Surviving the reading marathon

Recently @indecisionpersonified asked me a question in the Thesis Whisperer feedback forum:

“… 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.

file0001576504202At 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.

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49 thoughts on “Surviving the reading marathon

    • Nic says:

      This! There’ll be plenty of time for reading later. Take some time off. Relax and see the sights. If you really want to be productive, learn some hobbies that can keep you sane during the PhD process, or some new skills – like meditation.

  1. Alicia says:

    Great post, thank you. I am trying to stop printing out articles and reports to read them. This is despite having an iPad too! It’s a hard habit to break for me but I think your point about being a more effective reader electronically is probably true. Not to mention the trees I will save over the course of my PhD. I will give it another try!

  2. Melanie66 says:

    If it’s a seminal text rather than a paper, borrowed from the library, I sit down with my headset on, attached to my computer, voice recognition software – Dragon12 – turned on, and speak the notes that I would have highlighted. That includes saying the page number, and then italicise my own thoughts next to it.

  3. Melanie66 says:

    I also read and highlight papers in Endnote, and if through reading I think it is going to be very relevant or it leads me to a thought that i don’t wish to forget but don’t want to focus on now, I make notes on my thoughts about relevance in the custom field straight away.

  4. Marella says:

    I looked at Scrivener, but it’s not compatible with Zotero, my citation manager so I didn’t go with it. I just hate Endnote, it’s so fugly and I never got the hang of it. Zotero is wonderful. I haven’t printed out articles since about 2006, when I started my masters. I wonder if Zotero and Scrivener will ever be compatible.

      • HSH says:

        This is wonderful! I almost ditched Scrivener for Word this weekend because of the difficulties I was having getting it to work right with Zotero. I was always insecure that it’d miss a citation or something or another during the RTF scan. The World plug-in is very reassuring in that respect because WYSIWYG.

        I’ll give Scrivener a second go with your plug-in!

  5. Zelda (@tassie_gal) says:

    I seriously cant read for long periods on a screen. My scan rate falls drastically and I struggle to follow thoughts etc. If at all possible I print and highlight. This may change if/when I get a kindle/iPad other tablet type device, but currently anything other then cursory scan to determine relevence gets printed.

  6. Kath McNiff says:

    Great post. These tips also have a broader application – for all of us trying to manage the overwhelming content on the web. I love the idea of making a ‘capsule collection’. Over on the LSE blog – – there is also an enlightening post about getting your reading organized using online databases and networks.

  7. ventisqueras says:

    vivere è ogni giorno ampliare la conoscenza al meglio del nostro delle nostr possibilità, seguendo intelligenza ed ironia

    sempre interessanti i tuoi post

  8. mickeyonacoustic says:

    Some of the links in this post are very neat. Thanks for sharing!

    My reflections to this post fall into two categories: (1) the researcher’s / writer’s note-taking process and (2) What to do during the 6 months before starting the PhD.

    (1) Regarding note-taking: I do my digital annotating in Mendeley. The original PDF stays clean: Highlights and annotations float above the PDF. But as I follow Single’s method for reading and note-taking, I like to hand-write on PDFs. Single’s system gets you done in three passes and is about efficiency and respecting time available (you have to write, after all, and cannot allow yourself to drown in the literature).

    Citavi and Scrivener work really well together, and Citavi is TAILOR-MADE for academic note-taking and analytic memo-making and the like. That was the design/intent. The beautiful thing is how Citavi makes citations and bibliography generation a BREEZE. The trick with Citavi, I’ve found, is to name and “populate” your Citavi files appropriately. I have different categories of Citavi files that I tag via a naming system: “[ARTICLE – Auth -Year] Article Short Title,” for example, so that I instantly know that THAT Citavi file will only contain my notes on that article. I also have a file entitled “[PROJECT] Master’s Thesis,” for example.

    You can EASILY copy and post individual notes or whole collections of notes or sources from one Citavi file to another, dragging along all of the associated direct notes indirect notes, summarizes, and thoughts you’ve typed and associated with a source if you like. Though Citavi 4 is out, I still use Citavi 3.4 because US students can only maintain access to Citavi’s Publication Assistant (phenomenal!) in v3.4. Mac Users can run virtual Windows or wait for the web app version of Citavi.

    (2) In Retrospect, What I Wish I’d Been Doing the 6 Months before I Commenced My Research Degree Program

    I agree that resting is important.

