Finding what you need to read: Is it really elementary, my dear Sherlock?

One of the most unpleasant surprises, getting into writing papers based on or even largely out of my thesis, has been how much reading I still have to be doing, in spite of having done a great deal already for the actual PhD. I feel I should not be as surprised as I have been: what else is research about but reading, writing, thinking, doing, more reading, more writing, more thinking, more doing, and so on? Another surprise was also how much I still have to learn about doing useful and productive literature searches. The Thesis Whisperer has written a very helpful post about literature searching; I’m adding here to these kinds of posts with some of the tricks I am learning to master to turn myself into a literature searching ninja.

There are a couple of reasons why there is still a fair bit of reading to do when you start writing papers out of or directly based on your PhD thesis. The first is that we cannot copy and paste papers from a PhD thesis. There is a significant difference between the thesis kind of argument, and an article kind of argument. I have heard people tell fantastical tales of just ‘turning my three chapters into three papers’; now, perhaps I am just not going about it the right way, but I can’t work out how to do this and end up with three good articles I want other people to read. I am finding, with the kind of ‘big book’ monograph-type thesis I wrote, that I need to recraft parts of my larger argument into smaller, article-length arguments, largely by asking myself: ‘What is the significance or use of these findings, and who are they significant or useful to?’ Starting there, I have found my way to possible papers, all using data I generated in my PhD research, but all making arguments I kind of made in the thesis, but that were really more sub-claims or sub-arguments to the main overall argument I made. So, in order to make these smaller, sub-arguments well I now need to read a little more into research territory I have covered more broadly in the thesis, fine-tuning my reading and thinking.

This is where I use trick one (hardly new, but worth mentioning again): a ‘detective work’ search using reference lists from papers that are really spot on as clues to new searches. I recently read a fantastic new paper by a UK colleague to understand an issue I have been very fuzzy on in my writing. In it he references two further articles I then tracked down via Google Scholar and my library database. They were both incredibly helpful, and their respective reference lists have led me to further, fine-tuning reading. You do have to be a bit careful not to get endlessly lost in this detective work – there is a lot out there to potentially read on just about every subject you can think of, especially in the social sciences. Keeping your aim in the reading and searching in mind – ‘I need to map the field on issue X’, or ‘I need to understand better the connection, in my writing, between X and Y’ – can help to keep you from falling into a reading Alice in Wonderland type-rabbit hole that takes you in all sorts of new and fantastic directions that may (or may not) help your writing along. Using reference lists ‘forensically’ is a great way to join the conversation, and fine-tune your own reading.

A second reason that you are not done reading the literature in order to write PhD-based papers is that your field may have shifted and changed between the thesis reading and writing, and the paper writing. In my case, I am working with theory and conceptual frameworks that are fairly new, and there was less written about the conceptual stuff itself, and about the ways in which it has been used in research, when I was mapping this field during my PhD. Since I completed my thesis, a great deal of research drawing on the same kinds of methodological and theoretical frameworks has been published, and I need to delve into this literature in order to reference the relevant work in my own writing, and to keep abreast of developments so that I don’t repeat other research in what could be seen as plagiaristic or derivative ways. I’d like to add to the field in useful and hopefully new ways, not copy what has already been written about.

This is where I use trick two: finding out where the research in my field is mainly published and signing up for alerts or new issues of journals. In my field, there really are only about 8 major journals (at the moment) where the most relevant and useful research in relation to my own is currently being published. Of course there are many more, but these are what I would regard, based on my prior reading and searching, as peripheral journals because they either publish studies that are not necessarily relevant to my research, or because they publish this relevant research fairly infrequently. Not only does creating a ‘centre and periphery’ journal list, and then signing up for alerts or mailing lists on the ‘centre list’ help me to see when new research is published and what to be reading next, it also helps me to work out where I should be trying to publish my own articles. Most journal publishers, like Springer and Taylor & Francis, for example, have mailing lists you can join. Seeing the new research in your field as it is published can help you thus: you’ll be reading the latest research in your field; you can select articles to look up, download and read more strategically (less time going round and round on Google Scholar); you can see where this research is being published, which can lead you to the journals directly and to useful articles in their back issues perhaps; and you can work out which networks to publish in and which journals to seek out for your own writing.

Being your own Sherlock Holmes when it comes to creative literature searching, finding the right kinds of things to read, and knowing when to continue, stop or shift tacks, is an ongoing process part and parcel of being a scholar. I’m learning, as Inger Mewburn says in the post referenced above, that it is not all ‘elementary’ and these skills and practices can be taught, learned and honed over time. Making a note of what has helped other scholars, as well as your own detective tricks, can really help to turn your forays into online and library searches into more exciting and productive ventures.

