Avoid the Trap of Consuming Everything Before You Start Creating


How much research do you do for your coursework?

Do you power through and consume as much stuff as possible before getting on with the creation bit?

The more you can create out of what you consume, the more validation you give to consuming content. You won’t use all of it, but there comes a time when you stop looking.

But what if the search doesn’t seem to end?

The more you consume without creating anything from it, the more worrying the situation gets. Snacking on information without an end in sight.

Munch, munch, munch. One book here, another paper there, and a final web search just for luck. Maybe I’ll check the library one more time.

And maybe another time after that…

And it goes on.

When you consume far more than you create, you face a bottleneck at best. The reality is likely worse.

Words like “perfectionism” and “procrastination” start to rear their ugly heads.

Consuming without getting anything valuable out of the process is wasteful. It happens to all of us on occasion, but it shouldn’t be a standard part of your research process.

And you can easily fall into that consumption trap. So watch out.

It feels productive to find lots to read in the library and online, but it merely gets in the way when you’re not using that content for your work.

Keep an eye on why you’re still researching. There are times when you need to look at far more than you’ll refer to, because you’re looking for inspiration or perspective. Or perhaps you’re considering several arguments before you put your own stamp on proceedings.

But make sure you’re not still consuming ALL THE THINGS simply because:

  • You’re scared to start creating;
  • You think you need to cover every possible angle that exists (hint: you don’t);
  • You’re putting off the next stage of your work;
  • You need to find a better research process to work with.

Reasons like those above aren’t good enough to keep you looking for more. Work with what you’ve got, or improve your process so it’s not so time-consuming.

You may have to be brutally honest with yourself. It’s not easy to admit, especially when you are afraid to start.

But when the pressure gets too much, remember that you can always start off without doing any in-depth research at all.

Work with what you’ve got. So long as you’ve had some input from lectures, seminars, set texts, and so on, you should have enough to get started.

And writing your own thoughts and ideas on the page is much better than staring at a blank screen. Or, worse, not even reaching the blank screen stage because you’re busy feeling overwhelmed by how much information is already out there.

When you do your research, go in with the aim of creating something soon. No need to get hold of all the research materials and quotations before you start your own creation.

Banish those bottlenecks. Find a flow that doesn’t involve all the writing at the very end of the process.

A drip-feed of research helps a lot of the information stay at the top of your mind. That, in turn, will get you engaging (and referring) to more of that research.

The more you practice this flow, the more you will create out of what you have consumed.

Is your university experience disappointing?

After a year at uni, Amy McMullen says she is disappointed.

“…university comes with a whole set of issues that leaves many students thinking that it was never really worth it in the first place.”

photo by Kalexanderson

photo by Kalexanderson

Not everyone enjoys their uni experience. There are loads of possible reasons why this happens. Some may have a bad time while they’re there. Others will not have expected their time to be the way it turned out.

Amy explains that she and her friends believe that “if we had known what university was like before we applied, we would definitely think again and consider if it was worth it”.

She suggests that things could be different if she had taken an internship or some work experience for a year.

I hope things get better for Amy and that she feels more enthused as she moves through her degree. I wanted to make a few points and offer some advice in the hope that you can feel happy about your choices now and in the future.

I’ll start each point by referring to one of Amy’s comments in her piece.

“I pay the same tuition fees as someone who does a science subject, yet I have less than half the contact hours.”

Contact hours are not important.


At least, not important in the context of making university (and its cost) worthwhile. Contact hours aren’t a measure of worth or a measure of quality. What matters is ensuring you have enough contact time with academics.

If you don’t think you’re getting reasonable access to your tutors, have a friendly chat with them at first and see what you can all get out of it. Failing that, speak to your course rep or Students’ Union about your issue. If a large group of people on your course agree that you’re not getting enough contact time, work together on solving the problem rather than simply complaining amongst yourselves.

“Even more disheartening is realising that I could have learnt most of the syllabus content by spending a few days in the library and using a good search engine online.”

This is where ‘self-learning’ comes into play. My last post looked at taking a 4-year degree in a single year. Some of the top unis put entire courses online for the public to devour. You really could learn most of the syllabus content in a short time. And with library access, you can go deeper. Much, much deeper.

And that’s the point. I like to think of lectures and reading lists as starting points. Taking the analogy one step further, you’re given sign posts in these lectures so you don’t get hopelessly lost. Amy talks about agonising over another essay (yes, we’ve all been there), so learning the syllabus content is not the whole picture.

