How do I get a PhD without reading?

How do I get a PhD without reading?
I always knew I would have to read a lot in order to write and finish a PhD. I daydreamed about how that would happen without me actually having to do the reading part. In the back of my mind I thought there would be some invention out that would make the actual sitting down and reading part easier. I haven’t found it yet. In the meantime the clock is ticking on my PhD and the only solution I can reconcile with is to learn to love reading.

I absolutely love my topic and have a good attitude about reading for my research. To the contrary is this tension of liking knowledge but struggling with reading. My thesis will explore mahi rangatira in the context of entrepreneurship and tino rangatiratanga. I’m passionate about this and recognise reading is an important ingredient in the PhD recipe. I know there is a difference in how we view reading when it is compulsory for our course versus my situation where I choose my topic therefore choose what I read. On the one hand I have to do it, but on the other I’m excited to learn more about my research area and develop my thoughts around what I learn.

I hear a lot of students talk about how they love reading and had done since they were children. That wasn’t me! I read when I had to or because I had to, and probably still do today. I didn’t hate it, I wasn’t bad at reading but I wasn’t good at it either. Many of the students I’ve been working with as an academic literacy tutor recalled wonderful memories as young readers; of joy, escape, adventure and imagination. I didn’t have particularly happy memories as a reader. Having to take the books home and read to my parents wasn’t fun. I recall many times being upset. Upon reflection they took the time to do that and they did the best they could with the skills they had.

One of my first memories around reading was at primary school where the teacher goes around the class asking students to stand up and read out loud. Stuttering and stumbling through the words although I could read them was very confronting. I didn’t like the attention and being put on the spot to show a skill that I didn’t think I had been taught properly. I also didn’t appreciate the betrayal of my sweat glands the pressure of all eyes on me or the fearful feelings that were conjured up in my body in the process. I don’t really remember if the teacher or children laughed at me for my efforts, but the feelings of fear, failure and embarrassment that I managed to evoke in myself let me down either way.

As an academic literacy tutor I’ve tried some class exercises to help myself and others to overcome a dislike of reading. I ask students to close their eyes, relax, deep-breathe and remember any negative experiences they had with reading. Next, I ask them to move those experiences into a symbolic rubbish bin and empty or delete it. Once this is done, they accumulate the positive experiences into a small suitcase. This case is then available to take with them and to share with others. The students are also reminded that as children they didn’t have much control but now that they are adults they get to choose whether they let those experiences continue to define their learning and reading or not.

When I started my Bachelor of Commerce Honours degree I knew I had to upskill. I started with an affirmation statement encircled by a heart that I hung on my office wall. It read: I LOVE POWER READING! It made me chuckle and I’m sure it affected my psychology positively. I also tried recording myself reading an article out loud, so I could play it back in the hope that it would make more sense the second time around. That wasn’t a successful strategy as I bored myself with my monotone reading of academic literature that was so dense it was hard to get excited about. I annoyed myself with back tracking on words or reading the same sentence twice, making reading mistakes, stuttering and stumbling over some of the academic words and even having to sound out some of the big words. This was not enthralling or helpful. I got through that degree with the skills I had at the time but now recognise that the skill level required for a PhD calls me to advance.

I decided to attend and complete as many workshops as were available to help me be a more effective reader, a speed reader, a power reader and the like. As an effective reader I learned A.P.E; that is to be A.ctive, P.urposeful, and E.ngaged with what I was reading. Effective reading was probably the most useful set of techniques because I learned to gear myself up for a reading session and set a time frame. It included paying attention to the environment and to have good light and air flow. It was about choosing a chair that encouraged a straight posture, and not a chair that allowed me to slouch, or sink deeply into a comfort zone where my brain would signal me to drop off to sleep.

The SQ4R method starts with S.urvey using skimming and scanning to get an overview of the piece. Part of the survey process is to take note of the reading conventions such as bold type for headings and sub-headings, what is italicised, boxed, diagrammed and illustrated, how the paragraphs are structured and using these clues to help get an overview before getting started. The second is to approach the reading with Q.uestions to guide what you’re looking for. The four Rs are R.ead, R.ecite, R.elate and R.eview which finish the SQ4R process.

