putting the search into research – starting the phd

Getting through a doctorate requires a finely honed information practice. You have to become pretty good at summarising, synthesising and categorising ‘stuff’ – otherwise known as ‘the literatures’.  But you also have to keep track of what you’ve read, and you need to be able to find things again when you have to.  So scholarly information essentials such as reading and noting are underpinned by practical strategies; these  include recording, filing and retrieving the stuff.

But, you also need to be able to find the stuff in the first place. One of the information strategies developed through the doctorate is that of searching. You know, locating the stuff that is useful, and interesting (and these are not always the same thing).


Now, when I say searching I don’t mean going to one of those big data bases and hauling out a big list. No, what I actually mean by searching is knowing what to type into the search function. What to ask. That’s the tricky bit.  It doesn’t matter whether you’re looking at a scholarly data base, journal publishers’ website, google scholar, a library catalogue, a newspaper archive or an online bookshop, the information you get is only as good as the question you ask.

Knowing what key words, strings and phrases produce good results for you, in your field of research, from what kind of data archive, is something that you learn over time. It’s often learnt through trial and error. There is a kind of grammar to searching, just as there is to software programmes, and it is something you get more familiar with the more you are immersed in it.  And it’s often not something that you notice you are getting better at. But you generally do.

Really experienced scholars search well. They are savvy with key words and phrases. They know to play around with the order of terms in a string in order to change search results. They even know how to locate that text that they saw two years ago but didn’t save – they can recall enough to find it even though they can’t remember the title or the authors. Damn – how did they do that?  And they can pull up a range of texts where others have failed. Hence the warnings to less experienced researchers about saying there is nothing written in my area… smart searchers can usually disprove claims to singular innovation in a single, quick search.

Skilful searchers seem to have a ‘feel’ for finding things. This’ feel’ isn’t some kind of innate ability. Astute stuff-hunters weren’t born knowing how to enter a cunning key word.  Searching is a form of tacit craft knowledge, accumulated over time – often without the scholar particularly noticing it is happening.

But it is helpful to take note of what and how you search and to make that searching learning a little more explicit. For a start, if you keep track of what keywords seem to work and don’t work than you can save time when you search again. You can create a set of search terms that have proved useful to you in your research and from what archive/catalogue/website etc. Keeping track of searches – perhaps through a simple word doc list – means that you can avoid repeating terms/searches that haven’t been very helpful in the past. Or you might repeat a search that didn’t yield much at one point, to see whether the field has changed over time.

More importantly, keeping track of what you’ve done means you can easily update a search. This is important in the PhD. While you do a lot of reading in the first year of the PhD, you still have to keep up to date with the field and incorporate more recent writings in your thesis. And let’s not forget that important pre-submission stage – it’s pretty helpful to do a last-minute check through the key literatures just to make sure there isn’t anything that you really do have to note – even if only in a post script or a viva. Being able to repeat a couple of your most generative searches, using the same terms in the same data archive as the original, is a pretty efficient and effective final check.

Keeping track of search terms also means that you can report accurately if you decide to write a literature paper. This may not be your intention when you start the research, it might be something you decide later on. If you have recorded the search terms you used for particular data bases, then you can easily report what what you did and didn’t do in a methods section.

Most importantly, in noting your searches you are also focused, even if only sporadically, on building your understandings of how particular data bases work and how they respond to different questions. And you can show others what strategies they might try for themselves.

If you are starting the PhD this year – or even if you are well on your way with it –  it is well worth while simply sitting alongside an expert searcher to see what they do. They might be a librarian or a supervisor or a mentor who has a lot of experience in your field.  Watch the screen. If they are using an approach that you’ve not tried yourself, ask why. Get them to say how they think about searching while they are doing it – find out the rationale for their searching tack. Why this term? Why this order of words?

Searching and researching. Of course, searching is not all that matters in research. Hardly. And searching data bases is not necessarily the only or best way to find all the stuff you need –  following references in papers and books, using idiot’s guides and Wikipedia, reading handbooks, getting advice – these are all helpful strategies to find the good stuff.

But searching is still important – it’s one of those necessary but not-talked-about-a-lot scholarly habits that you need to grow all the way through the PhD and beyond.

And it can even produce a kind of perverse satisfaction. Look at all that useful stuff I’ve just located through my search! Now I’ve just got to…


Follow other starting the phd posts.

Image credit: Michael Clore Flickr Commons




About pat thomson

Pat Thomson is Professor of Education in the School of Education, The University of Nottingham, UK
This entry was posted in academic writing, keywords, literature review, literature reviews, research, searching, starting the PhD and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to putting the search into research – starting the phd

  1. Interesting! I liked the line “it can even produce a kind of perverse satisfaction”.


  2. James says:

    You can also set up Google Scholar alerts for your key search words.


  3. Judy says:

    I like this post. I occasionally notice experts in my field use a different order of words from mine and it comes up with some surprisingly relevant results. And an expert from another field quickly found a highly relevant article for me when I was stuck. It’s amazing. But I have never asked them why and how. Maybe I should ask in the future.


  4. Reblogged this on niekyvanveggel.eu and commented:
    Some excellent advice here by Pat Thomson


  5. Pingback: putting the search into research – starting the phd – niekyvanveggel.eu

  6. Yunying says:

    This post offers me hints on how to keep track of my research,reminding me of databases of searching, even strengthen my confidence from searching to researching. But I just find it shy to ask a permission from my supervisor and watch over his/her working.


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