Reading habits

reading-habitsI’m struggling a bit with my reading habits just now and have decided to spend the rest of January getting a handle on them.

As you may know, the first year of a PhD is filled with reading. Lots and lots of reading. You’re reading through a massive collection of materials on your topic and writing notes about what you’re reading—all as part of your literature review.

The reading and taking notes part is actually pretty easy to figure out, but I’m struggling with how to find the best place for reading and taking notes.

What I know is this:

  • I can’t spend 8 hours in my office reading and taking notes because it’s too “stuffy” for me to read there and I’m constantly on edge waiting for someone to walk through the door.
  • I can’t spend 8 hours in a comfy coffee shop reading and taking notes because I’m a starving student and can’t afford to buy all those cups of coffee. (Actually, I’m more of a mint tea drinker.)
  • I can’t spend 8 hours at the library reading and taking notes because it’s much too quiet and I fear sneezing or coughing which means I’m very self-conscious.
  • And I can’t spend 8 hours at home reading and taking notes because that would provide too many distractions (Oh look! There’s a shelf that needs dusting …) and it would also mean I’d be home all day, every day.

I also know that I feel oddly guilty if I’m not in my office 8 hours a day. I feel like I’m “skipping school” or something. (Is this common for PhD students or am I alone in this weirdness?)

So, what do I do?

The simple answer is this: I need to find a way to combine my reading-and-note-taking locations throughout the day so that I’m putting in a “full shift” but so that I’m not losing out on productivity by constantly being on edge for some disturbance to happen.

The complicated solution to that answer, however, is what I’m struggling with.

But, as I am meant to be a researcher, I’m going to research! And I’m going to research by testing potential solutions and analysing the results.

With three full weeks (plus a full day) left in the month, I am going to start trying out different combinations of study locations to see what works best for me. There will be combinations of reading at home, in coffee shops, at my office, and in libraries at various times throughout the day. The number of locations I visit in a day will be switched up, too.

And, hopefully, by the end of the month I will have found a good pattern that works well for me. (I need a pattern; I work better with patterns!)

Of course, there’s always the risk that in my excited attempt to find a productive combination, I will work harder to be productive. In which case, even if I don’t find an ideal solution to my problem, I’ve hopefully been more productive than if I just stuck with the status quo.

I would love to hear from others on how they’ve managed to combine working locations to increase productivity. So, thoughts and suggestions for this eager reader?

Lost in databases

2013.12.16.original-database-by-shindoverseI began my PhD nearly a month ago and have been spending much of that time searching for books and articles relevant to my topic. I’ve done basic library searches and I’ve done some minor database searches—most of which have brought me at least some results for useful reading materials.

But basic searches aren’t really enough when you’re trying to find articles on a focused area, which means I have to figure out a series of slightly complex databases.

I think that one of the biggest problems with databases (for me, at least) is that there are so many different ones I need to check and each one has its own format. There’s Nexis and the Web of Knowledge and the IEEE—and many, many more.

There are so many databases that have so much information that I’m getting lost.

My hope (and my guess) is that I will find my way around everything as I continue my research. I am hoping that I will start to instinctively know which databases to consult based on what type of information I’m searching for at that moment. And I am hoping that as I become familiar with each one, I will get used to how to use the search functions (which vary from one database to the next).

For now, I am learning how to manage and document all of the information so that I know where I’ve found things—and where I can find them again if needed. It’s a bit of a hodgepodge at the moment because I’ve not attempted such a monumental task before, but I am learning. Slowly but surely, I am learning.

One day, I hope to be sharing with you some of the tips and tricks I’ve learned along the way. In the mean time, however, I am open to any tips and tricks that you may want to share with me.

[Photo of “original” databases. Credits to shindoverse. Sourced from Flickr and used under Creative Commons CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 license.]

What’s in a name?

2013.12.14.whats-in-a-nameThe first post on a new blog can be hard to write sometimes because I don’t necessarily want to jump right in, but an introduction would really just be a re-hash of an “about” page. Of course, if I take too long to decide how to start, it might never happen. So I’m going to do a combo jump-right-in/introduction post to get the ball rolling.

I’ve been thinking about getting this blog up-and-running for two or three weeks now but I had a lot of decisions to wrestle with before I was ready to start.

What platform would I use? Would I self-host or use a free platform? Would I buy a domain or have a secondary domain (; And, importantly, what would the blog’s name be?

The platform was easy enough: WordPress—because I’m familiar with it, I trust it, and my emergency tech friends understand it.

Then I chose to self-host on my existing DreamHost server account. This is because the self-hosted WP platform means no ads and that I can alter the templates and CSS to my heart’s content without having to pay add-on fees.

Of course, the choice to self-host also meant that I would be purchasing a domain—a decision that meant I had to think about what I wanted to call the site.

For a while, I thought I’d have my name in the domain: A PhD for Frances (a nod to some of my favourite childhood books); Doctor Frances Ryan (with a disclaimer saying “future” doctor); or even just a sub-domain off of my personal website (

But then I realised that I didn’t need my name in the domain—I just needed it to be descriptive. Of course, all the short-and-sweet PhD blog domains are already taken, which meant I had to get creative if I didn’t want to end up with something like

In the end, I realised that the domain needed to be simple. It was, after all, just a little site about my little PhD. Just a site; just a PhD.

Ah-ha! Just a PhD! I like that. It’s simple. It’s easy to remember. It works on several levels. And—importantly!—the domain is available!

And all of the sudden, Just a PhD was born.

Just a Phd.

I am just doing a PhD. Like it’s not important or something; like it’s not a proper job/grown-up activity.

You’re not really going to be a doctor though, you’ll just be a PhD.

I don’t have time for anything else—just for my PhD. (I like to think that won’t be true. But I’m sure I’ll be proven wrong at various points.)

This site is just about my PhD.

And, of course, I am known as simply “Just Frances”.

See—it works on several levels!

So, just to get the conversation going: Can you see any other ways to interpret the idea of “just a PhD”? Or do you have any anecdotes about the interpretations already listed?