What is a PhD, anyway?

What is a PhD anyway? It seems like a stupidly simple question. If you’re smart enough to do one, you should know what it is!

There are many ways to define it, often talking about pushing the boundaries of human knowledge. But this is only part of the story.

I want to define a PhD in a way that helps you understand what you need to actually do, and what standard you need to achieve.

What is a PhD, anyway?

A PhD is the entrance qualification for the world of professional academia. It is designed to test whether you are capable of conducting academic research at a professional level.

If you define a PhD this way, what then are the logical consequences?

The standard required

If you want to prove that you can conduct research to a professional academic level, then that tells you exactly what standard is required. You need to produce work of a high enough standard to publish in a peer-reviewed journal.

This is why, in most academic systems, your thesis is assessed by an expert in the field from outside your university; it is modeled on the process for publication through peer review.

The standard is set by the field

In an undergraduate degree, your competition comes from your classmates. But in the world of professional academia, you may be competing with researchers all over the world.

So the standard you have to reach is set relative to what others in the field are doing. If your research area is relatively new, the standard will be different to a research area which has been well established for decades. Therefore…

You must know the field

You have to know what others are doing and what they have done in the past. In other words, you must know the field before you can make a significant contribution to it.

But a knowledge of the field is still not enough.

Execution of research

If you are to publish professional-level research, the execution of the research needs to be highly competent.

So whatever methodology you use, get really good at it. If you are planning to conduct interviews, then practice and practice and practice some more. If you are doing experiments, get to know the equipment as well as you can. Find people with more experience in relevant techniques and learn from them, because this is crucial to the success of your project.

It is not easy…

None of this is easy, and it takes time to develop this level of knowledge and skill. But it is possible with persistence, patience and the right approach.

 

See also

How to do a PhD: top 10 tips

Why academic ability doesn’t guarantee PhD success

Academic ability is clearly important for PhD students. You need to be fairly smart to get onto a PhD program. Or at the very least, you need to be able to convince people you are smart which is an important skill in itself.

But academic ability can only get you so far. To successfully complete a PhD, you need more..

Academic ability doesn’t guarantee success

Academic ability, intelligence, IQ, test scores and so on help to get you in, but don’t guarantee success in a PhD program.

This is because by the time you get to PhD level, everybody has a high academic ability, high IQ etc. It is no longer the deciding factor between those who succeed and those who fail.

It’s like being tall and playing basketball. It helps, but doesn’t guarantee success because once you get to professional level everyone is else is tall too.

Practical competence

Because you are largely left to organise your own research, practical competence is probably just as important as academic ability.

If your research involves interviewing people, then it doesn’t matter how good you are academically if you can’t find and persuade people to take part in the study.

Or if you are running complex simulations but can’t persuade the IT manager to give you time on the supercomputer, then you’re in trouble.

Every project has practical barriers.

  • Obtaining equipment
  • Contacting the manufacturer when it breaks down
  • Contacting them again if they don’t get back to you
  • Figuring out how to fix it yourself
  • Dealing with administration
  • Getting safety or ethical clearance
  • Finding someone with expertise you need
  • Managing your data or samples
  • Finding funding…

It is often these kinds of problems that take the most time and cause the most frustration and stress, but they have nothing to do with academic ability!

The burden of expectation

Dealing with the practical side of research can be tough, and there are always problems you didn’t anticipate. Because most PhD students are accustomed to succeeding, these problems and delays can cause you to doubt your own ability.

So don’t put yourself under too much pressure to get results straight away. If there are practical obstacles to overcome, focus on those first!

Some tips

Get to know people in your department. Get to know secretaries, technicians; the people who can make things happen. Say hello to them if you pass them in the corridor. Then they’ll be much more inclined to give you help when you need it.

Phone calls beat email. If you are contacting a supplier (or anyone), a phone call is much more powerful than email. If you sent an email and never got a reply, don’t give up, pick up the phone!

Do small trial runs. Because some problems don’t appear until you actually try something, it’s often a good idea to try a small scale practice run. That way, you can adapt your approach before committing to the real thing.

Be patient but persistent. Don’t expect everything to work out perfectly immediately, but don’t sit and wait either. Keep pushing and keep adapting!

Positive Thesis Perfectionism and the Pursuit of Excellence

Thesis perfectionism is often seen as a problem for thesis writers, but is it really?

