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 citations 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 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

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, literature review, reading, starting the PhD and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to starting the PhD – digging in to the reading

  1. Tuluiga says:

    Very helpful and save times searching for the best literatures in a very short time. I am grateful about you sharing effective and useful strategies to support us all. Thanks again.


  2. This is very useful and informative, thank you.


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