Reading your way into your field: tips for navigation

My last post on reading your PhD field received more attention that my last few posts have received, so I feel I have touched a chord here; reading is tricky area of PhD study that doesn’t receive as much press as writing does. Actually, that’s true in academia more generally – there is a lot more research into helping students write more effectively than there is into helping students read more effectively. I think it is better understood that writing in different genres and fields is a challenge, and that novice writers and learners need help demystifying the particular genres they need to master. By contrast, reading academic texts seems to be less well covered in teaching and learning-type research. Students at all levels are expected to read critically, analytically, and proficiently, but this is often a struggle and while there seems to be a lot of help about when it comes to writing, the question still remains: what are we writing about if we are battling with what we are reading?

This post touches on the more nitty-gritty struggles of reading for a PhD: how to actually get into your field, and make sense of it, especially the ‘names’ or the big theory and ideas. To get into this post, I need to start with me, with my own PhD reading struggles. I have confessed already that I am a bookworm, and that I love reading. I do not, however, love everything that I have to read, and a lot of the reading I had to do for my PhD (and am going back to now to work on the postdoc writing) was tedious and tough and often just incomprehensible. To illustrate: I had to read Pierre Bourdieu’s work. For those who are fortunate enough to not have to do this to yourselves, Bourdieu is hard going (and I did a whole module on Foucault during my Masters). He uses about 25 words when other people use two, and much of his work is translated into English from the original French, so it tends towards being dense and challenging. I really battle to translate him into my own words and my own understanding. I don’t actually really understand him in his own words; I can only make sense of his writing when I have read other people translating him into more accessible terms.

This then brings me to the first strategy I learned when I started my PhD, at a workshop where we talked about disciplines being like ‘tribes’ and PhD students as being noviciates into the tribe, and needing to learn about who the tribespeople are and how to find a place among them. You need to know who the ‘chiefs’ are, and who the more ordinary tribespeople are, and how they relate to each other in terms of their ideas, arguments etc. Then you can locate yourself within that ‘field of inquiry’ more clearly and with greater confidence (because you know how to avoid stepping on toes, or repeating someone else’s idea and taking it as your own, inadvertently). You cannot, in my field, quote Bourdieu (a chief, for sure) in the work of another scholar, even if they are a sub-chief or working at a higher level to you. This is true of all fields: you have to cite the chiefs at their source. And to avoid including ‘cheat’ citations (although we all do this from time to time) where you include a text you know references your idea but that you have not fully read or understood, you need to make sense of what the source texts are actually saying. Ergo, I had to read Bourdieu. But (and here’s the tip), don’t start with the writings of the chiefs. It’s often too difficult, and you can quickly end up confused, lost, demotivated and feeling like you are not supposed to be a PhD student.

Start with the tribespeople who have gone before you, and have bravely read, deciphered and translated the work of the chief into more accessible terms. See how they have used his or her ideas and theory in their own work; look at the methods they have used and the kinds of arguments they have made using the work of the chief. Read a few of these papers and books, until you have a sense of what the source text and the theory-in-the-original is saying. Then, get the source texts, and read the theory, the ideas etc in the original. It is almost always easier if you do it like this, because it feels at least a little familiar, and not quite as scary and obscure. It’s still work to make sense of the source texts in relation to your argument and your PhD, but it can be less daunting a task when tackled like this. Also, reading like this gives you a greater sense of the field you are working in, and who you are working in relation to.

Connected to this is another tip I learned, but did not always practice myself. Often, part of the practice of reading our way into a field is learning to critique the other members of our tribe as part of finding our own academic feet and voice, and claiming our own space within the field of research and learning. One thing many examiners look for in a completed thesis is a sense that you know where the weaknesses of your field/theory/methods etc are, not just the strengths. Can you show them that you see and understand key claims against your chosen chiefs, and your defence against the critique in relation to your own arguments? This is hard to do though, because PhD students often want certainty and clarity: the chief must be right about this, and that’s that. It’s too difficult to also be trying to see how he or she could be only partially right, or blind to certain things, etc. But, this is an important part of becoming a member of your ‘tribe’ and it’s a necessary part of the reading and thinking work. One tip, to help you claim this critical-reader space, is to write to the authors you are reading when you write a reading journal entry.

‘Dear Pierre, I struggled to make sense of this paper, and I wonder about the veracity of claim X in particular. If you did this research in a different context, you would not be able to make this claim in the same way. For example, in my research context, ….  etc, etc, etc.’

Write to the chief as if you are able to have a conversation with them, and ask them about the things that puzzle you or seem unclear. Make suggestions as to why this might be, and suggest possible alternatives or improvements. Connect their work with your own research. If you do this kind of journal entry consistently, you may well find your confidence in your own ideas growing, and your ability to be more critical and analytical in reading developing over time.

They say that the more you read, the better you get at it, and the easier it becomes. This is true of some academic reading, I find, but not all. The tough theoretical stuff will, I think, always be a bit tough, whereas the more substantive theory may get easier, especially if you read the same kinds of research over and over and overlaps  as well as differences become clearer. However, it is certainly true that you are never going to become a more confident PhD reader by reading less. So, get stuck in and may the force be with you all!

