starting the PhD – digging in to the reading

Most people begin their PhDs by reading. That’s because planned research needs to build on what’s already out there, using what’s been done in order to spell out the expected contribution to knowledge.

There are various ways to start getting on top of this necessary reading. One strategy is to get a sense of what’s been done in the field by using a pre-existing handbook or introductory guide. Another approach is to do a scoping exercise. A further option is to establish a set of questions that can be asked about your topic; this provides a list of areas in which you need to read. A fourth option is to carve out a small and obvious area and dig in.

Digging in means reading for what a small set of texts say just about your overall topic.  But digging in also means reading to find out what the texts can show you about the field more generally.

Digging in means asking not only what this text argues about your topic, but also noting the basis on which this argument is made, looking at what literatures, methods, data and analytic processes are used – what ‘evidence’ is compiled. And it’s this information, when aggregated across texts, that can show you something about the field more generally. So digging in is a way of exploring the field, finding out what it’s about.


the joy of digging

Let me show you what I mean, using a hypothetical example.

Suppose I am doing a study about the experiences of doing a PhD by publication. I know that I am going to have to get my head around what’s been written about supervision, even though the supervision literatures are going to apply to all doctorates, not just those by publication. So I start off by doing a basic trawl of a journal publisher’s website, using the search terms PhD, doctorate and supervision. I come up with an initial set of papers. This is where I can start on the topic, and digging into the field.

I discover from reading this small set of papers that supervision is thought about in different ways – as pedagogy, as teaching, as coaching, as apprenticeship. Secondly, if I probe a bit further, I can see that the supervision literatures come from education and from social psychology. And within education, they come from both vocational education and more general education. I can also see some research that is historical and I can see one paper raising questions which are philosophical – the writer refers to more general philosophical literatures.

I also see from the same set of papers that descriptions and analyses of the actual experience of doing the PhD are anchored by different concepts. I can see material about identity and this comes from both sociology and from social psychology. I can see work around emotions – again from sociology and from social psychology, but also from experimental psychology. And there is reference also to bodies – and again that mix of social psychology and sociology.

But there is also a substantive block of supervision material which seems to simply be about higher education and refers only to other material about HE. I conclude from this that higher education is a field of research in its own right. And the people who work in it are not simply from education. They come from a range of disciplines including sciences. A range of disciplines are interested in the processes of knowledge production in universities.

And there’s more. Digging in to my initial small set of texts,I see a range of methods. There are surveys, literature based work, and a lot of interview based studies. These studies cross disciplines and stages of the PhD. So I now reason that the field covers the supervision experience generally, but is largely informed by the data you get from these particular research methods. This means there are some blank spots that other methods could fill in.

I also note that there are some citatons that appear in many of the papers. Despite disciplinary differences, nearly everyone refers to the same handful of papers and scholars. They are perhaps key to the field in some way. I might not yet understand how, but they are probably the things I need to read next.

So you see. You see that a very little bit of preliminary reading starts to tell me something about the field that I am in, as well as possible ways that I might begin to think about the PhD by publication. And I’ve got a list of the potential literatures that I will explore further. What’s more, I can think about whether I want to do the kind of study that is most often done in the field or something else. I can think about my own disciplinary background and whether I want to link up with studies from other disciplines – I could add to my own conceptual repertoires (go wider), or I could instead pursue my existing conceptual and theoretical learning (go deeper).

Not bad eh. At the end of this reading – no more than a few days worth, I can say with relative confidence that the field I am in is higher education research.  I have some working propositions – the field draws on psychology, sociology, history and philosophy. It seems to be dominated by particular kinds of research designs and data.

And I can now test out and refine these propositions as I read further.

I’m sure you get the idea.

Digging in and reading past the surface of papers allows you to build your understanding of your field. Doing digging in over time means that in a short space of time you will be able to see and explain

  • the field you’re in, its traditions, blank and blind spots
  • what bodies of work your work is most like and unlike and
  • which scholars are going to be most important to you, whether you’re building on or speaking back to them.

Today’s PhD message is this. You have to start reading somewhere. If you read not only for content but also for field, if you dig into the literatures, building propositions about the field as you go, then you will get a greater understanding more quickly than if you just read for what the papers have to say about your question.

Thanks to @PolProfSteve and the Politics PhD group for the conversation that led to this post.