    In addition, I wish I had solidified a few skills and some nuanced knowledge about how to carry/conduct myself. Most people argue with me and say, “Oh, but Z, you gain those skills during the PROCESS.” Perhaps. But I at least wish I had already learned of what the best books about graduate-level reading and graduate-level writing are, and I wish I had familiarized myself with them. It ends up that books such as Critical Reading and Writing for Postgraduates (Wallace and Wray), Demystifying Dissertation Writing (Single), The Unwritten Rules of Phd Research (Petre and Rugg), Writing Your Dissertation in 15 Minutes a Day (Bolker), The Sense of Structure (Gopen), Foundations of Social Research (Crotty), Mistakes that Social Scientists Make (Seltzer), and A Manual for Writers of Research Papers, Theses, and Dissertations, Seventh Edition (Turbian, et al.) . . . Well, for me it would have been GREAT to have been provided their titles on a reading list, or perhaps better said, a SKIMMING or FAMILIARIZING list. 😉

    Again, the wish is not to have read all of them deeply, word-for-word for anything, but to have had them as “equip-ment” that I was already aware of coming IN. I would have loved to have flipped through some of these at the library. When I finally DID encounter them, I exhaled at finally getting the help, but it made things a HUGE struggle floundering around without them.

    Please excuse any and all typos, and thanks again for the great shares!


    • HSH says:

      This is very good advice. The books recommended are good too. If you’re doing your PhD in the UK, I would add Patrick Dunleavy’s “Authoring a PhD” to that list. It’s a bit dense to read, and I didn’t like it very much the first time I skimmed through it, but 4 months into my PhD, I picked it up again and I now realise there’s so much good, specific advice in it.

      In general, spend some time learning about the mechanics of doing a PhD. It’s going to be every bit as much a practical challenge as an intellectual one (and you will subsequently find it to be an emotional challenge too). Surprisingly, so few schools emphasise the former. ANU is truly blessed to have Inger run those workshops!

      Specifically, I would think about 3 things:

      1. Research tools and processes. How can I read/take notes? What type of reference manager should I use? What apps can I use? Is going completely paperless really for you? It’s always trial-and-error here so the sooner you start thinking about this the better.

      2. Research design leading to a research question. Understand the process of designing your research. I’m sure you’ll have courses on this but it’s better to start thinking about it now because the research question guides just about every aspect of your PhD. The resaerch question is like your guiding light in darkness. If it’s dim or you don’t have one, you will wander around blindly. This can cause a lot of anxiety. Getting comfortable with the process takes some time so ease yourself into it.

      3. Lit review. I think there are actually 2 lit reviews when you do a PhD. The first is an informal one to get an idea of the lay of the land. You basically read around the general area you think you’d like to work on so that you have something to start the research process with. The second lit review is the more structured one that goes into your PhD. It must be directed by a research question and you read for this lit review with specific purposes in mind. You don’t have to worry about this yet. I find there’s a tendency to conflate the two processes and this can be problematic. Always make sure how you review the literature is fit for purpose.

      • mickeyonacoustic says:

        Totally vibing with you 100%, HSH, and I love, love, love point 3 that you make above. Paradigm-shifting, to think of the lit review as 2. And VERY, VERY helpful and important (wish I’d heard that 5 years ago! LOL!)

        By the time I realized that my research tools and processes were inadequate and thus my ORGANIZATIONAL LEVEL unmeet for the demands of research work, I had 600+ PDFs– UNKNOWINGLY, just spread across what anyone would think of as a very well-labeled and well-organized scheme of Windows folders on my laptop. However, that attempt at organization was not meet for conducting research–at least not for me, eventually. EVENTUALLY, for me it turned into a problem that I wasn’t using dedicated researcher tools to organize things, store notes, etc.

        Mendeley solves PDF storage and organization matters with its groups, foldering, tagging, keywording, and permitting of deep, deep word searches of your PDF collection. I’m sure other reference managers are great as well.

        Add Citavi, with it’s affordance of note-taking and analytic memo-making, is wonderful.

        I would have needed to know this BEFORE starting background reading, yes? Just a mention/warning to be organized as I started to collect lit and make notes, and a mention of the degree of organization required along with favored tools would have helped IMMENSELY.

        I was FLOORED when I dragged-and-dropped all of the PDFs from my Windows folders on my laptop into Mendeley and the count read 600+. No wonder I was drowning in the literature!!! SMH.

        The faculty at my uni are awarding-winning and astonishingly supportive, so no complaints. Inger’s explicit approach to research education is so important, though. I had asked what I should do during the summer months before my first grad class would first meet, and I was advised to start reading if I’d like, if I just couldn’t relax. So I did a bit. But what was the point of having done it? I forgot most of it because I was not warned that you will need to capitalize on (make count) your reading as-you-go, especially given the TREMENDOUS amount of reading you will do as you become inducted into your research field/discipline.

        How do you do this (capitalize on reading as-you-go)? IHMO, via researcher moves such as analytic memo-making, as Maxwell discusses in his wonderful, wonderful book “Qualitative Research Design: An Interactive Approach.” How do you keep 5 years and then a career’s lifetime’s worth of notes and reflections organized, retrievable, easily usable, and accessible to you? Citavi or something like it, IMHO.

        Well, I’ve gone on too long. I am just VERY passionate about not having people suffer needlessly, lost, like I did (LOL!). Awesome conversation. Please excuse all typos all, and blessings! HSH, I’ll have to stick “Authoring a PhD” in my reading wishlist! Thanks!

