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.

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