Spotlight on the RDF: “Synthesising”

In one of our occasional series of spotlights, we take a closer look at a specific descriptor from the RDF.

In this series of “Spotlight on…” posts, we’ll be delving into the detail of the descriptors in Vitae‘s Researcher Development Framework (RDF).  Each one of the sixty-three descriptors is a characteristic of an excellent researcher, and we’ll be looking at how UoB PGRs can develop these characteristics.

Image credit: National Eye Institute

Synthesis has a number of meanings in the OED, but the one that is relevant here is “the putting together of parts or elements so as to make up a complex whole” [1] and being able to put together parts and elements from the research literature and create a complex whole is a critical skill in literature review.  It’s relatively straight-forward to write a summary of the literature in your research area, but a proper literature review goes further and uses the existing literature to create a “complex whole” where new knowledge or understanding has been created.  

The RDF puts synthesising in domain A (knowledge and intellectual abilities) and sub-domain A2 (cognitive abilities) and the five phases of development for this descriptor are:

  1. Sees connections between own research and previous studies; benefits from guidance with synthesising information/data and ideas.
  2. Critically synthesises new and complex information from diverse sources; recognises patterns and connections beyond own discipline/research area.
  3. – 5.  Makes imaginative leaps of understanding across disciplines/research areas/agendas and beyond academia.

The RDF is clear that synthesis is about finding connections, critically examining information, and recognising patterns.  These are the key aspects of your literature review which lift it beyond a straight-forward summary of what you’ve read.  Where your literature review introduces your research activity (as is likely in a thesis or journal article) then the links between previous research and your new contribution should be loud and clear.  Keeping the reason for your literature review at the front of your mind while writing can help you ensure you’re focused on synthesis rather than a routine summary.  Look out for the connections between different sources and critically analyse the evidence as a whole.  What have you discovered?  What gap in knowledge have you uncovered?

Here are some additional suggestions for developing your ability to synthesise, particularly in relation to your literature review:

Have you written an literature review, either to set the context for your research or as a stand-alone research activity?  How did you go about ensuring you were appropriately critical and creating new knowledge/understanding?

[1] “synthesis, n.” OED Online, Oxford University Press, July 2018, Accessed 4 October 2018.

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Helen Kara

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