Reading: pointing yourself in the right direction(s)

As a supervisor now, I am tasked with helping the students who are just starting out to find a way into their field, through reading (and keeping a reading journal). As a researcher and writer, I also have to work out, when I start a new paper or new project, where and how to start reading my way into the debates, problems, questions and so on. A key question I am often asked by students, and that I have to ask myself as a reader, is: ‘How do I maximise the use of my reading limited time?

The truth is, as much as we can say that as postgraduate and postdoctoral scholars we understand the demands of research, and how much time reading, thinking and writing takes at this level, we have busy lives. Most PhD students globally at part-time scholars, even if they are registered full-time, because they have jobs, and families, and other responsibilities that pull them away from their research. So, let’s be pragmatic. If you only have maybe 4-5 hours a week to really focus on your research, you want to make the best use of them. You don’t feel like you have time to spend two of these precious hours reading papers that ultimately are going on the ‘discard’ pile.

We can argue that no reading, or knowledge-gain, is a waste, but we also have to acknowledge that a PhD, or a research project, has a beginning, middle and end, and an end is expected in the form of a completed dissertation and papers (and in my case now, a book). So we need practical plans, to maximise this reading time in relation to the research project we are doing.

Last week I wrote about choosing 10 papers, and then 10 more and so on. But how do you know which 10 to start with, and then where to go after that? A PhD or Masters by research is not like a typical coursework assignment, where you have set questions that you need to respond to, and where you often have a reading list to get you started in the right directions (and can then just add to). At PhD level especially, and afterwards, you have to generate your own reading list, and your own questions. You need to choose the research problem, and read your way into the parts of the field that will help you refine this into a viable research question that you can research, thereby extending knowledge (and maybe also practice) in your field.

Big ask, right? Yep, it is. And it is daunting when you are new to this kind of research, thinking, writing and also researcher-independence. I have a few thoughts here that may help if you are starting a project, and are stuck in this very place: reading but struggling, and wondering if you are reading the right things, or not.

The first thought goes to the issue of research problems and questions. In your research journal, set yourself a 7 minute free-write task (where you literally just scribble whatever you are thinking of for 7 minutes). Make the topic: what I really want to research and why. Then write. See what you come up with. Say, for argument’s sake, you want to research the role of emotions and emotional ‘blocks’ in doctoral study. You think this is important because we don’t know a lot about this issue, but it seems to come up in many conversations you have had about and with PhD students and their studies. You want to know what students and supervisors think ’emotions’ look like in doctoral study, and what role they play in helping or hindering student progress and success.

So, there’s a basic research problem or topic. But, this is kind of all you know right now. Lots of suppositions and anecdotal sorts of evidence. You have to move beyond this to research-informed evidence, and knowledge. You have to read – a lot – to find your way into a deeper understanding of this problem, and also where the gaps are in the field that you can research. But what should your first 10 articles or papers focus on?

To get started, generate a few ‘research questions’ from your freewriting. In this case, maybe:

  1. What research has been done with the word ’emotion’ or some variation of that in the title, abstract or keywords?
  2. Based on this existing research, what are the key issues that are raised – maybe gender, or identity, or issues of retention and throughput?

This is enough to get started on some searching and journalling. The first question should yield at least 8-10 papers you can read and make notes on. Then, the second question can help you drill down further – widen your search to include studies on gender in doctoral study, and also identity. Look at papers that speak to these issues from supervisor and student perspectives. This should yield your next 10 papers, probably more.

Then you can start asking more refined and better questions, because you will now have a decent amount of knowledge about the basics of this field. You can start expanding your reading into more focused areas, or you may find yourself needing more knowledge on the wider context – you may find yourself asking: ‘Why are there so many PhD students out there? Why is there so much research on certain aspects of supervision practice, and not on others? Why is this research mostly coming out of contexts in the global North/South and not really elsewhere?’ These questions can point you towards more, and diverse reading that can help you start to build the layers of your study, from wider context, to more focused research problem area, to specific research questions and focus of your study.

A second thought goes to how to mitigate against getting stuck, and freaked out by all the reading. When you are starting out in a new research project, especially a high-stakes one such as a PhD or Masters project that will result in loss of status, time, money etc if you don’t complete or pass, self-doubt can be a significant stumbling block to watch out for. Even if you have been a successful student or academic so far, starting especially a PhD can create huge self-doubt – around whether your research is even original or interesting, around whether you can even write 80000 words about this topic, about whether you will please or disappoint your supervisor, about whether you are doing the right kinds of things at the right time, about whether you are working fast enough. So many things can create spaces for you to stumble in your self-belief.

One way, in reading, to help you manage this, is to start somewhere familiar. If you already know a bit about curriculum research, because of a workshop you attended, or a course you have taken, and this work is relevant to your research project, start there. Read your way in from a place of existing knowledge, moving towards new areas of learning. This will boost your self-confidence, and enable you to start writing as well, because you will have a bit of a background framework for this reading. Starting here can help you begin to ask the questions that will lead you into new reading on related aspects of the project. It will also lead you into reading on theory and methodology that will be useful to framing and designing your study and analysis. My advice: never start your reading with theory. It’s too difficult, and abstract on its own. You need to know what you want the theory for before you start reading theoretical texts. So start somewhere that feels known, and slowly branch out towards the not known. Same with methodology and research design texts.

Reading is the toughest part of any research project or activity, mainly because it is the part we never seem to make enough time for. I know I often feel indulgent spending time reading, even though my brain is saying: ‘But how are you ever going to write anything unless you do this?’ Writing has a tangible output – a text. Reading doesn’t have a direct output as such – although obviously the output in the end is your writing, and your more knowledgeable and confident contributions to your research or scholarly community. If you are battling to get started, or work out where to go next, I hope these two ideas here will help. Happy reading!

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