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Library Guide to Capstone Literature Reviews: Search Skills


In your doctoral capstone project you demonstrate your expertise in your subject area. In the literature review, you show that you are a capable researcher, laying out the current state of research in your field. This requires knowledge of the sources as well as search skills, so that you can locate, retrieve, compare, and synthesize all of the relevant literature.  


On this page you will find information on:

  • identifying relevant databases
  • searching for dissertations
  • identifying relevant search terms
  • combining search terms
  • identifying relevant sources beyond the Walden Library

Identify relevant databases

As you've done research for your courses, you've probably identified a few Library databases that consistently have relevant articles. These databases are a great place to start your literature review research. However, in order to be comprehensive in your research, you'll also want to explore databases outside of your specific subject area.

For example, if you were studying educational leadership and the impact it has on student behavior, here are some of the subject databases that you'd want to search:


To learn more about finding subject databases in the Library, please see the Quick Answer on finding databases by subject:

Search for dissertations

In addition to searching subject databases, you'll want to search the dissertation databases to see if anyone else has done a dissertation on a topic similar to your own. Keep in mind that dissertations can be citation gold mines. If someone else has done research similar to, but not exactly the same, as yours, you can examine their bibliography or reference list. make note of any resources that could be relevant to your own research. You can then locate the original resources cited in the dissertation in order to use them in your own.

In the Walden Library we have two different dissertation search options:


To learn how to find specific types of capstone projects, please see our Quick Answer that will walk you through that process:


If you'd like to see examples of high quality Walden dissertations, please see our Quick Answer on locating award-winning Walden dissertations:

Identify search terms

One of the keys to becoming an expert researcher is identifying appropriate search terms or keywords. These allow you to be comprehensive in your searches and find relevant articles in the Library databases.

Break apart your topic

The first step is to break apart your topic into its component parts. For example, if you were researching the impact that school leadership has on the academic progress of at-risk students, your component parts would be:

  • school leadership
  • academic progress
  • at-risk students


Use strategies to create search terms

Once you have broken apart your topic, here are a few strategies that will help you turn each aspect of your topic into relevant search terms:

  • brainstorm synonyms
  • expand out acronyms
  • look at subjects


Brainstorm synonyms

For each aspect of your topic, think of other words or phrases that have a similar meaning. For example, some other terms that could be used to describe school leadership include:

  • school administrators
  • principals


Expand out acronyms

If your topic includes acronyms, like NCLB (No Child Left Behind), you'll want to search using both the acronym and the actual phrase.


Look at subjects

Most of the Library databases assign subjects to materials based on the main topics covered in the materials. These subjects make great search terms, since they will help you find articles on your topic, and not just articles that contain your search terms.

Here is an example of how to find subjects in the ERIC database:

  1. Once you are in the database, enter one aspect of your topic in the first search box. For example:

    Academic Progress

  2. Then run your search by clicking on the Search button.
    Note: This search is just to help you identify search terms, so you don't want to add additional search terms or limits to your search.
  3. Under the citation information for each result, look at the Subjects area to determine which subjects best fit your topic. In this example, Academic Achievement, Academic Persistence, and Program Effectiveness could all be helpful search terms.


For more information on identifying search terms, please see our guides on keyword searching and search strategies to develop your literature review:

Combine search terms

Once you have a list of relevant search terms, you can create effective searches by connecting your search terms with the Boolean operators AND, OR, and NOT.


AND is useful for combining the different aspects of your topic. Using AND will find articles that contain all of your search terms.

For example, a search using the following strategy would find articles that combine all three of the search terms:

School Leadership AND At Risk Students AND Academic Progress

Venn diagram of an AND search that will find articles that combine all three topics



OR is useful for connecting synonyms, because it tells the database to search for any of the terms.

For example, a search using the following strategy would find articles that may have any of these search terms; you are telling the database that you don't care which of these topics it finds:

School Leadership OR School Administrators OR Principals

Venn diagram of an OR search that will find articles on any of the topics



NOT is useful for cutting out results that aren't relevant. For example, if you were only interested in academic progress in K-12, you could get rid of any articles on higher education by using NOT:

Academic Progress NOT Higher Education

Venn diagram of a NOT search that will exclude articles on Higher Education


To learn more about Boolean operators, please see our Keyword Searching guide with information on Boolean:

Identify relevant sources beyond the Library

No library can have everything you will need to complete your literature review. While we recommend starting your literature review research in the Walden Library, we also encourage you to explore what's available beyond the Library.

As we mentioned on the Scope of the Literature Review page, government agencies, professional organizations, and think tanks can be good sources for information and data. If you already know of relevant agencies or organizations, go ahead and explore their websites to see what information is available.

If you're not aware of relevant agencies or organizations in your field of study, you can use a Google search limited to specific types of websites to help locate helpful information:

  1. Go to Google.
  2. Use the following strategies to limit your search to specific types of websites:

    To search only government websites, enter the following in the search box: 

    To search only organization websites, enter the following in the search box:
  3. Then enter your topic. For example, if you were looking for government sites with education statistics, your final search could look like this: education statistics

  4. Run your search. That should give you a list of governmental websites that mention education statistics.

Keep in mind that much of what you find online will not be from peer-reviewed sources, and may not be reliable. You'll need to critically evaluate what you find for veracity and relevance. To learn more about evaluating websites, please see our Evaluating Resources guide: