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How to Write a Systematic Review Dissertation: With Examples

Writing a systematic review dissertation isn’t easy because you must follow a thorough and accurate scientific process. You must be an expert in research methodology to synthesise studies. In this article, I will provide a step-by-step approach to writing a top-notch systematic review dissertation.

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As an Undergraduate or Master’s student, you’re are allowed to pick a systematic review for your dissertation. As a PhD student, you can use a systematic review methodology in the second chapter (literature review) of your dissertation. A systematic review is considered the highest level of empirical evidence, especially in clinical sciences like nursing and medicine. When developing new practice guidelines, new services, or new products, systematic reviews are searched and synthesised first on that topic or idea.

Factors to Consider When Writing a Systematic Review Dissertation

The nature of your research topic or research question

Some research topics or questions strictly conform to qualitative or quantitative methods. For example, if you’re exploring the lived experiences, attitudes, perceptions, and meaning-making in a given population, you’ll need qualitative methods. However, you will require quantitative methods if looking into quantifiable variables like happiness, depression, academic performance, sleep, etc. That said, the nature of your research question should guide you. If your topic is qualitative, you’ll need qualitative studies only. If your topic is quantitative, you’ll need quantitative studies only. Systematic reviews of qualitative studies are less intricate than of quantitative studies. Still, they require a thoughtful approach in synthesizing findings from various qualitative studies.

If you choose to review quantitative studies, you might need to conduct a meta-analysis in your systematic review. A meta-analysis refers to statistical techniques used in pooling findings from various independent studies to compute a summary statistic. For example, in your dissertation, you may aim to investigate the effect of a student well-being programme embedded in university classes on the happiness of university students. Various studies that have investigated the same or a related intervention and quantitively measured happiness among university students must be synthesised together using a statistical technique. The ultimate outcome of that meta-analysis is to provide an overview of the overall trend of the effect of the intervention on university student’s happiness. For more information about how to formulate a research question for a systematic review with a meta-analysis, visit this link.

meta-analysis dissertation example

An example meta-analysis showing the statistical combination of findings from various studies to indicate the overall effect of a psychological intervention on the psychological well-being of university students.


Availability of primary studies

Finding primary studies for your systematic review is the hardest thing you can encounter with this approach. You can choose your topic and plan your journey so well. Upon reaching the point you need primary studies to answer your research question, you get stuck. Retrieving primary studies is challenging because it requires advanced search strategies on various online databases. Doing an advanced search strategy can be an uphill task for someone who has never done a systematic review. This is because, more often than not, depending on the topic, primary studies are not readily available on the Internet. Remember, secondary studies, like systematic reviews and literature reviews, are not eligible for systematic reviews.

Supervisor’s recommendation

Always confirm with your supervisor if you can do a systematic review dissertation. Some supervisors may feel it better for you to do a primary study. So, always confirm with your supervisor before doing much.

Your confidence

Always ensure you’re confident that you can do a systematic review on your own. Writing a systematic review isn’t easy. You need to be aware that doing a systematic review may even be harder than doing interviews or surveys in primary research. Why? A systematic review involves combining many primary studies together in a scientific manner. That means you must have expertise in various research methodologies to know the best way to integrate or synthesise the various studies.

Availability of time and resources

The main advantage of doing a systematic review dissertation is that it saves a lot of time. Conducting interviews or surveys can be time- and resource-consuming. However, with a systematic review, you do everything from your desk. It will save you a lot of time and resources.
If you find that you meet many of the requirements of successfully conducting a systematic review, the next step is to engage in the actual process. The step-by-step approach used in writing systematic reviews is outlined below.

Step-by-Step Process in Writing a Systematic Review Dissertation

The following steps are iterative, meaning you can start over again and again until you meet your research objectives. The step-by-step guide on how to write a systematic review dissertation is summarized in the infographic shown below.

Step-by-step guide on how to write a systematic review dissertation

Step-by-step guide on how to write a systematic review dissertation

Step 1: Formulate the systematic review research question

The starting point of a systematic review is to formulate a research question. As stated above, the nature of your research question will help you make key decisions. For example, you will be able to know which design (quantitative versus qualitative) to consider in your inclusion and exclusion criteria.

Step 2: Do a preliminary search

The next step is to perform a preliminary search on the Internet to determine if another systematic review has been published. It is not acceptable to repeat what has already been done. Your research should be novel and contribute to a knowledge gap. However, if you find that another systematic review has already been published on your topic. You should consider the publication date.

In most cases, systematic reviews on given topics are outdated. They have not used recent studies published on that topic, thus missing important updates. That can be a good reason you’re conducting your study. Suppose there’s an updated systematic review on your topic. In that case, you should consider reformulating your research question to address a specific knowledge gap.

Step 3: Develop your systematic review inclusion and exclusion criteria

One unique thing about systematic reviews is that they must be based on a very specific population, intervention/exposure, and assess a specific outcome. Let’s say, for example, you write on Intervention A’s effectiveness in reducing depression symptoms in older frail people. In that case, you must retrieve studies that strictly assess the effectiveness of Intervention A, the outcome being depression symptoms and the population being older frail people.

Therefore, it will be against the principles of a systematic review to focus on Intervention B (different intervention/exposure) on anxiety (different outcomes) in younger people (different populations). Also, depending on your research question, you will need to determine the research design (qualitative versus quantitative) of the studies you will review. Other criteria to consider are the country of publication, the publication date, language, etc.

