Thursday, March 10, 2011

The phases of reading

In between of meetings related to my analysis report, I'm still working on my literature review.

Since I really liked the thesis whisperer's blog post about reading like a mongrel, I started to think about how I became a mongrel (which, by the way, is a new word to me, but I like the way it sounds). Reading papers and hunting for the right piece of information isn't really something which I started doing right from the first day of my PhD. In fact, I've been reading in different ways before achieving this level. Here are the phases I have been going through

1. The novice

I started reading papers for the first time during the last months of my master's degree. I remember that I spent more than a week (!) working my way through the first paper, reading and rereading almost every sentence and still not really understanding the contents. I thought maybe the topic was too difficult for me, but I decided I would keep working and see where that would take me.

2. The apprentice

And so I reached the point where I started to actually understand the topic and learn the concepts. All my energy was still going into understanding what exactly is the topic about, which parameters are important and which researchers played an important role.

3. The sponge

Once I mastered the basic concepts, I started to absorb information like a sponge. I was still summarizing everything I read in a paper, and building up my own database of information with respect to my topic. My focus was still very narrowly related to the paper I was reading. I've been a sponge for quite some months to cover my topic.

4. The concluder

Once my brain was full with all the information it had been soaking out of a fair number of papers, it started to actually play a more active role. Within the boundaries of a set of papers, I started to see similarities, and I started to draw some conclusions from that.

5. The interrelater

The spell check refuses to approve "interrelater" but I can't find a better word (suggestions are very welcome!). During this phase, I started to put together information from the entire range over which I had been reading, and relate this information to my experimental work. The bigger lines were becoming clearer and clearer and I felt that reading had start to require a higher level of my personal activity. I'm still most of the time in this phase.

6. The mongrel

There are a few topics which are not fully the focus of my research, but interesting enough to work my way through a stack of papers on this topic and filter out what I need. This needs to happen in the quick and dirty way: skimming, looking at pictures, trying to filter the keywords from the last and first lines of the paragraphs, and all other activities you can do when you only want to give something like fifteen minutes of your attention to a paper. This style of reading is the most active way I have described (in ascending order from the very passive phase of the novice to the active phase of the mongrel), and is least oriented on the paper and most on yourself and your research.

Have you distinguished similar phases while reading? I'd like to read about your experiences.


  1. Interesting analysis of how we obtain information from our reading and I can certainly identify with your phases.

    In my own head, I call "The interrelater" stage "The synthesiser".

    Similarly, I call "The mongrel" stage "The detective" and agree that as soon as I've got my own ideas about how things relate can't help but give in to the temptation to quickly hunt out the bits that are most relevant to me rather than reading through something sequentially.

    Dr Suzanne

  2. Dear Eva,

    Thank you so much for writing down your experiences concerning academic reading. I just began my PhD road last month, my masters' years just have their curtains closed only 4 months ago. Honestly, I'm still struggling with reading papers. I think I'm still a novice and it gives me a lot of stress when I feel so behind compared to my fellow PhD students (I'm in France so we can enter PhD years right after grabbing our Master degree without having to pass a qualification exam to become PhD candidate like in many other countries). But now that I have come to know all the phases, the training road is much more clear.

    Thank you.

    1. Dear Catherine,

      Don't worry, just keep going - it really does take a while before you grasp all the concepts while reading.