Image credit: juliehclark  Flickr Commons

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ten ways to beat the fear of writing

Many people find it hard to start writing. One of the possible reasons is fear. Fear of what readers might think. Fear of being able to write stylishly enough. Fear that the writing won’t measure up to your own high standards. Fear of not being able to get an argument together. Fear that there won’t be enough words. Or too many.

That fear can be debilitating. Usually what’s needed is a combination of something like pomodoros and prompts just to get going, plus support from others and giving yourself a good talking to. If you’re at the talking to myself about the fear stage, then what follows might be helpful.


Writer Joanne Harris, a.k.a @joannechocolat, recently tweeted ten ways to beat the fear of writing. I’ve reprinted them here – without formal permission (tried and failed to sort and crossing fingers it’s OK) – as they’re very appropriate in #AcWriMo.

Harris says:

Full disclosure: every writer is sometimes afraid. You; me; Stephen King. Don’t try to avoid fear: USE it.

Afraid you won’t be good enough? Stop trying to compare yourself with others. Be you. Only you can do that.      

Afraid of failure? Embrace it. Only by failing repeatedly will you ever stand a chance of success.

Afraid of being laughed at? Practice standing in front of the mirror, repeating: “F**k you, I’m fabulous.”

Afraid to begin? Write a sentence. It doesn’t have to be a good one; just write it down. Write another. Repeat.

Afraid to finish? That’s because you’re afraid of letting your story go. Stories are like birds. Let them fly.      

Afraid to show your writing to other people? You don’t have to until you feel ready. Promise.     

Afraid of unfriendly reviews? Print them off, and put them in your cat’s litter tray. Let cats crap on them all day.

Afraid you’re not a real writer? Answer me this: Do you write? If so, then you’re a real writer.

Afraid you’re doing it all wrong? There’s no single way to write. If it works for you, you’re doing fine.

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reading! you’re meant to be writing

It might seem strange to be writing about reading during #AcWriMo. But I was reminded, at a recent writing retreat get-together, of the close and symbiotic relationship between writing and reading.

One of our group had sent a draft paper to mentors for feedback. The comments suggested that she needed to do some more reading in order to make the paper ready for entrée into a scholarly conversation. But how, she asked, did she find time for reading when she was already very busy with work?

There were various answers to her question, but two have stuck in my mind as worth noting this month.

The first response was from a senior colleague who showed the group how he used Browzine. Browzine is an app which connects to your university library. Once you have accessed your institutional subscriptions, you can then make your own  bespoke bookshelf, set up notifications –  and connect papers with your bibliographic software. Browzine allows you to keep in touch with what is being published, download papers that you want to read, and then painlessly store them in your referencing system. Our colleague told us that he always downloads a few papers before he travels – and he travels quite a bit – and this generally allowed him to keep him in touch with his field.

The second response was actually what I do and a couple of other people did the same. I don’t try to keep up with what is being published in my fields at all. I do two different things:

  • I follow people with similar interests to mine on twitter. When they  tweet about new publications that they have come across which interest them I follow these up, because I know they will also interest me. This way, I can keep roughly across what’s hot in the various fields I straddle.
  • I do in-depth reading which is project based. Because I always have a few research and writing projects on the go, I am always in the position of having to read in order to do field work, analysis or writing. I usually spend a couple of half days searching and downloading papers and ordering books at the start of a project; and I do a couple of updates. I put all of the references into Endnote and place a duplicate set of PDFs in a file on my desktop. I then go through the desktop file, reading at least one paper a day until I have finished. I keep minimal notes on each paper in a word doc, and occasionally use PDF software to highlight anything I might want to quote from the actual PDF. Other people cut and paste quotes into their text, make tables and/or Excel sheets when they do this kind of reading.

Both of these approaches position reading as more than simply a means of keeping up or preparing. The reading is seen as intellectual nourishment, which is stored away for future reference. Whether we read things as they appear, or read for a specific purpose, the reading we talked about was about providing us with new ideas, arguments, provocations and insights. The reading feeds current, and future, writing.


Now, I wouldn’t be at all surprised if people found they needed to do some reading in order to achieve the goals they had set for themselves during #AcWriMo. Reading is one way to stimulate writing, to move us on when we are stuck, to help us write more and better. Why don’t we say more about this? Well probably because #AcWriMo was modelled on novel writing month – and it’s likely that novelists don’t need to read while they are writing in the same way that academic writers do.

So I wouldn’t feel bad if you have to deviate during November from a writing-only schedule to do some reading. Reading may feel like taking time out, goofing off from writing, putting your targets in jeopardy. But reading may really help you do the writing that you have planned.

