starting the phd – searching the field

A completed PhD is not simply the result of getting a piece of research and a thesis done.  Getting these two big things done requires that you first of all need to get to know your field, or fields. And getting to know your field means that, at the very beginning of the doctoral process, you have to find out how it developed, its key figures, its debates and texts, as well as what’s expected of people working in it. You also need to know the edges of the field and where the new work is happening. You also hope to get a sense of where the field needs to go.

And in order to do the required intellectual work on your field, you need to know how to search. University libraries routinely offer sessions on how to conduct a literature search. Sometimes, these sessions include the kinds of searching that academics routinely now do – and sometimes they don’t.

I’ve been thinking about all this because I’ve been teaching about working with literatures again. I’ve compared notes with some of my colleagues about how they start researching a new field and what they advise for people just starting out.

6292448083_ea935f5015_bHere’s a few of their/our core searching strategies.

  • Find someone in your university who knows the field and ask them for three key things you should read. You can then follow their writers, the journals in which they publish and their reference lists – working outwards from this small starting point to include more people and papers.
  • Find someone in your university who knows the field and ask for names of the key scholars in the field. As with (1) this provides an initial lead to books and papers, journals and debates. You can also check out whether these recommended folk have open access publications on their own academia or researchgate pages; you can also see their most cited work (and their h index ‘rating’, a somewhat dodgy measure) on googlescholar citations.

Doctoral researchers should expect their supervisors to help with (1) and (2).  Specialist subject librarians can point you to key journals and books. You can collect references from conference papers too, and it is particularly helpful if you attend a conference early on and get to see some influential people in your field. An additional and often very helpful approach is to ask social media for suggestions on who or what to read.

  • Find an international handbook, introductory text, state of the field commentary, or an introduction for dummies. Look for the key field contributors, arguments and texts and then go find the original works. Sometimes Wikipedia can be very helpful, but the entries are quite variable in their approach and quality.
  • Use key word searches on google scholar. Yes, I know some people are sniffy about google scholar but lots of us use it and some of us aren’t afraid to say so in public. Google scholar is a helpful resource because it not only provides links to papers and books, but also the papers and books that cite the paper you’ve landed on. The trouble is that googlescholar also produces a lot of stuff that isn’t relevant. You do need to pick only those few – yes few – that seem immediately most relevant, the ones that jump out and say me, me, me. Ordinary old google searches often produce a list of two or three ‘most read’ texts and these can be a helpful lead too. But be aware that different key words produce different sets of papers – so it is worth trying more than one key word search in order to get the most obvious list. Googlebooks searches and even searches of major online publishers can be helpful too – the online book publishers often list by ‘most popular’, and the books at the top of these lists can provide you with starting points.
  • 6292451889_4869386a52_bGo to a major journal publisher’s site and either look for the most obvious journal that addresses your field, or use key word searches. Use the journal page to see the ‘most cited’ and ‘most read’ papers – these lists says something about the centrality of the issue/writer/paper to the field. Check to see if the publisher has any ‘virtual issues’ in the field you’re searching. And conduct key word searches as before – again checking for ‘most read’ and ‘most cited’.

You can see that there is a hierarchy in my list above – it starts with finding people who know  – and then and only then moves onto strategies which use the power of algorithms to produce a list you can select from.

However, when you get to  (4) and (5) on my list you end up generating a lot more stuff than is actually relevant. So you need to be very discriminating. You need to focus on narrowing down big lists – that’s why looking for things that are cited a lot, and choosing only a few of the most obvious texts as lead–ins to the field may be the best early strategy.

It’s a good practice to take your early lists of possible texts to your supervisor. Ask if any of the things you’ve located are more important than others, and why. You will then not only get a clear steer on what to read and in what order, but also some further discussion of the field. While you don’t have to take your supervisor’s version of the field as fact, it is always useful to hear the ways in which more experienced scholars explain the field and its topography. Such discussions also help you to understand the perspective your supervisor will take on debates and your review.

As you get to know your field, your searching will become more sophisticated and discriminating. You’ll get much better at working out which processes will be useful and which won’t. You’ll develop a set of strategies that work for you.

And you never stop doing searches. Searching is a key academic practice. Whether you end up in or out of a university after your doctorate, getting to know the most central and useful papers and books in a field is a foundational step in any academic work.



About pat thomson

Pat Thomson is Professor of Education in the School of Education, The University of Nottingham, UK
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3 Responses to starting the phd – searching the field

  1. Jane says:

    Make an appointment with your subject research librarian at the start of your literature search. They will help you develop a good search strategy which will save you lots of time in the long run. If you save your search in the database you can return to it later and rerun the same search – or set up alerts so new articles come to your email as they appear. Google Scholar is great for things you won’t find elsewhere – but it is tricky to search systematically. You also need some good Referencing software – such as EndNote or Mendeley, but there other plenty of others – not only do they help with referencing, but they help organise and keep track of your reading.
    And yes, you guessed it, I’m a subject specialist research librarian 🙂


    • pat thomson says:

      Of course, many universities no longer have subject specialist librarians or have never had them – and part time students find them hard to get to see. While I don’t want to diss the subject specialist librarian, it is actually also very important to have strategies that people can use from home and from their desk top.


  2. Yunying says:

    This post is of great help in inspiring me on how to form a searching tree when starting a phd. As informed, I also start to learn about Endnote and seek help from specialist librarians. Next step, I am going to make an appointment with librarians again so as to help me develop a good search strategy.


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