Can perfectionism be positive? In the right circumstances, it can be.

Conventional wisdom

The conventional wisdom says that thesis perfectionism is a bad thing.

If you worry too much about getting it perfect, then you won’t be able to write anything. Or if you do write something, you’ll never be satisfied and will get stuck in an endless cycle of writing and rewriting and never finish.

So you end up with advice telling you not to worry about the details. To just get words down on the page. To come back and edit later. Just get something done. (See the worst thesis writing advice ever [and what to do instead]).

This works only as a short-term fix for writer’s block. If you don’t think too much you can probably write 1000 words in a couple of hours, but eventually you will run out of momentum and be back where you started.

Or if you do manage to write several thousand words, it will be a mess of poorly structured thoughts with depth and no supporting detail. This is very hard to edit! So the temptation is always to move to writing about something fresh to get that momentum going again. Following this path you can end up with 6 chapters all in a state of “70% done”, but nothing actually finished and in a submissible state.

The more you write, the more detail is left for later. The harder it becomes to make any progress, and the more stressful life becomes as the months tick away.

But this is normal, right?

What is perfectionism?

Thesis perfectionism has been given a bad name, but that’s only because it’s misunderstood.

If you’re never happy with what you’ve written, is that perfectionism? Or is it something else?

Often, it’s just a lack of confidence, or being indecisive in what you are trying to say. So you write and rewrite but still aren’t happy. Or you worry so much about whether it will be good enough in the eyes of the examiner that you are too scared to write anything.

Just getting more on the page, then, isn’t going to help. What you need is the confidence to make a clear, assertive statement which you know you can defend.

This comes from knowing that you’ve taken the time and care to verify what you’re saying. Knowing that the evidence is there (and knowing where it is). Understanding the consequences of the argument you’re making, and Questioning yourself in a constructive way. In other words, taking time and care over the details.

Absolute perfection is unattainable (if you write 100,000 words there will be a spelling mistake soemwhere),  but excellence is attanable, and there’s nothing wrong with aiming for it.

The pursuit of excellence

The first attempt

It’s true that you shouldn’t worry too much about your first attempt at a sentence or paragraph. All you need to get started is some idea of what you want to say.

Because we don’t think in perfectly formed sentences, the first version is often a bit clunky. That’s OK. As long as you know what you’re trying to say, you can then work to improve it.

But if you edit immediately, while the thought is fresh in your head, it is much easier than writing 10s of thousands of words and then coming back to sort out the mess.

Exploring many options

There is no one right answer, no one right way of expressing an idea.

So you can and should explore many options without being too attached to any one.

The key is to immerse yourself in the idea and give it deep thought.

Immersion

Whatever idea you’re trying to express, immerse yourself in it. Stay with it.

Look at what you’ve written. Do you know what point you’re trying to make? Does it make sense? Is it true? Have you really cut through to the essence of the argument? Is there another, better way to phrase it? Do you have the references and evidence to back up what you’re saying?

Sometimes you might get stuck. This could be because;

  • If the thought isn’t yet clear in your own head, you have no hope of communicating it effectively.
  • If you don’t have the references to back up what you’re saying, you can’t write with confidence.

If you don’t have a strong foundation, then it might feel like writer’s block. But actually what you need to do is spend some time either finding the information or clarifying what you want to say.

Whatever section or idea you are working on, stay with it and do what’s necessary (whether finding the evidence or just spending more time thinking) to be able to write about it with confidence.

Then you can actually complete the section knowing that you’ve done the work to give your writing a solid foundation.

Constructive self-criticism

You will have to defend your work, but you can strengthen your defence by anticipating criticism.

Question your own results and interpretation, and the address those questions in your writing (or change your interpretation if you find a major flaw).

This is not the same as self-doubt. Self-doubt is stops you doing anything, but self-criticism is essential.

Care and pride in your work

When looking at literature, my view was always that I wouldn’t cite anything that wasn’t of a high standard.

I took time and meticulous care over my figures, to get them just right.

I looked after it, I nurtured it, and I gave every section the time and thought it deserved. I did it well for the sake of doing it well, and not for external approval, and so I finished each day happy with what I’d done, which made the next day easy to start.

Of course it was balanced by the need to finish. I still aimed for a minimum of 500 words a day, I just made sure they were good quality.

