Surviving the reading marathon



Recently @indecisionpersonified asked me a question:

“… I have just moved continents and been accepted into a PhD program and have six free months before I start. I was wondering whether you had any advice to give people like me on how best to use the time before starting a PhD in order to be prepared for a PhD!”

A great question topic for a post! Luckily @indecisionpersonified asked this question just as I was preparing a workshop called “Speedy Notetaking for the literature review and beyond”, one of our research masterclass series at the ANU. This workshop explores the connection between reading and making meaningful ‘chunks’ of thesis ready text, so I had some ready answers to hand.

At most universities the PhD application process asks you to hand in a draft research proposal of around 5000 words. So it’s not the initial thoughts which we should concentrate on here, but how to develop those thoughts through focussed reading and note taking.

The reading problem is one you will deal with all through a PhD and beyond. Reading effectively and efficiently is a learnable skill which is not often explicitly taught – but it should be. You see, it’s a reading marathon you are on my friends. A marathon has it’s own kind of grim fun I’m sure, but it’s mostly exhausting. You need to be well prepared to run a marathon – or you might die.

Here’s three ideas to help you prepare and survive the reading marathon, which I share in in my note-taking workshop. I’m sure you have more, so I encourage you to share your own techniques in the comments.

Remember: it’s a capsule collection, not a jumble sale.

I have a weakness for those TV reality shows like Mary, Queen of Shops and What not to Wear where fashion experts help clueless punters build ‘capsule collections’ by making them sort through mountains of unflattering clothes (with many tears in the process).

Reading for a thesis is a similar problem. Ultimately your thesis should contain a carefully thought out selection of the mass of literature you have read. In the wikipedia article on creating a capsule collection they suggest you “choose one or two base colours that go with everything”. In literature terms, this translates as finding the key authors and/or research groups that produce stuff that is most closely aligned to your work and then reading ‘outwards’, using the bibliographies on these papers as your guide.

Identifying these key players is easier if you perform strategic citation searches; a citation search is a good indication of popularity, but not always quality. However, popular papers are a good place to start seeing what everyone is talking about.

A good tool for analysing citations is ‘Publish or Perish’. Publish or Perish was designed and built by the University of Melbourne Scholar Ann-Wil Harzing and uses Google scholar to perform the analysis (note: if you are on a Mac like me you will need to have some kind of windows emulator). To find out more about how Publish or Perish works, have a look at Harzing’s white paper here or download a PDF sample of the ebook.

If that sounds too complicated, you can perform a citation search in most scholarly databases. Visit your library to find out the tricks; time well spent I assure you.

Ditch the A4 mentality – seriously.

Look, I get that paper is a nice format to read. Portable and easy to mark up. I agree that there is nothing quite as satisfying as scribbling “WHAT??!!” and “WRONG!!” in the margins of a paper you dislike, but people – it’s time to face facts: A4 thinking’, as Chris Bigum puts it, will hold you back as a scholar. Reading electronically allows you to, as I put it earlier, “read like a mongrel”. Mongrel reading means scanning to ascertain if you need to bother reading more deeply.

A word search is the best tool for finding the ‘meaty’ parts of a paper or a book, without getting too invested in it. Try searching for ‘sign post’ language such as: “This paper argues that”, “In this paper we explore” or “the main question is”. Look for certain verbs as well, such as shown, proven, suggest, question, query and challenge. Another trick is to look for words that modify arguments such as: may, might, possibly and so on. Certain words will be important to your work, so keep a ledger of the ones that appear in papers that you find useful.

It’s important to keep search string information stored somewhere, so you can perform the same analysis time and time again – but that’s a big topic for another time.

Time yourself

Editing a book is a nightmare because so few academics will meet the deadline. It’s not because the academics are slackers, far from it. Most academics I know work extremely hard. I wonder though, if all that hard work is as efficient as it could be. I certainly see plenty of inefficient habits get passed on to PhD students.

Maybe it’s my architecture background, but I think a deadline is a deadline. Meeting a deadline means knowing how long it takes you to do something. I emphasised the ‘you’ in that sentence because people work at different speeds depending on experience, time of day and level of stress amongst other things. I’m not putting myself forward as a super efficient academic worker (my colleague Dr Emma-Kate Potter describes my job as “having coffee with people”) but I do measure myself so I can gauge how long it will take me to do something.

It’s important to do this measuring periodically and systemmatically to make sure you are accurate.

For example, I know that a 1000 word blog post takes me, on average, two hours (when I first started they used to take four hours). It will take me up to a day to produce a page of academic text, but it depends on what I am writing. Writing data, where I have largely done the thinking work, takes about the same time as it takes me to write blogs. Writing literature reviews, introductions or conclusions takes much, much longer. And tools matter a great deal to writing speed. My sister, @anitranot measured herself and noticed she was four times faster in Scrivener than in MSWord.

I have just timed my reading and I have improved a lot since I last measured myself, two years ago. It takes me around 20 minutes to read an academic paper in my field, which is about 1 minute and 40 seconds per page (I highlighted some stuff to come back to, but didn’t take notes). It will take me over 2 and half minutes per page with academic text that’s difficult or unfamiliar to me (again with highlighting, not writing notes). I only take notes when I have to write a paper, but I know that note taking will double, at least, the time I spend reading a paper. Once you know your speed you can estimate how many papers you can realistically read in the time you have available.

So @indecisionpersonified – I hope these tips help you make the most out of the next six months. Do you have tricks to share which make your reading more effective and efficient? How did you prepare yourself (or not) for the PhD reading marathon? Love to hear from you in the comments.