Learning how to read as a doctoral student

For new doctoral students, learning about new theories and concepts can present a challenge. However, take heart! There are lots of resources that can assist with grasping new ideas and concepts, and theoretical approaches. Today, let’s look at some strategies to make sense of new material.

In the mid-90s when I was a doctoral student at the University of Queensland in Australia, in addition to reading about my research topic, I attended readings groups with other students and faculty where we discussed books and other readings that the facilitators selected. Many of these readings were outside my area of expertise, and included a lot of new vocabulary. Sometimes I felt that I could not even ask an intelligible question. I simply listened, kept reading, and re-reading. One of the challenges that new doctoral students face is not having a structure upon which to hang new ideas and concepts. This is especially challenging for graduate students engaging in studies in a new discipline. For anyone who feels daunted about reading in a new topic area, here are a few ideas to consider.

Beginning to learn about a new topic area is a lifelong journey of learning. Even when people complete doctoral degrees, they must keep learning and updating their knowledge. Even when one becomes familiar with an existing body of literature, there will always be more to learn.

Reading with others aids understanding. As a doctoral student, I looked forward to the monthly meetings when students and faculty came together to discuss what we had read. I did not make sense of all that we discussed, but others’ comments and questions helped me learn more. When I meet with members of my current reading group each month, I always come away with new understandings of what I’ve read, along with answers to questions that group members have asked. If you are not already in a reading group – gather some friends together and start one.

Academic work involves the creation of knowledge. Because knowledge is created, researchers recognize that knowledge is also partial and contested. As we learn more about the world and develop new ways of examining topics, theories and approaches to research evolve and change. Some of what is known and believed may be disbanded altogether. For example Francis Galton’s ideas about eugenics gained popularity in the early 20th Century, but are now (thankfully) dismissed. What is known and understood in 2020 will be different to what is known and understood in 2030. Such is the nature of science.

Reading and re-reading assists with coming to understand new topics. Part of the work of understanding a body of literature involves identifying key debates. There are likely numerous conversations and debates regarding any particular topic. The poet Robert Frost wrote the line “the best way out is always through”. There are no short cuts to understanding. The best way to begin is to read, re-read, and write about what you learn. For any given topic, scholars have written introductions and overviews to help newcomers understand. You might start with secondary sources before venturing into the scholars who write key texts in an area. For example, when I first read Harold Garfinkel’s Studies in Ethnomethodology (1967) as a student, I did not grasp some of what he discussed. John Heritage’s book (1984) helped me understand the key concepts.  More recently when I read Rosi Braidotti’s (2019) Posthuman knowledge, I found the glossary of posthumanism (Braidotti & Hlavajova, 2018) helpful to understand some of the topics discussed in Braidotti’s (2019) book.

As you develop more understanding of new topics and concepts, you will develop a scaffold that will help organize what you read. In any particular area of research, there are scholars who have written introductory texts that will assist in building those scaffolds. And once you have developed expertise in an area of research, it may be that introductory means of organizing information will no long be necessary. Or perhaps you will develop your own approaches as you teach your students. Until then, happy reading.

Kathy Roulston


Braidotti, R. (2019). Posthuman knowledge. Polity.

Braidotti, R., & Hlavajova, M. (Eds.). (2018). Posthuman glossary. Bloomsbury Academic.

Garfinkel, H. (1967). Studies in ethnomethodology. Prentice-Hall.

Heritage, J. (1984). Garfinkel and Ethnomethodology. Polity Press.

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