In anticipation of the comments…

I know that many will disagree with this approach. They will say that there’s no point worrying about the details because some things might not end up in the final thesis.

To them I say, “so what?”

It’s the nature of research and writing that some things you put effort into won’t be useful in the end. But if you at least put time and care into each idea then you can cut it decisively if you know you gave it a good shot and it didn’t work out.

Some details are more important than others, and you must prioritise and not let yourself get sucked into spending day after day on irrelevancies, but the details do matter. You will have to take care of them eventually, so you might as well do it now.

Positive Thesis Perfectionism

Sometimes thesis perfectionism can help you get things done faster, because you have taken the care to do things well the first time round.

I was never a very good physicist, but finished my thesis in 3 months, passed with zero corrections, and found the writing-up phase the least stressful and most enjoyable part of the whole process.

The key is to find a sense of relaxed control. To be able to take the time to do things well, irrespective of deadlines, yet still aiming to complete every section you work on.

Academic Writing Month (#AcWriMo): It’s a great idea, but…

November is academic writing month. If you’re into twitter, you may have noticed the #AcWriMo hashtag flying around, but if not, here’s the deal.

  1. During November, set yourself some crazy writing goals.
  2. Tell everyone
  3. Take action
  4. Declare your results

Because there will be thousands of students doing this at the same time, you’ll be able to share your experience, get advice, and join in the feeling of shared effort so you don’t have to feel isolated while you do it.

You can check out the complete (but simple) rules of academic writing month over on the PhD2Published blog.

Academic Writing Month: It’s a great idea, but…

I think academic writing month is a great idea, especially because of the community aspect. Also because the timing in November means you can have a concentrated burst of productivity before December and the associated shenanegans of Christmas and the new year.

I am certain that there will be plenty of success stories, but there are some potential problems you should be aware of.

1. Announcing goals doesn’t always work…

It’s widely believed that announcing your goals makes you more likely to follow through with them, because there is an element of accountability.

The problem, though, is that making the announcement gives you a slight psychological reward as if you have already achieved the goal (just like making detailed plans can make you feel good too, without having actually done the work).

This flies in the face of the standard advice, but sometimes it’s better to delay gratification, keep your goals to yourself and focus on what needs to be done, as explained by Derek Sivers in this video.

I also included this video in the blog post “Are some targets bad for your productivity?”

2. Focusing on high word-count is dangerous

Academic writing is about more than just word count. It’s about effective communication of difficult ideas.

When you start writing something new, there will be plenty of things which flow easily because you know them well, and you will be able to write fast. But inevitably, you will reach a point where you have to explain something that requires more thought and effort, and you will slow down.

This is a natural and unavoidable part of the writing process, and you just need to slow down and give some thought to what you want to say and how to say it. It may be that you need to think about how to link one idea to the next, or you need to check a reference, or take some time to find the right wording.

Many people mistake this natural slowdown for writer’s block, and received wisdom states that you should just get words down on the page and figure out the details later. But these details matter, and it’s best to engage with them now rather than save all the difficult bits for later (see the worst thesis writing advice ever, and what to do instead).

3. There will be bias in the AcWriMo results…

Part of the AcWriMo process is reporting your results. This is good, but it’s likely that the only people reporting results will be those who have achieved their goals.

For some people, it might not work, and it may be demoralising to see everyone else announcing how successful they have been. If you take part and you don’t meet your goals, I strongly advise you to announce this too, then readjust your goals to make them achievable the next day.

What I would suggest is setting an easy goal the first day (say 500 words), then if you smash it and do 800, set the target for 1000 the next day. To push yourself, go slightly beyond what you find comfortable, but do not work yourself to exhaustion because you have to last the whole month.Then if you can’t sustain 1000 per day, drop back down to 500 again because you know it is achievable.

4. Work on one thing, finish it

If you have a daily word count target, make it part of another target, such as “finish chapter 3”.

It’s common to get stuck just before the end of a chapter because you come to a point where it’s all about the small details rather than producing large volumes of new text. The temptation is to leave it for later and work on something else to maintain the rate of word production, but it’s much better to focus instead on finishing.

That way, you can move on to the next thing with a sense of satisfaction that you’ve completed something, rather than having that nagging sense that you’ll have to come back to it later.

So maybe set your crazy academic writing month goal as finishing a big piece of writing, and make your word count targets a subordinate part of that to help you on the way.

