of authorship. Get it in writing. You can do this by asking outright in your employment interview/meetup but it’s better to follow up the request with an email. The reason being, if you are required to “write the literature review” but have no guarantee of authorship, then why put all that work in?  The literature review is a big chunk of a paper. It could even be a whole paper. If there is no possibility of authorship, just submit the graphic organiser or EndNote file, whatever was agreed upon, and let the tenured academics weave the written magic.
  • Sort out a timeline
  • Ask questions about how you are going to get paid. I have been caught doing work for free because the academic I was working for was a “good guy”. Don’t let that happen. Charge for you meetings, charge for your processing time. A literature review cannot be written with just reading time.
  • Ask about accountability. Will they want a workflow? I have even been asked about the level of trust I will be given to claim my hours. Being forthright in these matters can mostly work in your favour. If it doesn’t you probably didn’t want the job anyway.
  • Ask about your level of freedom to make decisions. In other words, can you follow your nose or do you have some parameters to stick to? I’ve been caught in a position that had a change in leadership. The former leader encouraged my contributions to team meetings. The new leader did not.


Do the work

  • I like reading and tweeting. It helps me process my thoughts by struggling with 140 characters. It also invites your followership in to further discuss ideas. Sometimes they share papers they have written or read. Be careful not to get distracted, though.
  • Find a bibliography program that works for you and those you are working for. My university uses EndNote. You will need to share this library at some stage.
  • I start by entering a key paper into Google Scholar (this gig it’s a 1965 psych paper) and isolating it’s citations. I check out the most recent papers, highly cited ones and all the time iteratively referring back to the original paper. I try to find reviews of the literature done before me. Where are their gaps and silences? What were their future directions? My process is far more complex but that is for another post.
  • I sort all the literature into graphic organisers. They differ with each job. I don’t stick to one method because there are many types of literature review. This gig, a historical overview is needed. Here’s a working template I’ve made for tracing the use of a single paper.


  • In EndNote I make observations about each paper and dump key quotations into the library with page numbers.
  • I have only once been required to write the literature review from this point. It never went anywhere. Which leads me to my next point:

Don’t adopt the project

It’s very easy to get caught up in the literature. It is easy to feel like you can make a contribution to that project. But remember, you are not a fully fledged member of the team yet. Do a good job and you may be, but there are no guarantees. Realistically, you are someone that got thrown a bit of work when the team had some money to spare themselves some time. You probably got thrown the work because a member of the team thinks you are worth it. But everything in academia is like a giant gamble. Not everything gets written. Not every grant is won.

So be your own advocate. You make papers happen for you.

If you really like the project, keep a journal of your thoughts on the literature. That is the purpose of Courting the Academy most of the time. My posts come from RA projects that inspire me. I embed the literature I am reading into my own thought process. I make them mine. Who knows, one day the tangents may come around again in the messy interdisciplinarity that is life as an RA.

What is some of your RA advice? How do you approach the literature review gig?





One thought on “RA 101: The literature review gig

  1. Thanks for sharing, Naomi – I would agree with much of this. I would add that if you find the team and the topic simpatico, and there is a suggestion you might come on board to work on the project, make sure there is a salary in the budget for you, and that it is realistic. I was once recruited to a project in an area of research interest for me, where I had had no input into budget and found the team had only requested a 25% fractional appointment over the life of the project, even though thousands of hours of fieldwork and transcription would be required.

    The other thing I would reinforce, and which you hint at above, is to be wary of being drawn in on a “love” project. Sometimes with the best intentions in the world, you might be drawn to invest significant labour in a project on the promise of a paid role should it be funded. I can attest that failure to follow through on such promises is incredibly destructive of potential collaborative relationships. I would advise RAs not to rely on such promises, even from the “good guys”, and to always make it abundantly clear – in writing – when you are investing unpaid time and/or your own intellectual property.

    Having said that, short-term RA gigs can be a great way to try out new areas of interdisciplinary research, test-drive potential collaborations, and grow your professional networks.


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