Reading your field: how much is enough?

I like reading. I am a complete bookworm – my family used to joke when I was growing up that if I didn’t have a book, I would read cereal boxes (I did, actually). When I was studying for my final school exams I would reward myself for an hour of maths with a chapter (or 4) of my current novel. (I still do this, although now it’s academic articles rather than maths, thank goodness). This post is the first of probably a few on reading for your PhD, and also for what comes after. This post asks the tough question: have I read enough, and how much, exactly, is that?

Academic reading happens at different levels according to purpose. When your purpose is simply to read a new paper or book to find out about a new piece of research or a new study in your field, with no immediate need to reference or use it in a specific way, it can be a fairly easy and enjoyable activity. No anxiety here; just learning and thinking in an undemanding way. When your purpose is to scope your field for a literature review section that gives you a ‘map’ of the part of your field you are researching into, what research and questions have been asked, and where the gaps are that your work is hoping to fill, there is some anxiety. Are you reading the right ‘names’? Are you reading enough articles? Have you missed out on important studies? Furthermore, when you are reading to build a theoretical framework for your study, and when what you have to read is tough theoretical and conceptual texts that you need to comprehend fully and mesh together into a coherent framework, there is indeed anxiety.

Managing anxiety around reading was a challenge for me during my PhD. I have written a little about meltdowns in relation to reading, and how I climbed off those particular ledges. The anxiety, for me, was different at the different stages of my PhD. At the beginning, when I was reading for my proposal, I had been told that I needed to have done 30% of the thinking by the time my proposal was ready for submission. Wow. 30% in the first 6 months? That seemed like a lot. A lot of reading and a lot of thinking. And writing, of course. Was I reading the right things? Was I reading enough? (Can you ever read enough?) This process was a challenging one, because I really didn’t know if I had read enough, or done enough thinking when I handed in my proposal, and I am not sure it’s that easy for a supervisor – a good one – to say ‘that’s enough reading, stop now’. They can and should advise you, point you towards useful reading that will help you, and help you stop when they sense you are reading the wrong kinds of things at different stages. But you have to, ultimately, work out for yourself whether what you are reading is helping you move forwards or not. Working out your own ideas, and what helps you to answer your questions, or doesn’t, is part of becoming a researcher who can move on, postdoc, to write, publish and work on new projects.

After the proposal went through, I then had to start firming up my ‘theoryology‘ and this meant reading the complex theoretical and conceptual stuff that makes me a little dizzy from time to time. This chapter was dense, and I really felt I needed to be clear on my ‘lens’ before I went out to generate data in the field. The reading, in relation, was very dense, and not always super-interesting. I worried a lot about whether I was reading enough of the texts, or whether I was actually reading deeply enough, or comprehensively enough. How would I tell if I wasn’t? Obviously my supervisor’s feedback was an important source of direction, but she hasn’t read everything in this field, either, and both of us were finding our way through my study through my reading, writing, and thinking. This was a daunting process for me, fraught with anxiety, but also a growing experience. I did feel like I grew slowly in confidence as my knowledge and understanding of my field developed. Perhaps looking at this process of reading, writing, and thinking from the perspective of what you are gaining as a researcher can help to manage the anxiety about how difficult and often meandering this period of time during the PhD can be.

I started with substantive theory, and then moved for a long while to more conceptual/framework-type theory, and came back to substantive theory in the end to finish writing my ‘literature review’. I can’t advocate one approach over others, but it does make sense to me to scope your field, find gaps and questions and then focus on one your study can ask and answer. Then move on to read what will help you build a framework or set of lenses with which to understand your field, your question, your data and your analysis of that data. Then, at the end, go back to the substantive theory and refine your literature review according to what your study evolved into. I think having a plan, like this one or one that makes sense for your particular study or field, really helps with the reading. Using a programme like Endnote to organise your reading, or using Nvivo or similar to make notes as you read, can help with a reading strategy and keeping track of your ideas and notes as you move through different parts of your study.

The thing is (and this is why answering the question this post posed is so tough), you can read too little, and find your examiners questioning your knowledge and understanding of your field, and the basis for your claims. But you can also read too much, and end up with so many references and so much information that it becomes difficult to find your voice and your ideas amidst all the others you are citing. It can also obstruct the focus of your study and make it difficult to choose just the one PhD to work on. It’s a bit like the Goldilocks Syndrome – not enough, too much, or just right? I am not sure what counts as ‘just right’, to be honest. There always seems to be more reading to do, and there are many journals and books in every field that can be potential sources of information for you. Draw on feedback and direction from your supervisor, and from peers in your field. Do your ideas make sense? Do you have sufficient evidence for what you are claiming? Do they believe your argument, and is it coherent? If the answers from your critical friends let you know that you are indeed making coherent, substantiated sense, you’re probably closer to ‘just right’ than you might think you are.