5. Work on something you can finish

In order to finish a piece of writing, other things need to be finished first.

For example, if you are writing a data chapter, you can’t finish the writing unless you have collected all the data. If you start writing before that, then you’ll hit an inevitable block (unless you are capable of time travel).

If something needs to be finished before you can finish the writing, do that first!

Good luck!

As  I said, I think it’s a great idea, so best of luck if you’re taking part.

I’d like to know if you face any problems, so leave your comments below!

Do you have a healthy academic environment?

Success in research depends on many factors other than just talent.

One major factor is the academic environment in which you work, and the way you interact with your colleagues.

Why environment matters

There is a huge difference between undergraduate study and postgraduate research. You have to think in different ways, because you are conducting original research rather than learning an established curriculum.

If you are surrounded by other researchers on a daily basis, you can learn a huge amount from the conversations around you as to how researchers think.

You also have people to talk to about your own research, people with a vast range of expertise you can tap into, or people to bounce ideas off.

Connecting ideas

Breakthroughs often occur when you make connections between previously disconnected ideas.

If you have ever watched an episode of House M.D., you will have seen the scene near the end of every episode where Dr. Wilson makes a comment unrelated to the case which triggers the flash of inspiration just before the final commercial break.

It’s the connection of previously unrelated ideas that’s the key to solving the case, and it often happens by accident.

A healthy environment for generating ideas

In a healthy academic department, people meet for coffee every day. People throw ideas around and ask questions. People take an interest in others’ research and help each other out.

In a healthy environment, there should be enough trust that you can admit when you don’t know the answer, or to ask a stupid question or suggest a crazy idea.

In a healthy environment, this is an informal interaction… a weekly research group meeting rarely allows for the same freedom of discussion.

The biggest mistake…

The biggest mistake you can make is to try to do everything on your own, and never discus ideas with other people (see the 10 commandments for PhD failure).

Distance PhDs

If you are doing a distance PhD, then you don’t have the same opportunity for academic interaction, so you have to make extra effort to seek it out, whether that’s through more regular contact with a supervisor or other students.

Do you have a healthy academic environment?

And if not, what are you going to do to create one?

How to write a thesis you can defend easily

An unavoidable part of the thesis-writing process is that at some point an expert in the field is going to read and assess your work.

You could be asked to defend or justify any part of your thesis… they might point out mistakes or question the validity of your arguments… or even ask whether the research question is one worth answering.

Naturally, the thesis defence this can be a daunting prospect, but there are things you can do during the writing process to make the future defence easier.

1. Anticipate criticism

By anticipating criticism, you can strengthen your defences against it.

What other approaches or interpretations could be made? If you acknowledge them and give a reasoned justification for why you did what you did or think what you think, then your defence is built into the thesis.

It shows that you can take an objective view of your research and have considered many options, acknowledging and addressing any weaknesses before the examiner has a chance to.

2. Try to prove yourself wrong

Be active in examining doubts, rather than letting a sense of unease sit at the back of your mind.

If you have reached a surprising conclusion, you should be the first to question whether it is true. Check and recheck your data. Try to think of alternative explanations and ways to test them. Show your work to others and get them to question it- you don’t want the defence to be the first time you get feedback on your research.

If your conclusion survives that process, then you will be able to defend it with far more confidence.

3. Be clear about what you are claiming

As I’ve said before, the examiner can disagree with you, but they should never misunderstand you.

Make a clear statement about what you are trying to say, so that both you and the examiner know what you are defending.

This can be difficult, and sometimes you can end up writing in circles if you are unsure about what you want to say. If that’s the case, slow down and imagine someone has just asked you, “so what are you trying to say?”

4. Only cite literature you have read and understood

If you misrepresent someone else’s work, and the examiner notices, you could be in trouble.

Never include things just for the sake of increasing your bibliography.

5. Stick mainly to what you know

Your thesis is unique, as is your experience and expertise. Focus on what you know well (and if you need to learn something new, go and learn it before you write about it).

It’s better to bring the examiner into territory where you are strong, than to stray into weak areas because you think that’s where they want to be.

6. Focus on the work, not the outcome

It’s hard, but try not to worry about the defence too much. Instead, focus on doing the work to the best of your ability.

