Academic writing tip: read it out loud

It’s hard to read your own writing critically, but it’s something you’ll have to do. One way to make it easier is to read your work out loud.

This has two advantages.

First, it slows you down. You can’t skim over text as quickly when you have to speak the words, and this makes it easier to spot typos, repetition and other such mistakes.

Second, it transforms writing from a bunch of words on a page into actual sounds. Writing is, in essence, a form of idealised speech, and good writers know how to use the sound and rhythm of a sentence to get their message across.

That requires, of course, a high level of skill. The first step towards developing that skill is simply paying attention.

See also:

Balance: How to write a thesis the examiner wants to read

How to tame your inner writing critic


Raising the bar

If you’re doing a PhD, it’s quite likely that you did well at all the previous levels of the education system.

But a PhD is a completely different challenge requiring completely different skills. This means that many PhD students find themselves struggling for the first time in their academic lives.

Whereas an undergraduate degree, generally, has a clear structure and timetable that’s the same for everyone on your course (you’re told where to be, when to be there, and what to do while you’re there), a PhD does not.

The other key difference is that an undergraduate degree has a clear standard to reach, which, again, is the same for everyone on your course. In your PhD, though, the standard you have to reach is not only unclear, it’s different for every student depending on the project and the individual subjective preferences of the supervisor.

In the absence of a clearly defined standard, if you want to impress your supervisor or examiner the temptation is to aim as high as you can think of. A PhD is a bit like doing the high jump in the dark; if you don’t know where the bar is, naturally you’ll just try to jump as high as you can.

But this approach , no matter how natural, doesn’t work. If you want to develop the skills you need to succeed, you have to start easy and raise the bar gradually. If you skip this process, you’ll just end up overwhelmed.

Example: Working with Literature

When I started my own PhD (way back in 2003), one of the first things my supervisor asked me to do was to write a literature review. Desperate to impress, I decided that I would write the best literature review the world has ever seen. I even thought that I might be able to get it published. Of course, I failed to live up to my own expectations. I didn’t have the skill or experience to write a literature review that good, and felt a tiny bit demoralized by my own failure.

What I should have done, and what I now coach people to do, is lower the bar.

With the literature, this means starting with just a small number of papers and figuring out

  • What problem they were attempting to solve
  • Why it was a problem
  • What they did (and how)
  • What they discovered
  • Why that discovery was significant

It’s best to do this with important, groundbreaking papers, because these give you a foundation for understanding the incremental work that followed.

This is far more effective than taking a stack of 200 papers and trying to write summaries of them all.

See also: How to read a journal article

Example: Data Analysis

Data analysis is a skill, not just a process to follow. This skill needs to be developed over time, rather than at the end of your PhD. Obviously, you also need to learn how to interpret the data, but one of the key meta-skills that’s often overlooked is to know how the analysis can go wrong. This can only be developed through experience.

Again, the way to do this is by starting easy, with a small amount of data, getting to know each step of the analysis deeply. This way, you can make and correct mistakes at a manageable level, with each correction gradually improving your skill.

See also: Don’t neglect your data

Example: Project design

Part of my own PhD involved working on an instrument development project. The original plan was basically to build a machine that did everything, combining atomic force microscopy, scanning tunneling microscopy and near-field optical microscopy, in ultra-high vacuum at low temperature.

The technical details don’t matter here. The point is that in trying to do everything at the same time, none of it worked.

It was only when we simplified things, getting one part working before adding another, that we managed to make any progress. You have to start with a low bar, then raise it gradually. We would have saved a lot of time (and money) if we’d done it this way.

If you want to develop the skills you need to succeed, you have to start easy and raise the bar gradually. If you skip this process, you’ll just end up overwhelmed.

See also
The “Good” PhD Student
What to do when your PhD project gets too big
By Joop van Bilsen / Anefo –, CC0, Link

Finish it

No, I’m not talking about the whole PhD. I’m talking about the small tasks that make up the whole.

There’s always pressure to do more. Start the next thing. Follow up on the latest idea. But every time we take on something new, it takes attention and energy away from the other things you’ve started.

One of the best habits you can develop is to finish the thing you’ve started before moving on to the next one.

It means ignoring the pressure. It means putting off that new idea. It means facing the discomfort of solving the problem in front of you.