Taking time out to read a bit this month might make your #AcWriMo writing goals more attainable.

Thanks to Simon for the Browzine reminder and demo. Image credit: Timothy E Baldwin, Flickr Commons.

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being ‘critical’ – starting the phd

At the start of the PhD, your supervisor will almost undoubtedly ask you to critically evaluate some literatures. This reading is so that you can prepare a more detailed proposal than you initially submitted. And it you are doing courses at the start of your PhD, you will probably be asked to critically evaluate a paper, or two.

So, what does being critical actually mean?Is there a specific academic meaning of critical?

In short, yes.

Being academically critical doesn’t mean tearing strips off something. That’s the way that critical is usually understood. If I say Fred is a critical person, then you will understand that Fred almost always has something negative to say. Fred is tiresome. Fred is a pain in the proverbial. Fred is probably to be avoided.


The dictionary defines critical in two ways –

  1. to express disapproving comments or judgments


2. to analyse the merits or faults of a work of literature, music, or art. Or in our case – scholarship.

Synonyms for the second version of critical include – evaluate, analyse, interpret, comment, explain, elucidate. And these are exactly the words that help us to understand what it means to be critical in the academy.

Let’s take an example. Critically reading an academic paper means that we (that’s we the generic scholarly we) don’t just repeat and summarise what is written. We don’t take the words at face value. No, we evaluate, analyse, interpret, comment, explain, elucidate.

When we start looking at a paper, we first of all make sure that we know what the writer is trying to say. Then we examine more closely – we look at what they have written about what they did.  And then we explain our view.

So, what does that mean that you do? Well, when reading a paper, you might begin by thinking about the big overarching point the writer has presented to us. What’s the argument that they are making?

Then you might begin to critically analyse how this argument has been produced.

First of all, consider your immediate response. Did you learn anything from the paper? Channelling Jon Wagner, you might ask, did the paper reduce your ignorance? If so, that’s great and you mustn’t forget that as you begin your more fine grained analysis. it’s easy to lose sight of the bigger picture when you get into the detail.

You might now ask:

  • What is the reason the writer offers for the importance of their topic? Is this convincing? How important is this topic relative to others? Are you persuaded? How does this project sit alongside other work in the field?
  • What’s the basis for the argument? What kind of research? What kind of research tradition? What methods are used? What do these methods allow the writer to do, see and say – and what don’t they? How well are the methods used?
  • What literatures and theories are used and what does this mean the writer understands and says? What alternative literatures and theories might productively be brought to this topic?
  • And So What – what might happen as a result of the paper?

Once you’ve been through this kind of analytic reading process, you are in a position to say something about what the paper contributes, and what someone interested in the same topic might do next to extend the work. You are also ready to think about who else might benefit from reading the paper, why, and what might happen as a result.

So that’s it really. You have now been critical.

You might have nothing but good things to say about the paper. But let’s say you do have something negative in mind. You may think that there is an issue with the methods chosen. You may wish that the writer had read in a different discipline. You found some statistical errors. So you could now go back to definition (1) – you could be censorious, disapproving, scathing, fault finding, judgmental, unsympathetic.  But you don’t need to be. The old adage of do unto others is very true in the academy. Critical, definition 2 is great. Critical definition 1 is ungenerous and often uncollegial.

If the work is actually sloppy, plagiarised, or wrong,  you do have to say so. But if it’s not, then think of these issues as further possibilities. The writer might now go on to… another researcher might now build on the study by…

In sum, critical doesn’t have to mean tearing strips off things – by which we actually mean tearing strips off other scholars. Our colleagues. Our peers. Being critical means finding the contribution, and assessing how the writer/writers have achieved it.


Image credit: Dylan Snow



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choosing your words – starting the phd

Beginning academic writers often look for academic phrase banks and word lists to help them write ‘right’.

The most popular of these is the Manchester Academic Phrase Bank – now also available in print. There are also general lists of common academic words and lists of academic synonyms and antonyms (words that can be substituted for each other to avoid repetition). And there are compilations of sentence stems – for instance this set referring to writing the methods section of a journal article:

  • (my method) analyses … in order to …
  • (my method) looks at how … and suggests …
  • (my method) looks at … and their influence on …
  • (my method) describes … and their involvement in …
  • (my method) looks at the process by which …
  • (my method) critiques … and describes how …
  • (my data) was analysed to test the hypothesis that …
  • (my data) was analysed to determine whether a relationship exists between …

These kinds of list-ish resources can be handy. The sentence stems above, for instance, position the writer to explain, and in some instances to argue. The stems require you to state the choice you made – a mode of analysis or a method – and explain it, say why, say what it did. Using one of these stems might be helpful if you’re not yet sure about what to include and exclude when writing about method.