You cannot predict or control what an examiner will ask you.  All you can do is give each section of the thesis the care and attention it deserves.  If you do that, then the chances are it will work out OK.

—-

See also: How to prepare for your thesis defence

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How to choose a thesis topic

One of the most common questions I get asked is how to choose a thesis topic or research project. Unfortunately it’s not as simple as just “finding a gap in the literature”, and there are many complicating factors to consider. In this excerpt from the book, “PhD: an uncommon guide to research, writing & PhD life”, I outline what you need to know…

There’s a lot to consider, so take your time reading this!

What makes a good project?

Good research depends on many factors, and a good idea alone is not enough.

You can have a brilliant idea, but the ultimate quality of the research will depend on your execution; an average idea well-executed is much better than a brilliant idea executed badly.

In turn, your ability to execute the research will depend on your specific research skills (existing and developing), as well as your access to other resources such as equipment, funding, technical support and time. Since these factors vary greatly, what may be a viable project for one person may be entirely unsuitable for another.

Your research idea needs to be of interest to other academics in the field. Partly, this will depend on your ability to justify your research and the originality of your proposal, but it can also depend on timing, as technology makes new things possible and old
techniques obsolete and as various theories and areas of study come in and out of fashion.

The interestingness of your project to others depends on who your audience is, as some projects will be fascinating to some, utterly pointless – or in some cases even offensive – to others. This is worth bearing in mind not only when you present your
complete research for examination or publication and nominate examiners or referees, but also when you choose whom to work with; if your supervisor is fundamentally opposed to your project, then you should either choose another project or change
supervisor.

Originality

Although a degree of originality is a key requirement, research is never totally original. Rather, it operates on the edge of what is already known; venturing forward but still connected to and dependent on that which has been done before.

Not every aspect of your research needs to be original. The skilful application of unoriginal ideas and well-established techniques gives you a reliable foundation to work from, and even the most revolutionary research will rely upon much which is unoriginal, perhaps combining pre-existing elements from disparate fields in an original way.

Find an edge to work on

Academic research is analogous to learning, but on a societal scale. Just as when learning a skill, research pushes just beyond the edge of society’s current collective ability or knowledge.

Rather than searching for a gap where there is nothing, it may be better to search for an edge to work on where you can take existing research further. One way to do this is to ask yourself after reading a paper: “is there a way to expand upon this research, or to approach it in a different way, or to apply the same techniques to a different subject?” If you do this with several papers, you’ll find that there is no shortage of ideas.

Another approach is to test the basic assumptions that others in the field have used. It is quite possible for an assumption to become accepted fact simply because several authors have stated or cited the same idea, even though it has never been systematically tested or proven. If you find such an untested assumption and can think of a way to test it, then your work will be of great value to the field (provided it is well executed).

Developing an idea

The decisions you make early in your PhD about what research to pursue will affect everything that follows, and this puts a lot of pressure on your choice of project.

Creative processes tend to work best when you take the pressure off and allow yourself the freedom to consider many ideas without worrying about whether or not they are good. This freedom is important because, often, bad ideas serve as intermediate stages in the development of good ones. So allow your imagination to run free, think of many ideas and don’t worry initially about finding the one.

Developing an idea is not just about freedom of creativity though. Once you have a few ideas it then takes focused work to test their viability and to refine them into a potential research project. How, then, do you test viability?

You will certainly need to check the existing literature to find out whether your idea has already been investigated and what similar research has been done. This is partly to ensure that your idea is original, and partly to help you think through how you might conduct your own research.

The literature can show you how other researchers have approached similar problems, but it is also useful to talk to other researchers in your department; to get feedback on your ideas and to find out what resources and expertise are available to you.

Even if you are given a specific problem to work on there will be multiple possible ways to approach it, so it’s good to think through these alternatives, consider their practicality, and not necessarily just take the first option that comes to mind.

Developing a research idea means investing time and energy into some ideas that you don’t then pursue further. This is not wasted time—it is often through investigating a bad idea that you then develop a good one.

Sooner or later though, you will have to commit to a project. There is no set formula to follow here, but there are some questions you can ask yourself, which may help you decide.

  • Does the project have a clear aim?
  • Do you know what techniques you will apply?
  • What resources and funding will you need?
  • What skills will you need to develop?
  • Do others in your department have relevant expertise?
  • Are you interested in the project?
  • Can you justify why the project should be of interest to others?
  • And who will it be of interest to?

