- Education and Science
Best Books, Posts and Tools for Writing Your Ph.D.
Wondering how to start writing up your Ph D?
I have now massively updated this lens. Since first writing it, I have discovered a number of other books and tools that have helped me learn how to do a PH.D. and also, how to be much more productive and organised with my writing. I have recently completed my Ph.D. and graduated, but the last long stretch - known as the home straight - required massive amounts of work and much greater organisational skills and dedication to keep the enormous amount of writing under control.
When you start out doing a Ph.D., you will find that you need to do an awful lot of reading, both in and around your subject area and also you will find it useful to read other books about HOW to do various parts of your Ph.D., like your literature review.
One of the most important things to actually DO when studying for a Ph.D, as well as reading, is to write. Now, you may say that you don't have anything to write about, that you don't know anything and can't say anything that hasn't already been said. That doesn't matter. The writing part is just as important as the reading part and I will help you work on that too.
This lens covers some of the books, tools and posts I have found useful in getting stuck into writing up work for research. This lens currently covers books and a web page that I have found vital in helping me understand what is needed when reading and writing for a research degree, both in terms of HOW to read and HOW to write and also what is expected from me as a research student. These are the kind of things that you can take ages to find out and that can really help you when starting out as a research student. I will add to this lens as I find other useful items.
Since writing the above, I have found some writing tools, and also books on writing that will simplify and speed the process and also help to organise it.
I have also added some new pictures. All photos on this lens are either my copyright or they are copyright free from Pixabay.
Starting to Write Can be Hard!
Research writing feels different.
You may have got a really good degree from your undergraduate studies. You may have been out at work in a job that requires you to write lots of papers. But when it comes to writing academic papers or submitting work to your supervisor, sometimes it's very hard to get anything down on paper. You may have read loads of books and papers on your subject but you may still feel that you don't know enough to write anything or you may not know what to write. One of the problems may be that you don't know WHY you are reading a particular book or paper. Don't laugh! This happened to me. I have been an avid reader all my life, have read hundreds of books, though probably most of them were fiction, rather than factual or academic books. I also have a high reading speed but even so, I still did not know WHY I was reading a particular book or WHAT I wanted to get from it. This is crucial when doing a Ph.D. Not only so you know what to get out of the reading material but also to save yourself time so you don't read what isn't necessary. It's easy to get overwhelmed with reading material and think you have to know it all, then despairing because you can't get through it all. This is not necessary.
One of the best books I have read that REALLY helped me understand what I needed to LOOK for in what I was reading is:
"Critical Reading and Writing for Postgraduates" by Mike Wallace and Alison Wray
I first borrowed this book from the library (a technique you should use where possible) but found it was so good that I bought my own copy, which is liberally sprinkled with those little flags / tags, to remind me of useful pages. It covers how to read material. (I know, I thought I had learned that at 5 years of age too but this is reading for research - and my primary school didn't cover that.) It covers how to analyse it and provides useful templates for doing so. It tells you how to write a critical summary and a critical analysis on these templates and then use the templates for creating comparisons and more importantly, your LITERATURE REVIEW! This is a very well written and interesting book. I wish I had had access to it when in school. It is very accessible to good readers and would have been very useful to me even then.
Doing the Research
How to find out what you are actually meant to be doing!
The next book that I found really useful is "A Student's Guide to Methodology" by Peter Clough and Cathy Nutbrown.
This book does what it says in the title - it introduces you to postgraduate research methodology. It's well written and easy to follow and includes a lot of interesting material. One of the best parts about this book is that it also acts as a workbook. It encourages you to keep a research journal and tells you what to put in it. It also encourages you to write something, even only 100 words, after reading something in the book. I did this and then found I had a great deal of work available to me for use in a paper with what felt like very little effort, which was very useful when I was panicking about some work I had to complete.
One web site I found really useful was at Plymouth University in England but unfortunately the article I found so useful has been taken off the site, or at least, I am unable to find it! It was all about beginning your research and was very useful to read along with "The Student's Guide to Methodology". It was originally located at http://www.edu.plymouth.ac.uk/resined/beginning/be... but that page is no longer available, however, the article can still be found on the WayBack Machine. To use the Wayback machine, carry out a Search Engine search for The Wayback Machine, copy the web site address as shown above and then paste that into the Wayback machine. The last view of the page was in 2015 and at the moment, you can still read the full article.
This very long page covers "The Goldilocks Test" and "The Russian Doll Principle". These are mentioned in "The Student's Guide to Methodology" but I think the web site sets out the ideas more clearly. The ideas are very simple but vitally necessary. The Goldilocks test is whether your proposed subject is "just right", neither too "hot" nor "too broad", etc. The "Russian Doll Principle" digs down to find the underlying kernel in your proposed research. You will find this at section 2., over halfway down the page. Also at that point is a link to an excellent PowerPoint presentation which takes you step by step through having an idea to working out your research question. Again, the autoplay PowerPoint presentation can no longer be found on the Plymouth University website, however, it can still be downloaded from the Wayback Machine, using the link in the saved article from 2015.
If you work through the PowerPoint presentation, using your own subject, it will help you find your research question, which will make reading and writing a lot easier.
Another useful item is a downloadable PDF from Dr Rowena Murray. This can be found at http://www.srhe.ac.uk/downloads/events/36_Academic_Writing-Dr_Rowena_Murray.pdf
Get these books
Useful books for doing your Ph.D.
This book really helped me understand how to use textbooks and how to pick out the essential information and be able to compare books and articles.
This book has workshop ideas that helped me understand what I was looking for. The answers I wrote here were really useful when I was preparing a presentation on the work I had done to date - a lifesaver!
