PhD workout: getting ‘reading fit’

I have been silent for far too long in this space, my creativity stifled by fatigue and channeled into other writing – book chapters, course outlines, lecture notes and far too many emails. I have been thinking a lot about ‘fitness’ for research, as I have been feeling terribly out of shape, and I am starting to wonder if I have it in me to finish the current project I have been working on, and start and see through a new project, as I plan to in the new year. What makes us ‘fit’ for research, and how do we get into shape, as it were? In a series of posts, starting here, I will think this through, with some suggestions for working on your research fitness.

One of the most challenging issue for any researcher, or student, you speak to who is working on a research project – especially one that is PhD or MA length – is reading. Knowing what to read, and when; knowing how to read effectively; knowing what to do with all the reading when you start writing; and finding or making time for reading.

loads of reading

The reality, with a PhD or significant research project, is that you need to spend way more time reading than you probably think. To make a clear, useful and novel contribution to knowledge in your field, you have to know your field well. To get to know your field this well, you must be immersed in the debates, conversations, cutting edge and also established, landmark work. This immersion, and deep understanding of the shape, form and evolution of your field will enable you to position your own research, and your own voice, in the most relevant space in this field, and these conversations and debates. This kind of immersion takes time, and a great deal of reading – most sources suggest at least 6 months for a doctoral proposal – before you can really start speaking with emerging authority about your own study in relation to other established or existing research.

Shortcuts here will lead to difficulties later on, as gaps in your knowledge and contribution may mean going back several steps to the beginning. Shortcuts may also lead to misunderstandings of key concepts and debates, and you may then misrepresent existing research in relation to your own, and falter in positioning your study effectively in the field. This can be dangerous if you become attached to your early ways of thinking about your study, as it becomes harder to receive critique and feedback, and make changes down time, with more reading and guidance from your supervisor(s). It will also, quite certainly, add time to an already lengthy process. So, the first step to getting reading fit is to accept that you need to read MANY papers and books, and you need to make notes, and talk about the reading with your supervisor and peers. You will need a few drafts of all this thinking before you have a steady enough grasp of a research problem, and questions, that will be your focus as your project evolves.

Another challenge, directly linked to reading, is how to find your own study and ‘voice’ in amongst all the voices and studies you are immersing yourself in. It is vital to be deeply immersed in your field, such that become a part of it, but it can be difficult for a novice researcher or postgraduate student to work out where and how their study fits into all of the published research, and how to make that contribution in a clear, resonant ‘voice’. A second step, then, to becoming reading fit is to learn to write about what you read in a way that enables that contribution to take shape, incrementally, over time. Research and reading journals can help here, as can setting up a reading group with peers, where you need to write and speak critically about what you are reading, and make an effort to connect the reading to your own study. All of the literature you include in your thesis, or proposal, or papers, must have a relation to the argument you are making. This means, then, having an argument to make – this is your voice, and through consistent critical engagement with the reading, you will slowly find and strengthen this.

A final challenge, for this post, is actually making time for all this reading in amongst all the other busy work and life stuff we have to manage and make time for. We talk a great deal about all the writing work that goes into a PhD or MA thesis, or published paper – this work is more visible, because it has a tangible outcome in the form of text. But, we cannot write, and think, in the ways required of us at this level of research unless we are reading, immersing ourselves in the arguments, debates and conversations we need to contribute to with our research. Reading work is less visible, though – it is a quiet task; just you and a chair, and maybe a pen and a journal nearby, silently reading a paper or a book chapter. It can look, and feel, indulgent to spend quiet time reading when everyone else around seems so busy. But it is essential that, as we strive to make time to write, we also strive to value our reading time, and make space for this. It is part of the work of research, and cannot be relegated to a rushed activity. That way trouble lies. Using something like a pomodoro technique can help you carve out this time in your days and weeks, and contribute to your reading fitness. Or perhaps a ‘shut-up-and-read’ group, when, instead of writing together, you meet with peers in a conducive space and read for an hour once a week.

