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I'm currently completing a Graduate Certificate of Studies at an Australian university, taking subjects in history. I plan to apply to a Master of Arts - Thesis for January, 2024 with the eventual goal of upgrading to a PhD. I have a topic and have written a (rough draft) research proposal of 1,900 words. My field is Russian history and the Russian Orthodox Church.

Of course, 2024 is over a year away. So, I've been taking notes from monographs and trying to read numerous articles while learning Russian (and Greek). Due to my current work & study engagements, I can devote 10 hours per week to reading.

Note: I'm not looking for shortcuts. There's no plan to 'finish the PhD in one or two years.' No interest in that! But I'd like to make graduate research a positive (and intellectually stimulating) experience while writing a high-quality thesis. Would reading beforehand make a difference?

Thanks for any advice / feedback and enjoy the rest of your weekend.

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    What exactly is the question here? You seem pretty well organized, and you look like you know what you're doing.
    – Al-Amry
    Oct 23, 2022 at 13:28
  • @AmerAl-Amry I guess I was struck by some confusion (I'm concerned about not meeting the expectations of a potential supervisor). It's quite difficult to find advice online for pre-Phd work (beyond the usual "Can I complete in 2 years?" questions). Really - I'm not sure what level of knowledge / skills are expected of students before they commence a PhD in Australia. Oct 23, 2022 at 13:45
  • I wrote a reply, but it was too long so I'll answer.
    – Al-Amry
    Oct 23, 2022 at 14:11

2 Answers 2

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I think you're on the right track, especially in the humanities, reading is very important, and your literature review would help make up a significant part of your papers and publications eventually. Like others said in the answers, taking notes, or highlighting something you expect to eventually cite, which is what I do, is important. Though I'd say make sure you actually have a phd supervisor in mind that you want to contact, because supervisors mainly choose their students based on a shared interest, applying randomly to history departments wouldn't help. Also, unofficially contact the professor before you apply to establish a rapport, and get accepted. Professors don't expect you to have a full idea of what you're going to do at the first day, but showing that you're excited and prepared would be a great boost for you.

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    Thanks - there is a supervisor I have in mind (an expert in post-Soviet Russia) as well as a secondary one, who is familiar with contemporary Eastern Orthodoxy & the legacy of Byzantium. (Unfortunately, they are from different universities but its not uncommon for a second supervisor to be from a different Aussie uni) Oct 23, 2022 at 22:43
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Reading can help, but reading without note taking and summarizing is much less effective. You need to actually force the brain to incorporate the essential points of what you read. You need active learning, not just reading, which is, in itself, passive.

And marking up a text with a highlighter isn't much better.

What you really should do is take notes on what you read. For each chapter of a book, for example, immediately summarize what you see as key points by writing them (preferably by hand) in a note book.

Then, summarize your notes by reflecting on them and, again, extracting the most important ideas. If you do the last part on note cards then you can build yourself a deck of "ideas", one per card. These cards can be referred to later. But several of them can also be carried around with you for reference and reinforcement. You will have moments during the day when you are idle. Pull out your few cards and a pen and review what you have.

Number the cards as you create them (so you can reconstruct the deck). Say which book/chapter/article they came from. Don't try to fill up the card. In fact, initially leave the back of the card blank so that you have a place for annotations later.

But the real key to all of this isn't the cards themselves, though they help. It is the mental effort you go through to create them, which is a reinforcement mechanism that reading alone doesn't provide.

The real goal is insight into a topic.


I read a lot of unimportant stuff. But most of it disappears as soon as I start the next thing. This is fine, since I have no need to remember. On the other hand, in professional work, once I'd achieved insight into a topic, I could listen to a conference speaker and mostly not take notes. The speaker would either reinforce insights I already had, so there was no need to capture the ideas, or they would challenge those insights. In the latter case I had work to do, notes to take, further explorations, summaries, revisions, new insights (hopefully).


A note on highlighters.

I've seen student texts in which nearly every sentence is marked. This is worthless. The marking was almost certainly done while the student was reading.

However, if you make highlighting a part of a secondary (or tertiary) process, after you've reviewed the entire, say, chapter, then it can have some value, especially if you limit the number of sentences that you allow yourself to mark. Now, the work has an outline if big ideas that you created after thinking about it. The printed and marked page can now be used for review. However, you can't carry a bunch of books around everywhere like you can a bunch of note cards.

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  • Thanks - I had a look at my old notes and I was disappointed by how vague I wrote things. So I re-read parts of a monograph and fleshed out the notes a bit more. Something else I do (although it's not officially 'academic research') is share my insights in an informal setting, like a conversation with family or even online. This helps for retention and forces me to flesh out my ideas a bit more. It also helps that I'm a blogger / YouTuber as I can connect with like-minded people. Oct 23, 2022 at 13:48
  • Yes, explaining something to others is a good reinforcement mechanism and also a way to weed out misconceptions in some cases.
    – Buffy
    Oct 23, 2022 at 13:52

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