Everything you need is out there. A formal setting isn’t necessary for learning. A drive to find out more is necessary. If the basics only take a few days in the library and a bit of Googling, imagine where you can go from there.

photo by hatalmas

photo by hatalmas

“I often wonder if it would have been a better idea to get some hands on experience via internships or work experience full time this year.”

You still can. If you already know what career path(s) you’d like to pursue, that’s brilliant. You can find relevant part-time work while you study, use a different part-time role to develop transferable skills, or get involved online in your spare time. Get blogging, connect with people in the field, and join professional networks.

If you aren’t sure about future plans, work on what you enjoy. Many university experiences are useful long after graduation. And they don’t need to be related to the degree itself.

For instance, Amy has written her piece for The National Student. And she had written several articles before that. I’m guessing it won’t be her last.

I don’t know what Amy’s plans are, but getting her writing out is a great start. Even if she finds disappointment in some aspects of uni life, writing for student papers and getting involved in various extra-curricular activities can equal great experience.

The fact that Amy has done this in her first year is awesomeness. That gives at least a couple more years to achieve more. Much more. Stuff that won’t gain extra marks or improve the degree award, but stuff that will benefit in other ways. Better ways, even.

“Obviously my first year at university has been a learning curve in learning to live independently, meeting new people and discovering myself. It’s easy to forget the real reason we applied here – to get a degree.”

It’s funny, because independent living, self-study, networking, and discovering yourself are all possibly more important than getting that degree. Again, looking back at my previous post, the degree is less important than you. You have so much on offer to help you to develop, to explore, to learn, to challenge yourself, to network, to ask questions, to engage, to enjoy…

Loads of this stuff can be done outside the confines of university. Academic study isn’t the only option. But it’s still a great option. With so much available around you (physically and mentally), like-minded people (hopefully), and time on your hands (occasionally), a lot is convenient at the very least! I still hope the experience goes beyond mere convenience though.

Comparisons are easy. But you end up comparing an ideal scenario with your current reality. That’s not reasonable. Life isn’t like that and the grass always looks greener.

Make the most of your time at uni. Getting a degree is just the start of it!

Do you want to keep making the most of your time at uni? Then subscribe to TheUniversityBlog updates via RSS, or enter your email near the top of the page to get new posts emailed to you. And remember to follow me on Twitter. 🙂

photo by Chi King

photo by Chi King

How to study a book before you have it

The wait for a crucial book to become available in the library is frustrating.  Even worse when the library doesn’t have the book at all.

Aside from inter-library loans, buying the book yourself, and other costly or time-heavy options, what other options do you have in the meantime?

photo by Newton Free Library

photo by Newton Free Library

To Do: Dissertation has some great tips on what to do while you wait for that book to become available.

But it got me thinking about others ways to the book that may work in your favour.  Here are a few ideas that might land you more access to a book than you think you have:

  • Check publisher’s website for excerpts and sample chapters – Some publishers are great at making PDF samples available to download.  You may get instant access to the Introduction, first chapter, possibly more.  Even a simple table of contents or index is a helpful head start on your research.
  • Check library online databases for books in electronic format – Don’t just check the library shelves.  An increasing number of books are now available online.  Services such as Cambridge Books Online provide a huge range of books at your fingertips.  Find out if your library has access.  If not, ask if they can get a trial.
  • Use Google Books – It’s not just Google Scholar that can help your research.  With Google Books, you can look through the pages of many books as a preview.  And the previews can be extensive.  Combine that with the ability to search for specific terms within each book and you may not even need to track down the physical copy of the book at all!
  • Use Amazon “Look Inside” – An alternative to Google Books, Amazon have their own preview function for a large number of books.  Again, you can search within the book and get busy with the research straight away.  However, it looks like Amazon may start charging for this feature soon.
  • Play Google and Amazon off with each other – Online previews are limited and don’t display all pages.  Rightly so.  You’re not meant to read entire books with the services.  However, when researching, you may find a specific page is excluded.  If both Google and Amazon have a preview available, that missing page on one resource may be there to view on the other.
  • YouTube talks – Why wait to read what the author wants to say when they may have said a lot of it in a talk or lecture?  By searching for the author (and maybe even book title) in YouTube, you may stumble upon directly relevant content for your research.  It’s another worthwhile reference to add to your bibliography too!
  • Read reviews – All sorts of texts get reviewed, not just bestsellers.  Reviews can give a breakdown of a book’s main ideas, flaws and coverage.  A Google search for book title and author and the word ‘review‘ should bring up newspaper reviews.  You can also check Times Higher Education.  It’s worth checking Google Scholar or journal databases for the title and author too, which should point you toward scholarly reviews and even related papers by the same authors.
  • Search for author details – Personal websites, university web pages, Google Scholar, JSTOR, etc…  All these can give further detail on the individual and their background, as well as other literature they have produced.  You may not have the book, but you may uncover key opinions and similar texts to chew on.