Start small

The natural temptation might be to set your aims as high as possible and make your project as comprehensive as you can. Such projects are easy to imagine, but much harder to implement.

Think of the simplest possible version of your project, and how you would go about it. Then you can add extra complexity, but bear in mind that you will have to achieve the simple version first.

A word of caution

Although it is good to choose a project you have some interest in, it’s possible to be a little too interested in the subject. Using research to prove something you passionately believe in can lead to confirmation bias, where you only pay attention to results that support your existing view.

It’s OK to expect a certain result, but as a researcher you should maintain a slight distrust of your own assumptions, and actively try to prove yourself wrong whenever a new result conforms to your expectations.

Proposals

Depending on your PhD programme, you may have to write a research proposal. The requirements for this differ between institutions—you may have to write the proposal before being accepted as a student, or it may happen at a much later stage. It’s up to you to find out how it works wherever you are. Generally though, your proposal will need to show a clear research objective and choice of an appropriate methodology.

Clarity is the key. It should be immediately obvious exactly what you are trying to do, and this is only possible to communicate if you first have clarity in your own mind. Do not attempt to write down everything you could possibly imagine doing, nor everything you know about the subject.

Get the book

“PhD: an uncommon guide to research, writing & PhD life” is now available via amazon and other retailers

 

 

please do not ask me to give you a thesis topic!!

 

How to write a PhD literature review

In this post, I’m going to guide you through how to write a literature review on any topic from scratch, even if you haven’t read a single paper yet.

How to write a literature review from scratch

1. Pick a topic

It can be as broad as you like because this is just a starting point. If you are still picking your specific topic for your PhD, that’s fine, but you should at least know roughly what area you want to explore.

2. Find your way in

A quick google scholar search for your subject area could turn up as many as 1 million results. Clearly, you can’t read them all, so you need to look for an easy way in.

The vast majority of academic papers are written for people already familiar with the subject. They will refer to theories and methodologies assuming that the reader knows what they are.

So to start with just any paper at random would be a demoralizing waste of time, as you’ll be overwhelmed by the jargon. Instead, you need something you can understand easily to give yourself a foundation of knowledge to build upon.

Textbooks and review articles can be good places to start, though even these can be highly technical. If you can’t find one you can understand easily, then look for a book written for the general, non-academic public.

The idea is to gain a quick, broad background knowledge before getting into more specialised technical detail.

3. History, people & ideas

The idea of a literature review is to give some background and context to your own work. You need to show how your research fits into the big picture, relating it to what has been done before.

You don’t need to write a comprehensive history of your subject, but it helps if you know roughly how it has developed over time.

So as you read a few general introductions to your topic, you’ll start to get an overview of the key ideas and theories, who developed them, and when.

Also note any conflicting ideas, any controversy or disagreement in the field, as you’ll need to know this kind of thing.

Now you can start to look for specific papers.

4. Find the world-changing literature

Once you know who the world changers were, you can go in search of their papers.

You need to make sure you understand these key concepts, as they will help you decipher other papers which built upon these ideas.

Sometimes, those world-changing papers can be tough to read, but as long as you know roughly what they did and understand the key principle, that’s enough.

5. Get specific

Only once you have a grasp of the key ideas in your field should you get more specific.

There may be several angles you can take in your research, and you may have to explore many areas of the literature. So divide your literature search into sections to make it easier to manage. For each section, think of several keywords to try out in different combinations.

6. Filter

Even when you look at highly specialised sub-topics, there may still be thousands upon thousands of papers, so you need to filter them. Here are a few ways to reduce the numbers:

  • Look at the number of citations as an indication of quality
  • Make your keywords more specific
  • Scan the abstract and make a quick decision as to whether it will be relevant or not

Don’t be afraid to reject papers. You can always come back to them later, but you have to start with something manageable.

7. Filter again

You might not be able to read everything in depth immediately. From the papers you selected, give them a ranking A, B, or C.

A = must read, highly relevant, high quality

B = unsure, probably relevant, but not yet sure how

C = probably irrelevant, not what you thought it was when you read the title

If you’ve printed them , put the letter A, B, or C on the front so you can tell quickly when you come back to them (maybe months or years later)

8. Use other people’s bibliographies

Even if you can only find one good quality paper, read the introduction carefully and see who they cite. There may be a few gems there you didn’t find with the search engine.

