Reading with Critical Eyes for Your PhD Thesis or Dissertation

Critical Thinking about Sources when Writing your PhD Thesis or Dissertation
While you are taking notes to record the content of a source that you think you may use in your dissertation, it is always important to think critically about the source and the information it contains. For one, it is a good idea to record your thoughts about the reliability and validity of the studies you read: even the best study can present problems in methodology and argumentation that render it less useful for certain purposes. You may also want to do a search on any authors whose work you do not already know to see if they are reputable and reliable researchers and/or experts in their fields, and considering whether a study was peer reviewed or not (articles and books produced by most academic and scientific journals and publishers will have been) can be helpful. If you are consulting an online source, you should be still more cautious: a blog, for instance, may provide information and arguments as valid and reliable as an article in a scholarly journal does, but it often will not, so do check for indications of who created and maintains each web site, and watch for issues that suggest a lack of reliability such as wild claims, abusive language (directed at other researchers, for instance) and errors of spelling, punctuation and grammar. It is also worth noting whether a source is a primary or secondary source for particular information, with the best practice in most cases being to seek out the primary source for anything vital to your research. Remember that some universities and departments have rules about what kind of sources can be used in a doctoral dissertation, so do check any pertinent regulations.
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Your focus when taking critical notes as you read should be your own research and writing, so it is worth mentioning in your initial notes how you think a source might be used in the dissertation you envision and exactly how your own ideas and approaches are or might be connected to those presented in the source. Do the author’s theories or methods or results or conclusions agree or disagree with your own or those you anticipate for your study? How and why? Can the differences and similarities help you refine your own theories and methods or report your own results and conclusions more effectively? Even a source that turns out to be somewhat unreliable and cannot actually be cited or quoted in your dissertation can help you hone your thinking, often by clarifying what you do not think, the methods and approaches you do not want to use and the conclusions you think inappropriate. Take special care, however, when recording your critical thoughts to distinguish them clearly from the ideas and information you find in the sources you read: you will need to know with certainty which ideas are your own when it comes time to use your notes for writing your dissertation.

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