See also:
Your final PhD Year, moving towards completion
“Just finish it”, Scott Young


Revisiting the pomodoro technique

Set a timer for 25 minutes. Work on just one thing for those 25 minutes, then take a 5 minute break. After 4 rounds, take a longer break. When I first tried the pomodoro technique back in 2010, I loved it for its simplicity and effectiveness.

Since then, I’ve often used timers to help myself focus; it’s always easier to keep going when you know how much time you have left. Usually, I’ve done bursts of 40-45 minutes, but over the last few weeks I’ve revisited the original 25:5 formula.

I’ve found that;

  • By forcing myself to take breaks after only 25 minutes, I’m finding that I want to carry on. My brain is still engaged with the task I was doing.
  • I don’t have to decide how long to work for; the decision is made once, so it frees up a bit of mental space
  • I like the rhythm it imposes on the day
  • I’m not working to the point of fatigue or distraction

But the pomodoro technique on its own is not enough…

  • You need a way of prioritizing and deciding what to focus on, and, of course, you need the skills to do what you aim to do
  • Turning the internet off (or blocking email and other distractions) is a huge help
  • Having a deliberate routine for what you do in the breaks stops bad habits creeping in (don’t check email!)

Try it out and let me know what you think in the comments below!

External references:
The pomodoro technique
I’m currently using the Flat Tomato timer app and Cold Turkey to block internet distractions.
See also:
Procrastination hack: Get to zero

Tips for part-time PhDs

Do you have any tips for part-time PhD students?

If you’re doing a PhD part-time, the tips I’d give depend very much on what you’re doing with the other part of your time.

If you have a part-time job with predictable hours, it’s easier to manage the two demands than if you’re running your own business, which is easier than if you’re doing a PhD and have a full-time job and you’re raising kids all at the same time.

But I’ll try to give a general answer anyway.

First, treat the PhD with a level of priority that can compete with the other demands on your time. This means that sometimes you have to say no (or not now) to important things so you can work on your PhD.

Set aside time for your PhD and protect that time. If you can’t or won’t do this, it will always be pushed aside by other demands.

Second, make sure you don’t get isolated. Connections with other students and academics can make a huge difference and you might have to make extra effort to make these happen.

See also:
Talk to people
Who you work with is just as important as what you do
Tips for surviving a remote PhD
Doing a PhD while raising kids

Running the PhD marathon

A PhD is a marathon, not a sprint. Or so they say, anyway.

Actually, the marathon part of your PhD is your thesis defence; a difficult and exhausting-but ultimately rewarding-challenge that lasts a few hours. The rest of it is training.

The result of your PhD marathon (and the amount of pain or elation you will feel) will depend not so much on what you do on the day, but how well you’ve prepared over the preceding months and years. It is the cumulative effect of what you do consistently over time.

See also:
How to prepare for your thesis defence
Metaphor and analogy in academic writing

How to read a journal article

We all know that reading the literature is essential, but it’s not enough to just sit and read a stack of articles. Reading journal articles is a skill and, like any other skill, how you approach it makes a big difference. So it’s not just a question of how to read a journal article, but how to learn how to do it.

When you’re an experienced academic, reading journal articles is relatively easy. This is because you already have knowledge of the field and enough experience to recognise the significance and quality of the work. In other words, you can see where an individual paper sits in the wider context.

But as a PhD student, initially at least, you don’t have that experience. So, while plenty of academics have written guides on how to read journal articles, you can’t necessarily follow the same process as them (yet).

General principle:

While you can learn a lot from experts, the processes they follow now aren’t always the best ways to train your own skills. This is because their processes rely on prior experience.

How to learn to read an academic journal article

Instead of focusing on how to read an individual article, let’s think about what you’re actually trying to achieve. Are you trying to build your knowledge of the field? Or trying to understand a specific technical point? Are you trying to find a gap in the literature? Depending on the answer, the papers you choose to read, and what parts of those papers you focus on, should be different.

Of these, the first aim should be to build some knowledge of the field. How do you do this without drowning in thousands of sources?

1. Identify the most influential sources

Journal articles can be divided into two main categories; there are groundbreaking, influential papers that change the way the field thinks or operates, then there are incremental papers that just add a little bit, but don’t have a huge impact.

If you understand the influential, groundbreaking work, this gives you a foundation for understanding the incremental work that followed. Fortunately, there are relatively few of these groundbreaking papers and they are easy to identify (because they are highly cited).

