Managing your reading



If you are struggling to manage your reading load, you may often feel close to despair. However, there are several practical steps that you can take to alleviate the burden.

First, it may be helpful to think in terms of two distinct modes or types of reading:

  1. Exploratory: reading to find out what has been written that is relevant to your research topic.
  2. Focused: reading to find the answer to specific questions, test specific claims of consider the evidence that supports a particular claim.

These are (arguably) entirely different activities. When PhD supervisors say “go away and do some reading”, they tend to mean the former. You need to see what is out there in your chosen area. You can happily spend days, weeks, months or even years doing this. But at some point, you will need to narrow the focus of your reading to avoid an endless loop.

How will you know when you have reached this point? This is not an easy question to answer but the following conditions will need to be in place to allow more focused reading:

  • you are satisfied that you have considered all possible avenues leading from your original research topic area. This means that you will have worked on your topic to ensure feasibility, specificity and significance. See Developing a Research Topic
  • you will have identified specific research questions or claims that you are ready to test through your reading
  • you will have a reasonably clear idea of what is excluded from your research project as well as what is included

The next problem faced by all readers is how to approach the seemingly endless supply of journal articles, conference presentations and books that seem relevant to a topic area. It is possible to read one text, follow up some useful-looking references in the bibliography, read several more related texts and then repeat the process. Reading can become a never-ending process with the reader going further and further from the original source and the ideas that it contains.

A solution to this is some sort of text categorization system. This is the one that I invented for myself:

Seminal Texts: of such importance that they are required reading in a particular area. But they may not be the most useful or relevant for your purposes.

Key/Important Texts: merit detailed reading and understanding. These are the texts that you need to read intensively paying attention to almost every word.

Useful Texts: contain more than one interesting or useful idea

Single Item Texts: contain one useful fact, argument, quotation, illustrative example etc.

Possible: texts that might be useful in the future – or might not. At this point in time, you cannot really decide.

Impossible: texts that can be rejected at this stage. But be careful – your thinking might change in the future.

Using this type of system, I have become aware of how many texts are ‘single item’ and how few require a very detailed reading. Of course, it is always possible that a particular text might be upgraded or downgraded within the system. The most important thing to realize is this: different texts need to be read in different ways depending on their level of importance.

(To be continued)