But these resource lists are not simply about choosing words and phrases that sound academic. Nor are they simply ways to winkle you out of a stuck point, although they might do that. No. These lists do more.

Academic phrase banks and word lists do two kinds of work:

Text work – the lists offer you scholarly writing conventions. They present what some see as the lingua franca of academia – the way we speak in here, as opposed to out there, say at the pub. At work in here, the scholar investigates; in the pub, they are simply finding out about something. At work in here, the scholar discusses; in the pub, they are having a chat. At work, the scholar prefers; in the pub, they simply like. You get the picture. The academy has its own way of writing and talking.

Now, the stuff that goes in these academic word and phrase banks is a pretty conservative version of in here academic talk. The words and phrases are inevitably pan-disciplinary, and generic. They are also a selection – they are not the only way to talk about scholarly pursuits. So, in using the lists, you are not only producing your own text and contribution, but also reproducing a particular kind of academic writing.

Another caution – if you focus hard on the right words you do run the risk of concentrating on the surface features of your text, rather than with what you actually want to say. You write worrying about whether you sound “classy” (see my recent post about this), rather than worrying about what you have to say.

Identity work –  the word lists offer you a particular kind of scholarly identity – a scholar who talks and writes just-this-way… formal and distanced. This is a scholar who  speaks and writes dispassionately and evenly about their topic. Stephen Pinker would call this the worst, not the best, of academic writing and by inference, it’s writing produced by your average scholarly writer.

If you want to be something other than the same as everyone else – a creative, imaginative, surprising, inventive, and quotable scholar – you probably won’t find much benefit in continued use of word lists and phrase banks. They might work well as initial props to get you going when you start writing papers and reviews. When you are learning how to join in the academic conversation. But then they will become something that you use only occasionally, if at all, once you have your own academic writing practice in hand.

We all know that words are the basic building blocks of any form of writing. And, once we know the general rules and conventions, we get to make choices about how we use them.  As Francine Prose ( Isn’t that just the best name for someone who writes about writing and reading?) puts it in her book Reading like a writer

Every page was once a blank page, just as every word that appears on it now was not always there, but instead reflects the final result of countless large and small deliberations. All the elements of good writing depend on the writer’s skill in choosing one word instead of another. And what grabs and keeps our interest has everything to do with those choices. (P 15)

Yes, this post is not only about the usefulness of word lists, but also their limitations. It’s encouragement to keep the use of word banks and phrases in their place. To focus instead on the kinds of choices that you can make about your own vocabulary.

Know the conventions. Yes of course. Academic writing isn’t the same as chatting in the pub.  But then focus on putting your own stamp on your writing. Do the text work that creates the scholar you aspire to be.


Image credit: Katie, Flickr Commons



Posted in academic writing, text work/identity work, word bank, words | Tagged , , , , | 2 Comments

it’s that month again…

Remember remember the month of November

Its #AcWriMo. It’s time to get shot

Of the usual reason

You use in this season

For failing to write – and write quite a lot.


Whether words or a book, by hook or by crook

Set a target. But also make sure

That you tell all your peeps

“I won’t lose my sleeps

And I’ll write what I’ve promised – and more…”



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professors of the poison pen

Paul Stein’s 1939 film, jorRUQ6TW9gePSvcnFNCNdP5Ba2The Poison Pen, is set in a small English village whose residents receive anonymous letters alleging sexual and moral misbehaviour. The recipients become increasingly angry and bent on revenge. A formerly quiet and placid place becomes a hotbed of paranoia and, eventually, violence.

Something not dissimilar happens in the academy. The poison pen is at work there too. In the academy, professors of the poison pen tarnish reputations and white ant research projects. They cast doubts intended to unsettle and do down their competition. Poison pen professors not only cover their tracks but prefer to deposit their bile in places one removed from their victims.

Just think about what that ‘one removed’ actually means. There are boundless opportunities for academic poison pen practitioners – for instance

  • anonymous peer review of journal papers
  • anonymous peer review of funding bids
  • anonymous peer review of book proposals
  • rating of outputs for audit purposes
  • provision of references and letters of support
  • assessment of promotion applications
  • selection of applicants for a job.