Try to find around 5 highly influential sources related to a specific topic. If you can understand;

  • what they discovered/ invented/ proposed
  • what problem this discovery/ invention/ proposal attempted to solve

Then you have a good start. However, there’s a problem…

If you look just at those original sources, they might be very hard to understand. Simply re-reading them won’t necessarily help, because academic articles usually assume a lot of pre-existing knowledge.

2. Focus on the concepts you identify, not the sources

If you’ve identified important developments in the field, but don’t really understand them, you now have a new aim; to find sources that explain those concepts.

Primary research articles may not be the best things to focus on, because they aren’t written to teach. Instead, look for textbooks, review articles, Wikipedia pages, YouTube videos, or people in your institution you can ask.

You can go back to the original source later. For now it’s enough to know where the idea came from, while looking elsewhere for an initial explanation.

3. How did these concepts influence the field?

A key part of understanding the literature is understanding trends in your field. So what effect did these influential papers have?

For example, did a particular theory spark a bitter debate in the field? Did a particular invention open up new possibilities for research? Or did a particular discovery reshape the fundamental understanding of some phenomenon?

This gives you an initial, broad context for understanding some of the finer detail contained within the literature. But equally importantly it gives a focus to your reading; a specific, achievable aim that isn’t too overwhelming.

4. How to read journal articles for context

You can strengthen this contextual knowledge by reading the introductions of recent papers. Every research article starts with a brief overview of the background and current state of the art, so reading just the introductions of a few recent journal articles is a great way to get a quick summary of what’s happening in the field.

You may find that a lot of them say more or less the same thing. In this case, you know what the field considers to be important. Or if you see they all say contradictory things, you know that there is no consensus in the field.

Again, the aim determines how you read the individual journal articles and what you focus on.

5. Get some practical experience

It isn’t enough to know how to read a journal article. You will find that it gets much easier to read and understand once you have some practical research experience. It’s by doing research yourself and making mistakes that you’re able to spot problems in the published literature and to really appreciate the best work that’s been done.

Reading helps with the practical work, but the practical work helps reading too.

How to read a journal article once you’ve got a bit of experience

Once you’ve built up some broader contextual knowledge, you can think about how to read a journal article in isolation.

Many people advise reading the abstract first, then the conclusion, then going back to the introduction. The exact order varies (and this one advises skipping the abstract altogether), but it’s basically a way of systematically assessing whether the article is worth reading in depth.

Again, though, I’d say that how you read should depend on what you want to achieve and what led you to the article in the first place. Context is everything. You might read differently depending on whether you’ve just done a search that gave you 5000 results and need to filter through them, or you’ve done a search that resulted in 5. In the former case, filtering by title initially is the only way to go. In the latter case, slow down and read everything.

If you found a paper because you’ve noticed a lot of relevant sources referring to it, it’s probably best to treat it like one of the ground-breaking papers, but also noting what the authors you have already read are saying about it.

So you have to adapt, but as a general approach to reading journal articles…

Read the introduction first

I would usually advise reading the introduction first. The introduction should set out what the paper aims to do, and if you skip this then nothing else will make sense.

The first thing to look for is what problem they are working on. If it isn’t clear, or if the problem isn’t interesting to you, move on to the next article.

What you do next depends on the immediate relevance to your project

Key point:

Different literature will be useful to you at different times, depending on what you are trying to achieve. You may re-visit some sources several times throughout your PhD, and what isn’t relevant or useful now may become useful later.

If the work seems highly relevant to what you are doing, or helps you to solve a current problem in your research, either slow down and read carefully, or if you don’t have time, put it to one side but make sure you have a way of remembering where to find it later.

You don’t have to summarize everything

Some say that you should summarize everything you read, but I don’t think this is the most important thing to do. It’s possible to fill fifty notebooks with summaries, but that isn’t the same as having knowledge.

What you need is a picture of the literature (the key discoveries, most relevant articles and the trends in the field) which you carry in your head at all times. Then you where to look to find relevant sources to fill in some details when you need to.

What I did in my own PhD was build up collections of literature around certain topics. I put printed copies into ring-binders by sub topic. Any notes were taken in the margins of the paper, so they stayed in context with the whole text.

I knew which were crucial to my work and I knew which were most influential. I also knew the kinds of problems that were being worked on in the field, and what techniques were being used, and I knew where to look to find details when relevant.

See also:
How to write a compelling literature review
How to filter the academic literature