This part of any research project or process is time-consuming, and tough. And you will become less fit as you stop or slow down your reading, and will have to work at getting in shape again. But reading can also be a pleasurable academic task, and focusing on all you are learning and on your developing voice and authority can make the tough work of getting reading fit feel less arduous.

Literature review or ‘contextual framework’?

Literature reviews are the one section of a PhD thesis, article or undergraduate assignment that strike fear into the hearts of even the most confident of students. Why are we so terrified of them? Reams of writing, many blogs and online advice pages, and hours of anxiety are devoted to literature reviews – the writing, reading, summarising, connecting, re-writing and re-reading that seem overwhelming at times. I am supervising a PhD student who is currently writing her literature review, and reading her 4th draft this week, a thought occurred to me: she isn’t writing a ‘review’ of the relevant literature; she is building, using the selected literature she has read as bricks and mortar, a contextual framework for her study. It seems to me that dropping the whole notion of a literature review and replacing it with a notion of creating a contextual framework, or rationale and foundation, for your study would offer you a few helpful insights into what you are actually trying to achieve with this part of your writing.

Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.

Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.

The first is organisation: to write a PhD thesis, a book, or even a very well researched journal article, you need to do a large amount of reading. You will read many books and papers that are useful and clearly connected to your research, and you will read others that are less useful and may need to be left out of the writing. If you are writing a literature review, the temptation is often to use this part of the thesis or paper almost as proof of how much work you have done, and therefore how credible you are as a scholar. It is tempting to find a way to bring in every study you have read, and every paper and book, laboriously summarising for the reader every argument, valid point and connection with other similar or different texts. What may well happen then is a sense, for your reader, of a lack of organisation. Rather than selecting and situating relevant texts you have read in relation to one another and your study, you are simply showing them how much reading you have done and what all of the reading says about all the topics that may be relevant to your research. So it is a kind of literature review, but not one that will help your reader find their way into the specific context for your study.

The second thing thinking about a contextual framework, rather than a literature review, could offer you is focus. Start with your specific study, and your research questions: what is this study about, in a couple of sentences? What main research question are you trying to answer? The research question will be refined as your study progresses, but you need to have a good sense of it earlier on to ensure that you keep your reading on track and relevant. What is the context you need to create for your readers, so that they understand a) what this research is about, b) why this research is so necessary or significant, and c) where or how what you propose to research will make a contribution to scholarship in your field of study (the gap you aim to fill)? By focusing on, and adapting for your study, these questions, you can better choose firstly to do the relevant or useful reading, and secondly choose the most relevant reading you have done to include in the framework, organising it to tell a more logical story about the research you are doing, how the questions emerged for you, and how what you are writing about will tie into or contribute to your field.

commons.wikimedia.org

commons.wikimedia.org

By thinking of this section of your study rather as a contextual framework, a structure that will provide a foundation for what will come next in terms of the conceptual/theoretical and methodological frameworks or sections, and the data analysis, findings and conclusions later on, you could avoid this literature review pitfall. This section of any thesis or paper will never be easy, I don’t think. For PhD students especially, working out what you actually think in relation to so many published voices who seem to have so much more authority and right to speak that you do can be scary, and overwhelming.

Often, I think, literature reviews that read as turgid lists of everything the student has read come from that place of being scared that they haven’t done enough, or read enough, and they so badly want to appear and be credible and authoritative. Part of becoming a doctor is learning to manage that fear, and find a way to focus your writing and research on what will make the clearest, most sensible and accessible argument for your readers. Thinking of creating a contextual framework – a holding structure for your thesis that will connect into your conceptual/theoretical and methodological frameworks to create a very clear foundation, set of tools and action plan for your thesis or paper, might be a way of doing just that. I’d love to hear from you if you feel this helps, or if you have found other ways to make literature review writing less scary and challenging.

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!