How Much Reading Do I Need to Do?

One of the biggest hurdles I’ve faced in working on my doctoral dissertation is knowing when to stop reading.

I know this is a common problem. When should PhD students stop reading? How much is enough? How do you get over the nagging feeling that you might be missing something? And what do you do when too much reading risks throwing you in a a spiral of feeling like you don’t know enough and therefore can’t start writing or can’t complete your work?

And what happens when you’re forced to change your topic very, very late in your program? (I was forced to change my topic in (what will hopefully be) the last year of my work; I absolutely don’t recommend this, but sometimes it’s truly the only option.)

Because I changed my topic, I had to learn a whole new body of literature, and I had to do it while I was writing about my topic and making artwork as well.

Luckily, reading a whole new body of literature this time around was made easier by the fact that I know how to read academic writing. Still, it was easy to get caught up in feeling like I needed to read more and more and more, just to prove to myself that I knew the literature.

Finally, in early August, I decided I would give myself a reading cut off date of September 1st. At this point, I had a stack of over 50 articles and chapters left to read, along with four or five books. I figured if it didn’t get read by my cut off date, it wouldn’t make it into the dissertation.

Now that my cut off date has passed, I’m really glad I decided to create a reading cut off date.

I thought that creating a cut off day would help me stop downloading new articles. It didn’t. What it did do was make it so I was much more realistic about what I needed to read. I was much more critical about whether or not an article or chapter related enough to my research to spend time reading.

I ended tossing several articles, and my reading became more tightly focused. No longer was I stuck feeling like I needed to read something “just in case.”

And, I realized I really do know this body of literature. I noticed that the reading I was doing was getting more and more repetitive, and I wasn’t seeing any new names or ideas.

And the articles I was downloading until the last minute (I got an inter-library loan article on the first…)? They were related to arts-based research and writing a non-conventional, non-traditional dissertation. They were useful, but they were also bonus articles.

I feel very good about saying “no more reading!”

Now the issue is making sure I don’t find anything new to read. I’ve already been tempted to read some more articles, some more chapters, some more books.

To counter this, I’ve been reading non-academic books (Elin Hilderbrand has been perfect).

And when I’m really tempted to read something academic, I jot down the title in my day planner—in January.

It can wait.


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