I often get asked this question and it’s one I hate. That’s because there is no answer that ever seems satisfactory.
My answer is usually – well it depends. It depends on the topic and it depends on what you mean by read. Not everything has to be read in the same level of detail, and there are always some texts that need to be read very carefully and more than once. (See for example posts on this here, here and here.) I usually say that it’s important for doctoral researchers to get advice from supervisors about the amount they need to read, and what – and it’s also helpful to go look at a range of dissertations in the same field to see what references lists usually look like.
The truth is that the ‘amount’ question is actually not the main issue – it certainly isn’t the only one. There is how much reading is desirable, how much is required and how much is possible. I think the latter is actually more to the point.
What I often go on to say is that when I did my own PhD I had a reading routine. When I wasn’t actually out and about, I used to write in the mornings and then read in the afternoons. I had a particular place where I read – not my desk, but a comfortable chair in the same room. I kept some sticky notes handy and a pen, but generally didn’t use them that much, unless I was really working at the book.
What I rarely tell people is that when I did my own PhD I actually set myself a reading target. Now before I say what it was, you need to know two things – I am a fast reader and I was used to doing a lot of reading.
My former life as a headteacher was as much about processing large amounts of written material as anything else – letters, emails, circulars, reports all arrived on my desk in very large quantities. I’d developed a habit of always clearing my in tray and in box everyday before I went home. I was used to the idea of a daily routine which involved reading, summarizing pertinent information and communicating this to the relevant people. Switching from that kind of habituated work with texts into an academic routine wasn’t too difficult. I also taught kids how to skim read for content, how to summarise information succinctly, and how to make notes and file them so they could use them later. So that too transferred across into the academic context.
So I already had both the notion of a reading routine and a set of textual strategies I could use. But I’d been away from academic work for a long time, and there was a mountain of material that I felt I needed to catch up on. And I needed to use texts from four different fields in order to answer my research question (it was about poverty and policy); I felt I needed to get on top of the major trends and debates in each of them in order to avoid cherry-picking texts that were convenient. I knew that I had a lot of reading to do.
I felt pretty comfortable setting myself a target of two books and at least ten articles every week. For the most part I did this. Sometimes if I wasn’t doing much writing I managed many more than ten articles, and sometimes if a book was part of my ‘inner library’ then I didn’t make the target at all. More often than not I managed three books a week. I didn’t use all of this reading in the final thesis. However, with all of this reading behind me, I felt pretty well grounded when I started to construct the thesis text because I knew the kinds of intellectual resources that I had at my disposal.
Now it’s entirely unreasonable to think that all doctoral researchers have to read this much – or any other set amount. I’m not suggesting that at all. It’s why I don’t tell people the number of texts I actually read myself or second guess a number that they ought to read. But I do think that getting some kind of idea at the outset of what is the norm, as well as thinking about the areas that you need to cover can help you think about how to manage the load. You mightn’t want to set a target like I did, but it is one way of making sure you get through the quantum of material that the examiner will find acceptable.
But I really do think that finding a reading routine is very important. We talk a lot about academic writing routines, but actually very little about how regular time, place and space might benefit academic reading. My answer to the question about how much doctoral researchers read really ought, I think , to be one of rephrasing to talk about how regularly.
If you’ve not had a reading routine before, and if you’re not used to working with large quantities of texts, then setting one up may not be as simple as it seems. It may not be too different from starting up an exercise regime or changing eating patterns. It’s something new. You haven’t done it before. It’s easy to start out with good intentions and then lapse and feel guilty.
Unless you have enormous will power (and you know if this is the case this better than anyone), starting any new routine can benefit from support. I suspect that this is very true of academic reading. So what would a reading routine with support look like? Well because we don’t talk about reading routines, there actually isn’t a lot about what these might look like in the literatures…. Working with peers to read together in the same space at the same time of day is one strategy. Forming reading groups is another. Reporting on reading in a blog might be another. Pomodoro reading doesn’t make a lot of sense to me, but maybe it does to others.
Do you have another ideas for supporting reading routines? If so, please share via the comments.