Step 4: Develop your systematic review search strategy

As said, the main challenge in writing a systematic review is to identify papers. Your literature search should be thorough so that you don’t leave out some relevant studies. Developing a literature search strategy isn’t easy because you must start identifying relevant keywords and search terms for your topic. You must start by knowing common terminologies used in your subject of interest.

Afterward, combine the keywords using Boolean connectors like “AND” & “OR.” For example, suppose my topic is the effectiveness of cognitive behavioural therapy in treating anxiety in adolescents. In that regard, I can combine my keywords as follows: (Cognitive behavioural therapy OR CBT) AND (anxiety) AND (adolescents OR youth). If you use terminologies unknown in your discipline, you will likely not find relevant studies for review.

Step 5: Plan and perform systematic review database selection

At this stage, you identify the databases you’ll use to execute your search strategy. When writing a systematic review dissertation, you also need to report the databases that you searched. Commonly searched ones in the field of social and health sciences include PubMed, Google Scholar, Cochrane, PsycInfo, and many others. You need to know how each database works. Also, apart from Google Scholar and PubMed, most of these databases require paid or institutional access. Liaise with your supervisor or librarian to help in identifying good databases for subject and discipline.

Step 6: Perform systematic review screening using titles and abstracts

When you execute your search strategy on each database, results or search hits will be displayed. This is also another difficult step because of tedious work involved. You start by screening the titles. Then, eliminate results that contain irrelevant titles. You need to be careful at this point because sometimes people eliminate even relevant studies. The title doesn’t need to contain exactly your keywords. Some titles appear totally irrelevant but they actually contain useful data inside.

After screening titles, the next step is to screen abstracts. You may be surprised at this point that the titles you thought were irrelevant actually contain relevant information. For instance, some studies may indicate in the title that their study focused on depression as an outcome when you’re interested in anxiety. However, reading the abstract may surprise you that depression was only a primary outcome. The authors also measured secondary outcomes, among them anxiety. In such an article, you can decide to focus on anxiety results only because they are relevant to your study.

Step 7: Do a manual search to supplement database search

After screening articles identified using various databases, the next step is to augment the search strategy with a manual search. This will ensure you don’t miss relevant studies in your systematic review dissertation. The manual search involves identifying more studies in the bibliographies of the identified articles using a database search. It is also about contacting the authors and experts sourced from the found articles to give access to more articles that may not be found online. Finally, you can also identify key journals from the articles and perform a hand search. For example, suppose I identify the Journal of Cognitive Psychology. In that case, I will visit that journal’s website and perform a manual search there. A properly done manual search can help you identify more articles that you couldn’t have identified using databases only.

Step 8: Perform systematic review screening using the full-body texts

After having all your articles intact, the next step is to screen for full-text bodies. In most cases, the titles and abstracts may not contain enough information for screening purposes. You must read the full texts of the articles to determine their full eligibility. At this point, you screen articles identified through database search and manual search altogether. For example, sometimes you may be interested in healthy adolescents. In the abstract, the author of the articles may only report adolescents without providing any specifics about them. Upon reading the full text, you may discover that the authors included adolescents with mental issues that are not within your study’s scope. Therefore, always do a full-text screening before you move to the next step.

Step 9: Perform systematic review quality assessment using PRISMA, etc

Systematic review dissertations can be used to inform the formulation of practice guidelines and even inform policies. You must strive to review only studies with rigorous methodological quality. The quality assessment tool will depend on your study’s design. The commonly used ones for student dissertations include CASP Checklists and Joanna Briggs Institute (JBI) Checklists. You can consult with your supervisor before arriving at the final decision. Transparently report your quality assessment findings. For example, indicate the score of each study under each item of each tool and calculate the overall score in the form of a percentage. Also, always have a cut-off of 65%, and studies whose methodological rigour is below the cut-off are excluded.

Step 10: Perform systematic review data extraction

The next step is to extract relevant data from your studies. Your data extraction approach depends on the research design of the studies you used. If you use qualitative studies, your data extraction can focus on individual studies’ findings, particularly themes. You can also extract data that can aid in-depth analysis, such as country of study, population characteristics, etc. Using quantitative studies, you can collect quantitative data that will aid your analysis, such as means and standard deviations and other crucial information relevant to your analysis technique. Always chart your data in a tabular format to facilitate easy management and handling.

Step 11: Carry on with systematic review data analysis

The data analysis approach used in your systematic review dissertation will depend on the research design. Using qualitative studies, you will rely on qualitative approaches to analyse your data. For example, you can do a thematic analysis or a narrative synthesis. If you used quantitative studies, you might need to perform a meta-analysis or narrative synthesis. A meta-analysis is done when you have homogenous studies (such as population, outcome variables, measurement tools, etc.) that are experimental in nature. Particularly, meta-analysis is performed when reviewing controlled randomized trials or other interventional studies. In other words, meta-analysis is appropriately used when reviewing the effectiveness of interventions. However, if your quantitative studies are heterogenous, such as using different research designs, you must perform a narrative synthesis.

Step 12: Prepare the written report

The final step is to produce a written report of your systematic review dissertation. One of the ethical concerns in systematic reviews is transparency. You can improve the transparency of your reporting by using an established protocol like PRISMA (Preferred Reporting Items for Systematic Reviews and Meta-Analyses).

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