Don’t let the wait for a book stop you from getting on with your reading and research.  In the unlikely event that you find absolutely nothing after these searches, you can still go back to those helpful tips from To Do: Dissertation.

Textbooks: How do you get around the issue of cost?

Reading lists come and go, but the books you buy are likely to stay with you for a while.

Some of the books I bought in my first year are still mine and I’m glad I was told to buy them.  Other books seemed a waste of time and money.  Another set of books served a purpose, but didn’t need to be kept after their initial use.

photo by marzbars

photo by marzbars

Academic books often cost a lot more than a brand new work of fiction in hardback.  Worse, they are almost never discounted like the fiction books.  But we still need them to get through our studies.

One alternative option is to grab a downloaded version of the textbook you need.  A lot of these publications cost almost as much as the physical product anyway, so what’s the point in saving a pint’s worth of month when you were hoping for enough to afford a bottle of fine malt whisky?  Perhaps electronic book publishing needs a new approach.

There is a growing culture of downloading electronic versions of textbooks illegally for free, but even that doesn’t impress many students to the point of satisfaction.  It isn’t great working from a computer screen and electronic books aren’t easy to browse in the same way a hard copy is.

Given the choice, many students still want a physical book in their hands.  No matter how much reading material I find online, the greatest satisfaction is through a product I can actually flick through.  @seawolf and @amy_runner agreed when I asked on Twitter how students prefer to work…from traditional textbooks and face-to-face lectures, or from electronic resources and virtual seminars:

seawolf – “Real always.  Paper and face-to-face.”

amy_runner – “I prefer traditional textbooks and face-face lectures, easier to read and more interaction makes it more engaging.”

Manchester Metropolitan University’s Institute of Education also discovered that teenagers prefer traditional teaching methods, which includes using physical textbooks, rather than electronic alternatives.  It seems that while we love making use of technology, there is a tendency to go back to basics when studying.  Technology complements traditional methods of learning, it doesn’t replace it.

So what can you do to get the actual textbook without having to spend big time?

  1. Buy secondhand – You don’t have to buy new.  There is a lot of choice on sites like Amazon and abebooks.  There are others, but these two sites have generally found me what I need.
  2. Use other students – Speak to people in the year above who may have finished with certain textbooks and offer to buy them cheaply.  If you don’t need to own the book, ask to borrow it until the end of the module or academic year…you never know!
  3. Ask for a discount – As a student, your NUS Extra card can help you find discounts at some bookshops.  Even when you’ve got a definite discount like this, there’s no harm in asking for an extra discount.  Some shops are able to offer more money off when you ask, and you haven’t lost anything if they say ‘no’.  Worth a go.  Remember to smile sweetly…
  4. To the library – When you don’t need to keep your own copy of a book, see if the library holds a copy.  Best do this early on, before all copies of the book get taken out.  If it’s a very popular title, see how long you can keep the book.  If it’s only going to be in your hands for a week, but your module lasts a term, you clearly need a different plan!
  5. Try local libraries –  It might be a long shot in some cases, but you never know what a local library can do if you don’t try.  Most local libraries have stock searches on the web, so you can see if they have a copy without even leaving your seat.
  6. Consider an old edition of the textbook – If you don’t need the most up to date edition (unfortunately, sometimes you do), then you can save money by opting for the previous edition.  There’s more chance that book will be available secondhand too (see No. 1).

Other than this, how do we get around the issue of cost?  Not easily, is the unfortunate answer.  I don’t dare think how much money I had to spend on books at uni.  Too much is all I know.  And I didn’t even have it bad. None of my books were more than about £40.  I know people who had to spend more than £100 on a single tome!

If you’ve managed to get a physical textbook at a great discount (or even free), help us out with your tips in the comments.  You could make some skint students happy!

photo by Wesley Fryer

photo by Wesley Fryer