Master Log 06: How to read

and how to extract from a text what you need

In June I will have to hand in my Master thesis and final project. Here I keep a diary on my progress and show how certain techniques are applicable in non-academic life.

I love reading, but I’m a very slow reader. I always have a book that I am currently reading. I read it line by line, page by page, and it goes very slowly but I enjoy it. I feel a big lack if I don’t read for a week.

With academic texts it’s different. By now I have collected heaps of texts for the thesis. Most of them are from academic journals, some are books. Those I read differently. I have my research questions in mind and I tackle the texts on the search for the answers.

Choosing what is relevant

I prefer reading on paper instead of the computer screen, therefore I print out the texts. But instead of printing all I found, I carefully read the abstracts first. Only if it sounds really relevant and if I’m sure I will quote it more than once, I will print them.

The same goes for books. Instead of borrowing the entire shelf from the library, I go through the table of content and I quickly find out whether the book will help me or not.

Skipping paragraphs, scanning pages

Then it requires butt glue to read all the material. But I never read the entire text. I skip historical outlines, I jump tables and hardly read long quotes. Sometimes I skip the methodology, too. Only if they use methods that might be helpful for my own work as well, I will read them.

The findings are often helpful, but even more so are conclusions and discussions. There they usually summarize what has been done in the study and which findings occurred, and from there I can jump back if I need something laid out in greater detail.

I often read the first sentence of a paragraph and then jump to the end of it. If it sounds relevant, I go back and read the whole thing. Otherwise I just fly over.
That all sounds as if I’m not reading properly at all, but that’s not true. With my low speed of reading I had to come up with a system that allows me to cover the relevant parts of literature in the shortest time possible.

Mark – or forget!

What proofs that I really read and gain something from the text are the markings that I make. That’s why I like to have the texts on paper: I mark and highlight keywords and scribble summaries on the margins. If I don’t do that, I would have to read the text all over again. I wouldn’t be able to remember everything. I try to mark as little as possible, however as specific and relevant as possible.

A text is a piece of working material. It needs to be chosen well and then worked through, so that it can be of benefit for your own work. You will extract the most important points that will push your thesis further in the right direction.

So, what are you currently reading? And how do you read? Let me know in the comments! (My current book is The Fourty Rules of Love by Elif Shafak.)

Master Log 05: A Time Plan

and how to screw it up.

In June I will have to hand in my Master thesis and final project. Here I keep a diary on my progress and show how certain techniques are applicable in non-academic life.

Once you have settled your topic and know approximately which direction you are headed, it is time to plan ahead and set steps. This might, as all the other posts in this series, not apply to everyone. Some people are very good in just writing when they feel like and they will get done with things just as well. But I am one of those who need to set goals in order to achieve something.

Scheduling your work has several advantages:

  • It serves as motivation.
  • It gives you structure so that you are not floating in a vacuum.
  • It shows what you already have accomplished and avoids repetition.
  • It is something you can show your supervisor as an evidence of your commitment.

You must create time, that is for sure. All we have is time and yet we tend not to use it adequately. If you want to push something extra like a thesis into your daily and weekly routine, you will have to create space. You will have to cancel something, or sleep later, or wake up earlier. Incorporating a new activity demands sacrifices.

I made a very simple plan from now to the due date, splitting it up into the months and weeks remaining. For both theory and practice I tried to involve a couple of days as a break and some buffer for corrections. Having some distance and then some time to double check everything is crucial to hand in quality work.

I always plan in extra time. Things will take longer than planned. I will not be able to do all the scheduled tasks. I will need more time which is not there. Therefore I start early and do little steps for the project to be successful.

I have a lot of fun setting up this schedule and then I tend not to meet the goals. By now so many more assignments have come up that I am not able to follow my schedule anymore. I spend a lot of time rescheduling, which I enjoy, instead of actually doing the work the schedule says I should do. However, planning shouldn’t take more time than actually fulfilling the scheduled work.

For now I have to focus on the assignments, but I will use free days for the thesis and keep you updated on my progress.

In the meantime: What have you scheduled for yourself – and how did you screw it up? Let me know in the comment section below.

Master Log 04: Collecting Literature

and how weird connections can create fantastic ideas

In June I will have to hand in my Master thesis and final project. Here I keep a diary on my progress and show how certain techniques are applicable in non-academic life.

Now that my topic is a little bit clear, I have started to collect literature. I use two tools for that: Google Scholar and my university’s library catalogue. But before that, I made a list on paper with all terms that could relate to my topic.

Break it down

I broke my research question into pieces and wrote down the main terms. For those I collected all synonyms, subtopics and superordinate concepts I could think of.

For multimedia journalism I thought of alternative journalism, interactive journalism, online journalism, convergent journalism, then all forms of multimedia (text, audio, video, photos, infographics). Related to that term are social media and mojo (mobile journalist). Further related words are reporter, multimedia presentation, newspaper, and so on.

You get the point. It is merely brainstorming, really. I wrote down everything that came to mind, even the weirdest thing.

Combination is Key

Now the secret is to feed Google Scholar with these terms, but not all at once. You need to combine them with each other. I searched for multimedia journalism alone first, then combined it with other words. You will see what works and what will not. And soon you will find articles appearing over and over again. Those might be helpful because they entail several of your keywords. You might also find articles that have terms in their headlines and abstracts which you did not think of but which could be appropriate for you, too.

The weirder, the merrier

If you need to come up with an idea – which hardly works if you mostly need it – try funny combinations. Isn’t is a fancy business model to combine a hairdresser with a coffee shop or a book store with a washing salon or a flower shop with design clothes? Get crazy and combine and the outcome will burst of creativity.

Not all things work out, of course, just as not all literature will be useful. So be selective and only take what you will use. But then have fun!

So what are you combining today? Salmon and peanut butter? Running and reading? Plato and Michael Jackson? Let me know in the comments!