Getting a PhD: Critical research reading

Welcome to the world of Research, where you must read so much in limited time, and where a thorough review of literature is what differentiates the freshers from the experienced. I appreciate the way Gordon Rugg and Marian Petre put it in their engaging book, The Unwritten Rules of PhD Research:

Initially, a new student/fresher:
  • understands his/her research area
  • reads to discover what is known in this area and gathers this information
  • is concerned about organizing literature sources

Then the slightly less-new student:
  • understands his/her research topic
  • is able to organise information better
  • is concerned about identifying the research problem

And as more time goes on, the student:
  • understands his/her research question
  • gathers information that is relevant to his/her research question
  • is concerned about identifying what has been said about the research problem

And then close to completion, Mr/Ms Researcher:
  • understands his/her research evidence
  • aims to discover new information and is capable of critically analyzing information
  • is concerned with what has not been discussed about the research problem


The above descriptions may not be the same for everyone, but it helps me understand why some final year students decide to discard their first-year write-ups. So basically, I gather that what differentiates okay research from great research is your ability to read the right material with a critical, analytical mind. Aim to question what you read about your topic and about the work done by previous researchers.

Q: Okay, so I need to do two things- find the right material, and then read the right material critically. First off, where can I find the right material in a specific field?
A: Journals are a good source of quality reading material, and if you want to take it a step further, look out for journals with high Impact Factors. Researchers can track relevant journal papers using any of the three major bibliometric websites - Scopus, Web of Knowledge and Google Scholar - which judge a journal's importance and impact based on certain criteria. Depending on your field, either of these three research databases will do, although some cater to your needs more than others. For example, Scopus offers more Science and Engineering journals than Web of Knowledge. Furthermore, reading relevant review papers can give you a nice overview of the subject area.

Q: Okay, I've gotten proper materials. Now how do I read them "critically"? 
A: This really good 5-minute video helps me understand what critical thinking is about, and this page helps me see the difference between descriptive and critical writing. Some phrases to use when critiquing literature can be found here.

Q: There's so much to read. How do I keep track of it all?
A: A few handy tips I've been given on reading and storing quality papers include:
  • Read the abstract, tables and conclusion first to determine whether a certain article is (cough) worth your time. 
  • The first statement in a paragraph or section often gives the main idea of the paragraph or section.
  • Highlight relevant portions of text in papers read.
  • Summarise in your own words the main idea behind relevant papers, taking note of key research questions that the author(s) answered, methodologies and their conclusions.
  • Store references in software like EndNote, Zotero, Mendeley. 
  • Keep track of newly published work using RSS feeds which deliver papers from fields you are interested in straight to you (a brief explanatory video of RSS feeds here).


On a related note...

('Disclaimer': I have experienced only two types of educational systems- Nigerian and UK, so it is not my intention to generalise, or worse, put down every other educational system in favour of the UK system. I am just stating one of my observations, thanks). Right, so for a few years now I've noticed that most UK-educated students often ask insightful questions, "I would have thought that x would result from y since z usually occurs, yet it does not. Could you explain why this is so?" while some non-UK educated students usually tend to ask more basic, "I don't understand why this is so...?" questions.
I think this is due to the difference in educational systems; the UK system encourages more critical thinking, so from an  early stage students are trained to question what they read and are graded according to how they can demonstrate this skill. I think that students new to the UK education system can learn this skill as well, and the first step lies in devoting a bit more time to reading in order to gain very good background information, and learning to ask more and more questions... quite like learning to become more sceptical.  Attending Skills workshops is also very helpful, and I presume that most UK universities run Skills workshops on topics like time management, critical thinking, developing a balanced argument and so forth, so make the most of it.

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