Goldilocks and the Russian Dolls - Goldilocks test and the Russian Dolls Principle
How to get at what you REALLY need to research
Have you heard of the Golidlocks test and the Russian Dolls principle?
Finding Goldilocks and the Russian Dolls
If you voted above to say that you wanted to find out more about the Goldilocks and the Russian Dolls techniques - then here is your opportunity to find out
- Goldilocks and the Russian Dolls
Finding your research questions
Help Me to WRITE!
How to get yourself writing when you don't know how.
How to write a Thesis, by Rowena Murray. This is another really useful book. I went on a course where this was the recommended text. The lecturer used some techniques from the book and lo and behold, we had all written something and had it read by another researcher within the 3 hours! I can't scan a picture of this book because I downloaded it onto my Kindle and read it while travelling on the train. The book used some really good techniques to overcome barriers to writing (you know, the ones like "I haven't read enough", or "Will my supervisor think I'm writing rubbish?", or "What can I write about?").
Some of the useful techniques I got from this book included the use of a large heading at the top of my research journal (the one that the "Student's Guide to Methodology" book told me to start) that said "Not Sure Mode". By writing these three little words at the top of your page (or typing them into the header of your word-processed document), you give yourself "permission" to write down your thoughts (no matter how "silly" you may feel they are) or to write down statements that you may need to check for accuracy. These three words give you "permission" to write whatever you want, so you have a record of your thoughts, instead of telling yourself you have to check everything and get it perfect before committing to paper.
Another technique that I found useful was "Freewriting". In this you just put pen to paper and write without stopping for 5 minutes. If you can't think of what to say, then write over and over, "I can't think what to say". This technique frees you up from having to think of a subject on which to write. A similar technique is that of using "prompts", where you have a question or a phrase that you use to "prompt" you to write. The book gives you many prompts that you can use over and over and these work no matter what your subject.
Another technique that is entirely different from "freewriting" and "prompts" is that of "Writing in Layers". This is a more structured way of writing and helps you produce an outline, with an idea of what you need to write where and how many words. This technique can help you set out your entire Literature Review or even entire Thesis or Dissertation and is extremely useful for helping you decide what topics to write on and how to arrange them.
Many of these techniques come from the book "Writing with Power" by Peter Elbow. Rowena Murray mentions him as the source of many of her ideas, so I also downloaded this book onto my Kindle and read it. His book is very interesting and is aimed at those who want to improve their writing or even get started on writing, especially fiction writing. His book also helps those suffering from writer's block and the "freewriting" and "prompts" techniques are very useful for this. Rowena Murray has adapted these ideas for writing a thesis.
You can get an idea of some of the techniques she uses in her book by looking at this pdf:
A really, really useful book I found is by Steven Posusta, "Don't Panic: The Procrastinator's Guide to Writing an Effective Term Paper". This is almost a MUST have, especially if you have to write a paper and don't know where to start. This book is available on Kindle or as a paperback and takes only about 2 hours to read. I wish it had been available when I was in school but I don't think the author was born then! I say this because the book is written at a level that I could have understood when I was in school but it is also useful for doing doctoral studies. (It's also fun to read - and I find that important.) The book is aimed at undergraduates (UK term) or College students (USA term) who need to write term essays or academic papers and it is ESPECIALLY aimed at those who have a submission date coming up and who haven't even started writing. While the author does not recommend pulling an all-nighter, you could use this book for helping you to do that. One note of caution, you DO need to have read the texts you are going to use, it isn't a telepathic book, it is aimed at those who have read what they need to but have no idea how to answer the professor's question or how to get started writing their paper.
This book will help you find your "thesis" within the first 5 pages of reading, at which point you will understand what a "thesis" is and why it's important. Maybe if I had had this book available in school, I would have done English, instead of science? - Nah! I still like science but at least I would have been able to write about it.
This book is great at helping you get a paper written in short order even if you don't know where to start.
Coordinating all your material - How to keep it all together
By the time you have spent some time working on your doctoral studies and your thesis, you will have so much material gathered together in PDFs, books, notes, journals and files you will wonder how on earth you are EVER going to get it all together. I have been using Nvivo, an organisational and analysis tool that will help you find the right quotes and references from however much material you have.
Nvivo is aimed at qualitative analysis - and has an inbuilt tutorial showing how to use it for interviews, videos, newspaper cuttings and photographs but it can also be used for correlating all your research, no matter what subject. I am using it in the science / engineering area and it has been very useful in finding snippets simultaneously in 30 or more different articles that relate to the same subject, without me having to find them all manually! :) There are LOTS of tutorials on Youtube about using nvivo. They also hold online sessions (brown bag sessions) by people showing new uses for it and the company encourages people to upload their own tutorial videos. I recently watched a very good one about using nvivo for your literature review.
Nvivo10 can be quite expensive BUT many universities make it available free of charge to students (mine does), there is also student pricing available and a semester charge for those who need it only for a short time. There is also a 30 day free trial period with no restrictions, so no worries there. My university also provided a half day hands-on introduction to nvivo by an experienced user, just to get us started on it.
By the way, I nearly forgot, the word cloud at the start of this article was created using NVIVO10 and based on the wording in this lens.
This gives you an introduction to what nvivo is and how to use it.
Coding is a way of telling nvivo what the keyword is that you are looking for. So if you want anything on playground accidents, then that term can be used to code your documents and find all the material.
Matrix coding is a bit more advanced but easily learned. It helps you create a table of authors (for instance) with columns showing the coding areas they cover. Very handy tool.
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