Speed reading and power reading encouraged me to use my finger to scan down the middle of the page quickly reading a line at a time. Or to follow your finger as it moves rapidly across each line of text. These methods encourage you to stop sub-vocalising in your mind and not to read every word. Instead allow the eyes to chunk large sections of text together and read it as a chunk. Another similar technique has your eyes bounce, jump or skip along the words in rapid motion so you are reading three to five words at once. These techniques meant you didn’t notice all the small words, conjunctions, articles, particles, and prepositions, instead picking up the key ideas in the sentence. I either struggled to comprehend what I was reading or kept re-reading the text again and again eventually having to slow right down and return to reading one word at time.
Some general knowledge tips I’ve learned include knowing I don’t have to read the whole article, chapter or book. I don’t need to read each word either. Some of the tricks include just reading the abstract, introduction and conclusion. Additionally, reading the first and last sentence of the paragraph is enough to give you a clear idea of the article or chapter. There is the F5 function that helps you find particular words in a Pdf file so you can read articles based on the key topic and subject words you are researching. There are different types of reading too, reading for general knowledge or an overview of the topic through to a more focused reading to find specific information and quotes. Accordingly I can adjust my reading to different speeds depending on why I’m reading. With research there is usually the need to reread especially when you find something helpful and specific to your topic. Rereading is something my inner dialogue had to get used to: “What read it again – really! Hey, get used to it – that’s how it rolls in research”. I’m also aware that active reading requires notetaking which helps the process. Another method to assist reading is to Describe, Analyse, and Reflect: ‘describe’ what you read, ‘analyse’ it against the purpose of your study and ‘reflect’ what was interesting, challenging and unusual about what you’ve read.

How do I get a PhD without reading? It’s impossible! Reading is something that I have full intentions of getting better at. So here I am with a suitcase of reading skills, knowledge, and techniques faced with a six week reading challenge. Reading for my thesis is all I’m to do for six weeks! My task is to actively read, note take and get a very clear grasp on the literature in my field of study. More than that I need to be able to comprehend, critically analyse, see the gaps, and the reading should set me up for writing my literature review. OMG – I hope you all can help me out? What can you offer which will help me read better as I’ve got a lot to get through? Yes, I’ve got some skills, but I’m sure there are some techniques, knowledge, and reading secrets I’m missing. What ideas, tricks, skills and experience have you got that can help me out? Please put your thoughts in the comments section. I thank you in advance.


  1. anahera01

    An enlightening read e hoa. I don’t much about technique as I’m a read word by word mainly because I do it for pleasure and like the whole imagination aspect in reading Science Fiction novels. When it comes to research, the techniques you have highlighted that have been of benefit to you, is also something that has benefited myself when reading large documents for meetings, finding the nitty gritty to make concise decisions and ask pertinent questions. Ngā mihi for sharing.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. mbrebner

    I’m glad I’m not the only person who finds that “speed reading” tends to slow me down. I also find myself re-reading sentences to get the meaning, and end up reading at the a slower pace with the sub-vocalisation. I have found that I do tend to remember more detail than faster readers, so perhaps my slow pace has its advantages. Thank you for introducing me to the other techniques, some of which I use not realising that they were techniques and others that are completely new. Also glad to find another Manurewa girl!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Matt

    Kia ora Abi, My parents love to read, so I love to read. We woke early every day to read aloud from the bible as a whanau. Dad had been brought up this way, consequently because his whanau had read the bible numerous times he could recite the Bible – this was amazing. My life was filled with whanau who read, nana, uncles and cousins. I would visit one uncle to read his commando series comics, to another for western novels, sit in the wharepaku with mum’s readers digest – still do, my sisters magazines – I did not like their Mills & Boon though, I was thrilled when mum got a set of encyclopaedia which i read a few times. as you can see I just loved reading! Since our whanau shared what there was to read, it created conversation. At whanau gatherings, discussions would turn to debates, sometimes heated, as the wisdon of one literature was touted against another.
    So what have I learned about why I love reading. Be surrounded by others who love/like or are needing to read. Take a portion at a time. I found that for resaesrch reading either diagram the ideas, or talk about – even if it is to my self, or both. Connect the ideas to what you already understand or know. I also consider how i will use the harvested information perhaps like cooking. Each piece of information is an ingredient to cook sentences and paragraphs. If the information is not going to help then it goes back in the pantry – at least I know where to find it if I need to later on.
    Reading will help to tell the story your are writing.
    PS I know it is my job, but no apologies for not proofing my blog haha

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Abigail McClutchie

    This is so helpful to me and gives me insight into how other readers think. Thanks Matt. I like the cooking analogy too and that I don’t need to digest everything at once, all of the time…. things can go back to the pantry for next time. I like the idea of finding people to discuss readings with. What you doing tomorrow????

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Kiri.Dell

    I am one of those people who love reading! A passion of mine. So its been hard for me to reconcile having a child who has dyslexia who doesn’t like reading and struggles with it.

    What really worries me is how will she absorb information and knowledge without loving the written word? We work and try lots of different reading strategies. She has taken to comics, she likes the pictures. She often downloads audio books and reads alongside the audio version playing in her headphones.

    Basically we are doing what you have been doing, trying lots of things till you find stuff that works.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Abigail McClutchie

    Thanks Kiri. I totally get your position. As a kid reading and what’s available these days for them can still fit into the fun, fun, fun category, where as academic writing when hitting jackpot might be interesting, interesting, interesting or … relevant… helpful, or on the contrary heavy, dense and dare I say it, “so what”! All the best to you child. Lucky you model positivity around reading and this must surely help.


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