The truth is that it’s not very hard to wound your colleagues. Lots of opportunities. And lots of ways to administer the poison.

But there’s one important difference between Stein’s film and academic poison pen activities. Whereas the hapless villagers received anonymous letters, and at least knew what they were accused of, victims of academic poison pen activities often aren’t aware that they’ve been targeted. Or at least, not until the damage has been done.

821178.jpgThe academic poison pen doesn’t need a full-frontal attack. The poison pen prof doesn’t have to accuse. Doesn’t have to say that the work is poor, the candidate unsuitable, their doctoral supervisor hopeless, their current institution overly happy to promote, their publishers lacking in rigorous assessment. No, the damage is done through simply allocating a barely average score, raising doubt about a track record, arguing for an alternative candidate, suggesting that the journals in which there are publications are not really of the first order, offering a possible critique – it might be argued that…

The poison pen prof is relatively subtle in both the written and spoken word.  They might just contradict an argument in a meeting …Why yes, of course the candidate might think this topic or this approach or this set of previous work is important. However, the professor is an expert in the field which is why they are here. Sadly,  they just aren’t persuaded. They’d like to support the candidate but if only they had read more widely then… Even more insidiously, the professor might lightly refer in passing to information that can’t be revealed – I couldn’t possibly say but if you knew what I knew then …

Damned with the subtext. Submarined with faint praise. Done down with innuendo.

You see, rather than assess a bid, paper or application for what it does do, poison pen profs look for what it doesn’t. They actively look for problems, particularly if they think that the person or the work might potentially overlap or be in competition with their own. They use their well-trained capacity for critique ungenerously. They don’t work for the benefit of the field, to build capacity in the discipline, to support colleagues who are working just as hard as they are. No, they read to see why something isn’t acceptable, employable, fundable.

And it’s not that hard to do. Almost all bids, applications and papers have something wrong with them. Nothing we write is likely to be perfect and without some holes. Everyone applying for a job is likely to have some expertise and not something else, simply by virtue of the opportunities that have available to them. And pretty well everything we do might be something else. Poison pen profs can always find something if they want to.

Sadly, malicious activities do go on under the guise of peer review, and often under the protection of data laws. We have all heard stories about people being done in by colleagues, or perhaps been in situations where we have seen the poison pen prof in action. And we sometimes know when we have been subject to the deadly eye and hand.  That paper that was rated so well by two of the referees but rejected out of hand by the other. The bid that was dismissed summarily by one of the reviewers and this dragged the score down to just below the cut-off point. Mmmm, maybe something going on here…

81NX8WZxtJL.jpgPoison pen profs are individually nasty and eaten up by the unending need to guard their own reputations and achievements. However, they are not lone individuals. And there are rather too many of them. Are they ever sanctioned for this behaviour I wonder? Sometimes it even seems that they are rewarded for their apparent acuteness. Unlike the films and novels, poison pen profs don’t get their come-uppance.

But the point here – the key problem – is that the poison pen prof does damage to more than their immediate intended victim. Doing harm to a colleague is unethical, bad, nasty and wrong. But poison pen profs do all this – and more. Just as happened in the village in Stein’s film, academic poison pen activities breed lack of trust and suspicion. We don’t absolutely know who in our extended academic village might do us in at any time. It could be someone we don’t know, or someone we do. Why, it could even be you.

A culture of suspicion, bred by poison pen practices, is at odds with an academy which depends on collegiality and peer review. Peer review is ideally appreciative and appreciative rather than ruthlessly individualistic. Support for peer review is not to argue against the benefits of positive and helpful critique. It is to assert the importance and credibility of scholarly judgments. At its best,  peer review is a better and more nuanced system than arbitrary metrics or performance based measures administered by an algorithm. But the academy is also competitive, and it is this which leads to and appears to legitimate poison pen activities.

I’m not sure what the answer is to the contradiction between scholarly peer review and academic competition. We can certainly call destructive behaviour out when we see it, as well as not indulging in such bad behaviour ourselves. And we can support emerging scholars who encounter poison pen behaviours on the way in and up the academic food chain. However, I’d certainly like to see more institutional attention paid to the question of an ethic of scholarly integrity and collegiality.


This post is one of a sporadic set on academic bad behaviour. Collect the others already in the series:

Professor of the Dark Arts, Dr Oozing Confidence and Profzilla.





Posted in peer review, poison pen, Professor | Tagged , , | 3 Comments