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



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, critical, reading and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to being ‘critical’ – starting the phd

  1. Tuluiga says:

    Very helpful Thanks very much Pat


  2. Adrian Van Breda says:

    Thanks. This is a very accessible response to the oft-asked question about what is typically regarded as utterly mysterious, shrouded in incense.


  3. Freddy says:

    Thanks for putting it clear for me.


  4. Yunying says:

    It offers inspiration of how to be critical.


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