What Is A Synthesis?

Happy official start to Fall grad students! With the start of colder weather and longer nights now upon us, it’s the season for academic research projects, proposals, and thesis writing. In this new series created by Dr. Pfannenstiel and I, each week in my blog posts I will cover different areas pertaining to writing a thesis or literature review. Make sure to check in each week, as this series is created to help you all succeed and strengthen your writing skills.

The focus of this series is supporting the disposition of curiosity. Graduate students are expected to be curious – most of us applied to continue our education because we saw the need and value for more reading, more writing, and more research. All of this is evidence of our curiosity. This series is devoted to shedding light on the hidden curriculums of graduate school, the hidden expectations of graduate school, so you can connect your curiosity to successful work within your courses and beyond.

The first post in this series is centered around synthesizing research findings, background literature. Before getting into the different types and purposes of a synthesis, it is beneficial to define what exactly synthesis means within graduate writing. The term synthesis means “to combine separate elements to form a whole.” This definition applied to a literature review or research assignment means “providing answers to research questions and describing the quality of evidence on which the answers are based.” As described in the book Conducting Research Literature Reviews: From the Internet to Paper by Arlene Fink, there are four main purposes to a synthesis:

  1. Describe current knowledge about a topic or body of research which should include the major and/or expected works cited given the topic of your work
  2. Support the need for significance of new research (i.e. the point being made in your paper, often called the ‘gap’ in the research
  3. Explain research findings – the focus here should be putting the sources in conversation to build a working picture of the field of research, not on summarizing source material
  4. Describe the quality of a body of research – keeping in mind English as a discipline encompasses many different subdisciplines (including literature, rhetoric and composition, film, linguistics, creative writing, and more) with their own unique stylistic approaches to ‘quality’.

Each of these purposes are further explained for their importance within book. According to Dr. Pfannenstiel “regularly reading books about writing is a fundamental ‘fun’ reading all graduate students should regularly engage.” When we read, as students, we’re exposed to a vast array of grammar and style choices. We explore citation practices, rhetorical moves, and content valued by the subdisciplines of English. To successfully navigate the purposes of synthesis, we first need to read, extensively, in addition to the reading necessary for our coursework and final essays/projects.

With the purpose of describing current knowledge, it is important to review the literature in order to synthesize your current knowledge on the topic. This both informs your academic reader (and/or professor) of the work you’ve familiarized yourself how that led to your argument, and demonstrated you’ve read both broadly and deeply on the topic to add credibility to your claims.

The purpose and function of higher education, especially graduate education and faculty is to build new knowledge. Reading extensively, reading to synthesize helps students-as-writers recognize the need for and significance of new research. Additionally, exposure to the various rhetorical moves common across subdisciplines of academic will expose us to how to add to that research. The synthesis of existing work provide evidence that a proposed study is needed and significant. Along with this research, a synthesis explains the information found in this investigation by “demonstrating how a particular study’s outcomes compare to all others.” Finally, a synthesis describes the quality of current research. The quality of the synthesis is important because it reflects the literature available to write it.