        Take care!

      • indecision personified says:

        Dear HSH,

        This is indeed great advice and I especially like point three. I have in fact already submitted a 2500 word research proposal on the basis of which I was offered admission but I do know there is still a lot of background reading I need to do and I have slowly started getting to it. Note-taking is the other thing I’m trying to figure out. I’m definitely more comfortable with paper but I’m trying out e-note taking to see if it works for me and I can save some forests before my PhD is through!

    • indecision personified says:

      Thank you for the advice and for the book recommends. Its a good idea to have a look at them and start thinking about the method of my PhD before I start.. so thank you very much.

      • HSH says:

        No problem! If you can start your PhD programme with a general but good grasp of the state of the scholarship on the topic you wish to work on, are familiar with the steps in the research process and have experimented with the different research tools (conceptual, and computer hardware + software), you’ll be in very good form to hit the ground running.

        Like mickeyonacoustic says, it’s all about being efficient, organised and comfortable with your workflow. In some ways, the content isn’t important now. What is is figuring out a research system and toolbox that works for you, and that takes time because there are so many out there!

        Good luck!

    • Mario says:

      Great post, protoscholar! I think Google Docs would be a good opntpourity, but I’ve seen a lot more businesses lately just using Office + Dropbox instead for doc sharing & editing.A few points: Mendeley is the correct spelling. The link to Mendelay is probably sending your readers somewhere they really don’t want to go.The database import functions of Zotero and Mendeley are represented in the read column, under the import item.Again, grwat post and if you have any follow-up questions about Mendeley I’m happy to help.

  9. indecision personified says:

    Dear Dr. Mewburn,

    Thank you very much for this detailed and very helpful post and for sparking the conversation that has followed. It is great to have specific recommendations from people who have gone through all this before. I knew to start preliminary reading but the advice to start creating a capsule collection and to time myself and know my limits was very helpful.

    All the advice to start note-taking early and to keep it organised from the get go is tremendously useful. Scivener, endnote, zotero and mendeley are all terms I learned from this blog and am now experimenting to see which one or a combination will suit me best.

    Thank you all for helping me try and effectively utilise my time before i start my ‘reading marathon’ and yes.. I’ll take the advice to rest and have fun very seriously too! 🙂

  10. Catherine says:

    Oh heaven does exist even though I have become a non-believer in 2 years in Theology because today TODAY I found the thesis whisperer. I am soooooo happy to have found you. Thank you to begin for urging me to read like a mongrel when I feel I’m never reading enough or – fast enough. I have hit pay dirt today! Thanks a million

  11. Nadia says:

    I so love your blog. It has this calming effect on me when I’m freaking out. Thank you so much for sharing all these tricks, analysis, reflections and hacking methods with a broader public. (reading from a Caribbean island far far away from Australia).

    Scrivener helps me a lot to structure my thoughts while I write and provides me with room to let ideas emerge/or kill some darlings! In a way the drafting process does get a chance to be and become…

    Word freaks me out. I don’t use it as much as I used to, I have even come to substitute it for other tasks with google drive (as this one also stimulates writing as a process)


  12. Paul Langford says:

    I’d definitely go with this recommendation to use Publish or Perish software. They’ve had to slow it down as Google scholar was kicking it out as a ‘bot but it’s still good. Sort by citations per year and you have a good insight into the most influential articles (search Gray and Hoepner 2011 “Please cite this” and also search for Hoepner 2009 “influential literature analysis”)

  13. LJ says:

    I began my Ed.D program in 2010 and I will begin my dissertation in the fall and hopefully graduate in 2015. The best advice I can give is relax and enjoy life for 6 months. You will have plenty of time to read and have no life at all unfortunately. When you are in you program this is what I have to offer: When you find a really good article that you want to use for a paper, go to the references in that article and read those. It is called snowballing (i think) and it is allowed. Also, when you look at other dissertations for research, look at the table of contents to see if it has what you need, and then if you find a good dissertation do the same thing as I said with the article, go to the references. it is a good way to find other articles. I am exhausted and cannot wait to finish. Good Luck to you!

  14. amandagebhard2012 says:

    I would spend the time preparing a manuscript for publication. I began my PhD not having any publications, as I did not publish anything from my Master’s thesis. I quickly realized that the only way I would be competitive for any type of grants or scholarships would be to publish something–and fast. You do not need to have data–you can write a theoretical paper if need be. I am not saying to publish just for the sake of publishing, but it would be an excellent opportunity to begin honing your writing skills and preparing an academic manuscript.

  15. Ian Pringle says:

    Fantastic post!!
    Something to throw into the mix: have you come across ?
    It’s set up by two academics and is a free, openly editable online database of article summaries. Worth checking out if you haven’t already!

  16. Josephine says:

    I’m not that much of a onlie reader to be honest butt your blogts really nice,
    keep iit up! I’ll ggo ahead and bookmark your site too come back later.
    Many thanks

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