Also, see who else has cited that one paper since it was published (this is also a very quick way to update your bibliography if you are coming back to it a year, or more, later).

9. Get to know the big players

In any research field, no matter how specialised, there will be leading experts or competing research groups. Figure out who they are, and read their work.

10. Make sure your research idea is original

As the saying goes, you can’t prove a negative. How can you prove that nobody else has done what you plan to do, without searching every paper ever published?

Well, it’s worth spending a day or two searching every keyword combination you can think of related to your specific research plan.

11. Write about ideas

When you finally start writing your literature review, focus on ideas and use examples from the literature to illustrate them.

Don’t just write about every paper you have found (I call this the telephone-directory approach), as it will be tedious to write and impossible to read.

The aim should always be to cite the best and most relevant research, rather than going for sheer quantity.

12. Remember, you aren’t writing a textbook

So you can leave out big chunks. Write about what is relevant to your research.

13. Vary the detail

When talking about a broad topic, only cite the very, very best papers. You’ll have a lot to choose from, so why choose anything but the best?

Then when you get into more specialised sections, you can include a larger number of less well-known papers (but still the highest quality you can find).

14. Don’t cite anything…

Don’t cite anything you haven’t read or don’t understand

15. Get experience

Your perspective on the literature will be quite different once you have done your own research. If you are in your first year, get your literature review done quickly so you can move on with your own work, and don’t let it hold you back.

It takes time to figure out what makes a good paper and what makes a bad one, and that comes with the experience of carrying out research, talking to other researchers and just reading more.

If you like this post…

Take the course on literature and literature reviews. You can find it here.

So good they can’t ignore you (Book Review)

There comes a point towards the end of every PhD when you start to wonder what the hell you are going to do with the rest of your life.

It’s times like this when you’ll probably hear advice like “follow your passion” or “follow your dream”. But this may not be the best advice according to a new book, So Good They Can’t Ignore You: Why Skills Trump Passion in the Quest For Work You’ll Love by Cal Newport.

Here’s my summary of some of the key points in this fascinating and thought-provoking book.

The search for the perfect job

What makes the perfect job? Is it following some kind of calling? Something you were made or meant to do?

That’s a lot of pressure to put yourself under, to find a job that fulfills some kind of predetermined destiny. It pretty much guarantees that you won’t be satisfied with any job you get because you’ll constantly be wondering if you are meant to be doing something else (I think this is a big problem for PhD graduates, because you’ll have naturally high expectations of yourself)

Or is it something more pragmatic?

The conditions for work happiness

The author gives 3 conditions for happiness in any job.

  1. Autonomy (the feeling that you are in control of your day and that your actions have significance to others)
  2. Competence (being good at what you do)
  3. Relatedness (feeling of connection to others)

None of these require matching your job to some pre-existing passion.

What makes GREAT work?

What makes a great job? Do you want total freedom? Do you want to have an impact on the world? Do you want to apply your creativity? Or do you want a ton of money?

Whatever combination of the above  factors go into making your dream job, they are rare (and therefore valuable).

So in order to get a job where you will be rewarded in this way, you’d better have some value to offer in return.

Building career capital

Career capital is basically marketable skill. The central idea of the book is that if you develop exceptional skill in one area and become “so good they can’t ignore you”, this gives you choices in your career.

Many people with great jobs don’t exactly plan their route to the top. Instead, they make themselves valuable by being as good as possible at whatever they do.

The craftsman approach

The difference between being good enough and being exceptional comes down to your approach to learning skills.

To improve, you need to go beyond your comfort zone and attempt things slightly beyond your range. If you are a musician and only practice what you can already play well, you will not improve. But if you try to play something challenging, and keep repeating again and again and again the parts you find hard, starting again every time you make a mistake you will get better and better.

It’s all about how you respond to negative feedback- do you avoid it by sticking to what is safe, or do you embrace it, and use it as an opportunity to improve?

Only once you have developed valuable levels of skill can you expect to get (or create) your dream job.

So Good They Can’t Ignore You

So Good They Can’t Ignore You is  released on 20th September. Click here to order your copy.

This is a must-read.


The Amazon link is an affiliate link, meaning that if you buy a copy, I get a small commission. That said, I only recommend books I think are excellent, and this is certainly well within that category.