Doing a PhD: Reading and Writing


Whether you’ve engaged with academia or not (covered by the last post), you’re gonna’ have to do shed loads of reading and writing. That sounds simple (and it probably is, relatively speaking) but there’s still a load of pits that I managed to fall into. So, here’s what I’d advise:


Do a paper-based rather than a thesis-based PhD

This option may not be available to you but if it is then you should give it serious consideration, especially if you intend to go into academia. It will significantly increase the chance of having one or more articles published by the end of your research because it makes them, rather than a thesis, the focus of that research. Bizarrely, I also get the impression that it’s quicker to finish than the thesis-based route (though I’m biased by the fact that I’ve just spent quite some time doing a thesis). Indeed, a while ago I had a conversation with an academic in which I commented that I regretted not taking the paper-based route, having observed people who did so and went on to graduate well ahead of me (having started at the same time). If I’m not mistaken, their response implied that it‘s easier to finish on time if one opts for that route, which perplexed the heck out of me. ‘Isn’t the paper-based route for the go-getters?’ I asked, to which the answer is apparently ‘yes.’ So, it gives you more chance to get the publications (always with the publications) that you need to pursue a career in academia whilst also raising the likelihood of finishing on time. In that case, what’s the downside? And, more to the point, what’s the frickin’ upside of doing a thesis?! Answers on a postcard please.


Always be reading

This one does what it says on the tin. With my ridiculously rigid and linear approach to work (I am attempting to change this), I really thought I could just spend the first year doing the reading, then conduct the primary research, and then analyse and write up. Wrong. People will always be suggesting things for you to read, and this is good because it keeps you up-to-date with what’s going on in your field, introduces you to new ideas, and challenges the one’s you already have. Indeed, I’d go one step further and subscribe to a few key journals that are relevant to your research. If a journal that you’re interested in only has institutional (i.e. very expensive) subscriptions available then follow it on social media, or figure out their release schedule (and mark it in your calendar), so that you know when new issues are coming out and can get relevant articles via your institution’s library.


Be critical about your choice of reading

Of course, you could spend infinite lives reading everything that has been, and will be, published in your field so you also need to get good at discerning which things are worth spending time on. If you get one page, or three pages, into an article (or a chapter into a book) that you’ve dug up or been recommended and it doesn’t seem that relevant then you can usually trust your instinct. There’s really no point in scrupulously reading a source that won’t be either useful or interesting to you. Also, use the power of the contents and the index, and learn to skim-read (if you can’t already)! I’m conscientious to the point of self-destruction so, if I skip part of a book or an article then I spend hours worrying that I’ve missed the most important point, or the game-changing quote. If you’re like this then get over it; you’ll almost certainly lose more (i.e. in time and energy) from reading uninteresting or irrelevant sources than you gain. Of course, there are some things that you’ll want to spend plenty of time reading in depth, but it’s useful to learn how to distinguish these sources from those  than can be skimmed or skipped.


Always be writing

Again, I was thought there should be a nicely delineated ‘writing bit’ at the end of my PhD, and planned as such. This meant that I got less feedback, was rushed with the bulk of what I wrote, and couldn’t return to analysis and address issues that arose in the course of writing. Indeed, writing is the best way to formulate ideas and arguments, spot errors with your analysis or findings, and get that all-important feedback. It also provides materials that allow you to raise the profile of your research (if that’s what you want to do). So, in addition to writing articles or chapters, and papers for conferences, it’s worth writing for blogs and, if your topic becomes salient, established news sources. I’m guessing that every university has a public relations team and they’ll probably be glad to help you (try and) get your writing onto blogs and into news outlets (if you don’t already have relevant connections).


Set-up a website early, and blog every interesting finding

In the same vein as the above, and in addition to trying to publish academic articles, external blog posts, and news stories, it’s worth having your own website where you can write whatever the heck you want (well, within reason). Again, this can contribute to the development of your arguments and the refinement of your analysis, and it can also demonstrate (e.g. to potential employers) that you’re research active, showing what you can do analytically and that you can write both frequently and accessibly. More importantly, it can be invigorating to write for a wider academic, or even public, audience; even if your blog only gets a few visits, at least you have something to show for your efforts. By contrast, my approach (i.e. leaving all the writing to the end) meant that my thesis emerged from a stale, inward-looking process, and is the only substantial collection of writing that I have to show for my four-and-a-half years of work.


At this stage, it might seem like engaging with academia (conferences, papers, feedback, and teaching), plus the ongoing demands of lots of reading and writing could be a heavy burden. If that’s the case  then it might be helpful to organise yourself




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