how much should doctoral researchers read?

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.

About pat thomson

Pat Thomson is Professor of Education in the School of Education, The University of Nottingham, UK
This entry was posted in doctoral research, literature review, reading, reading routine, reading target and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

17 Responses to how much should doctoral researchers read?

  1. Thanks so much for this post! I’m 9 months into my PhD and *still* don’t feel like I’ve got myself into a solid reading routine, and that guilt you mention is always dogging me!
    It’s great to see you reiterating some things I’ve been finding, especially a) ‘Reading’ is a term which actually covers a wide range of activities, from skimming, scanning, speed and range reading (er, yes, I’ve been to a couple of reading and note-making workshops at my uni!) to reading for methods, results, theory, to pluck out some key references, or deep reading. And also b) while there’s tonnes of stuff written about writing routines, targets etc, there’s curiously little about reading. I think this is because, as you mention, it’s something so unique to the discipline and the individual, but it’s really interesting to read about your approach.

    I’ve got an embarrassing ‘backlog’ of downloaded articles and enthusiastically checked-out library books piling up – though I’ve set myself a system of dealing with them (supposedly one ‘backlogged’ article a day, and a book a week) in reality I seem to be suffering from chronic ‘short-termism’ and allowing myself to be blustered from one deadline to the next.
    I know to an extent that’s just life – but reading this has redoubled my commitment to tackling the backlog and getting serious about setting some reading targets. I think my issue is when I think of ‘all the things I have to read’ it can feel like a massive and intimidating blob, yet the irony is when I actually tackle something, I inevitably get enthused and interested in the ideas and remember just why I wanted to do this damn PhD in the first place!


  2. A very insightful piece Professor. Thanks for sharing your invaluable experience with us.
    I agree with you that there is no hard and fast rule when it comes to how much one should read. For me, it depends on the relevance or importance of the material to one’s work (just like you’ve pointed out). In addition, it is definitely going to be impossible for one to give all reading materials and resources one comes across in the course of one’s research the same level of attention. If that were to be the case, then it would be virtually impossible to complete doctoral studies in 3-4 years. Some materials will require a mere skimming through, while others will demand more painstaking and detailed attention.

    Aside: I noticed Prof is a lecturer in my University — University of Nottingham 🙂


  3. Hi, I think this is a great post and raises some (for me) long pondered over issues! My problem is I always feel like I have a million other things to do than reading. I generally find it hard to assign levels of relevancy to my PhD tasks, because everything seems so important ALL the time!

    I have been successful using pomodoros when I was reading theory based papers. Having a specific amount of time to engage with a particular part of the paper and taking the break to reset the mind worked a treat for me when dealing with text I struggled to understand.

    I am still looking to develop a good routine that will work alongside my teaching and spending time at the community based service I am working with.


  4. kargraham says:

    Thank you so much for this. I’m in the latter part of my thesis, and still don’t feel like I devote enough time to reading for the thesis. I think I’m going to try and record my reading routine on my blog, and I might even try an online reading group. I know that other people have seen the benefits of pomodoros for writing, but I haven’t heard about it being used for reading.


  5. rjblakemore says:

    Very interesting post. During my (history) PhD I tended to work through primary material in an orderly or routine way, but secondary sources in topical bursts, and to some extent still do. I read a lot at the start of a project to ‘ground’ myself, but then tend to focus on primary material while acquiring an-ever growing secondary bibliography which I only really return to once I start writing. It would probably be beneficial to set up a regular reading schedule – my weekly four-hour round trips to archives in London provide something of this, though not in quite so comfortable a space! – but I still find it easier to target ‘library raids’ around specific papers or chapters.


  6. Kip Jones says:

    During my PhD studies, I read for about an hour every morning before leaving home. It accumulated and worked.


  7. Jen says:

    Reall interesting reading the comments for this and getting insight into other people’s approaches – I’ve been inspired to start #Read1Mon on twitter – idea being that first Monday of every month (so, starting next week!) we tackle 1 thing from our backlog of downloaded articles and tweet what we’ve read – are y’all in?!


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  9. I’m about 9 months into my PhD too. I usually find it hard to read regularly, and have a really embarrassing backlog of papers. Reading is one of those jobs that I always put off for things that are due more immediately (read:grading or classwork). I’ve yet to find a method that works for me…


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