What’s all this reading about then – starting the PhD


When you begin the PhD you will be told to read, and read a lot. But you’ll find not any old approach to reading will do. It’s a particular kind of reading that’s expected. So it’s important to get a grip on the complex task that you are being asked to do. In the first instance your reading helps you to:

  • Scope the field or fields that you are in, so that you understand what is relevant to your topic, and what is not. You also need to get clear on the “core” of your discipline(s) and its threshold concepts – the ideas that anybody doing any topic in the discipline, including you, need to take account of. Knowing them also means you can understand and join in the conversations in your disciplinary community.
  • Map the field in relation to your particular topic so you can see key themes, major players, and the big debates that will frame your work. Some of these key texts and ideas will become building blocks for your research, but some may become blocks that you want to challenge.
  • Focus in on the literatures that are most germane to your topic. You are not expected to know all of the literatures in depth, only the texts that are most germane to your topic. These are texts that will help you refine your question or hypothesis, will provide you with “stuff’ that you can use – be this conceptual and/or theoretical ideas or analysed material. Focusing in on texts relevant to your research interest also helps you to spell out the warrant for your research, to consider how best to research it, and to establish what your research will contribute to existing understandings.

I’ve written a lot about reading and literatures work over the years, expanding on these three aspects of reading. Here’s a selection of posts that might get you started off. They are geared to supporting you to form a clear idea of the purposes of reading and the evaluative attitude you might adopt. There’s some early reading strategies too.

Working with literatures– understanding what is meant when we talk about “literature”

Love the uncertainty – discusses the time necessary for understanding the field and what’s relevant to your topic

Thinking about literature as a resource – understanding your reading as a support for your own work

How to start your literature review – outlines three alternative strategies to get you going

Reading against the literature – offers some strategies for critically assessing the field and its omissions and emphases

Working with literatures – take a hands on hips stance. Explains the need to stand back to evaluate what you are reading, not simply take the text at face value

Getting to grips with new literatures – Asking questions of the text avoids reading without focus – questions are always related to your topic, but here’s an example of what it looks like. Also see

Preliminary sorting  – the importance of categorising literatures into things you need to read, and things you just need to know exist

Mapping your literatures – discusses types of maps and how you might approach making a map. Read this in conjunction with

The art of scan reading – how it’s possible to get through a volume of stuff and not feel overwhelmed

How old are the sources – addresses the question that many people have about recency versus history of the field

Of course, reading also means taking notes and storing the information. And I’ll get to that in just a minute or so.