How to research your own PhD — inspired by Scott Young’s ‘Ultralearning’ — Part II

“The core of the ultralearning strategy is intensity and a willingness to prioritize effectiveness.”

I enjoyed reading Scott Young‘s case studies — public speaking, finishing an MIT degree, learning four languages in a year — but it is the principles of ultralearning that allow me to carry on with my project. I want to now how to do it.

In Chapter III, Young talks about how to become an Ultralearner. I’ll provide very brief explanations of each of the principles mentioned. The book itself addresses each one in its own chapter and with examples. I am using them only in reference to researching to a PhD level.

  1. Metalearning: First Draw a Map. Start by learning how to learn the subject or skill you want to tackle. Learn how to do good research and how to draw on your past competencies to learn new skills more easily.
  2. Focus: Sharpen Your Knife. Cultivate the ability to concentrate. Carve out chunks of time when you can focus on learning, and make it easy to just do it.
  3. Directness: Go Straight Ahead. Learn by doing the thing you want to become good at. Don’t trade it off for other tasks, just because those are more convenient or comfortable.
  4. Drill: Attack Your Weakest Point. Be ruthless in improving your weakest points. Break down complex skills into small parts; then master those parts and built them back together again.
  5. Retrieval: Test to Learn. Testing isn’t simply a way of assessing knowledge but a way of creating it. Test yourself before you feel confident, and push yourself to actively recall information rather than passively review it.
  6. Feedback: Don’t Dodge the Punches. Feedback is harsh and uncomfortable. Know how to use it without letting your ego get in the way. Extract the signal from the noise, so you know what to pay attention to and what to ignore.
  7. Retention: Don’t Fill a Leaky Bucket. Understand what you forget and why. Learn to remember things not just for now but forever.
  8. Intuition: Dig Deep Before Building Up. Develop your intuition through play and exploration of concepts and skills. Understand how understanding works, and avoid having recourse to cheap tricks of memorization to avoid deeply knowing things.
  9. Experimentation: Explore Outside Your Comfort Zone. All of these principles are only starting points. True mastery comes not just from following the path trodden by others but from exploring possibilities they haven’t yet imagined.


This principle concerns creating a map of how to learn to research and write up a PhD. I’ve started with a mind map on mindmup for this. So far I have some early ideas on it; the very basics, really.

Mind Map

Metalearning: First Draw a Map

As part of the map, of what needs to happen, I started to explore criteria for doctoral studies. I discovered the following set of guidelines, serendipitously, by spotting someone’s thesis they’d gained through publication.

The guidelines are issued by the QAA and the UK doctorate is in alignment with the Framework for Qualifications of the European Higher Education Area.

“All UK doctorates, regardless of their form, continue to require the main focus of the candidate’s work to demonstrate an original contribution to knowledge in their subject, field or profession, through original research or the original application of existing knowledge or understanding.

“However, all doctoral graduates should be able to do the following:

search for, discover, access, retrieve, sift, interpret, analyse, evaluate, manage, conserve and communicate an ever-increasing volume of knowledge from a range of sources

Doctoral graduates need to be able to evaluate the literature and understand the validity of different levels of knowledge.

  1. Think critically about problems to produce innovative solutions and create new knowledge.
  2. Plan, manage and deliver projects, selecting and justifying appropriate methodological processes while recognising, evaluating and minimising the risks involved and impact on the environment.
  3. Exercise professional standards in research and research integrity, and engage in professional practice, including ethical, legal, and health and safety aspects, bringing enthusiasm, perseverance and integrity to bear on their work activities.
  4. Support, collaborate with and lead colleagues, using a range of teaching, communication and networking skills to influence practice and policy in diverse environments.
  5. Appreciate the need to engage in research with impact and to be able to communicate it to diverse audiences, including the public.
  6. Build relationships with peers, senior colleagues, students and stakeholders with sensitivity to equality, diversity and cultural issues.

The above list of criteria is very useful in figuring out what to keep in mind. It’s interesting to see that a PhD is not only about research but also about communicating it to the world and being part of a group of researchers. Knowledge does not reside in individuals alone.

This adds further criteria to my own plan, such as attending conferences; presenting my ideas; reaching out to others researching in the same field. I have done these things previously as a researcher but I thought of them as asides instead of integral to the work.

The above discussion and criteria have been about doctoral studies through affiliation with a university and a supervisor. However, there is also a pathway towards gaining the PhD by publication. Characteristics often associated with doctorate by retrospective publication awards are as follows:

1. It is normally awarded on the basis of a thesis containing a series of peer-reviewed academic papers, books, cited works or other materials that have been placed in the public domain as articles that have been published, accepted for publication, exhibited or performed, accompanied by a substantial commentary linking the published work and outlining its coherence and significance, together with an oral examination at which the candidate defends his/her research.”

The candidate may not be required to register formally for the qualification or to have followed a formal programme of study towards the degree; in other cases a shorter than normal period of registration is permitted for such candidates, who may already be graduates or academic staff members of the provider, or of a partner provider.”

“In the assessment of doctorates by publication, the candidate is examined on these materials and the commentary, sometimes supported by a CV. The final assessment takes the same form as outlined above for other doctorates, namely assessment of the thesis and/or portfolio and an oral examination (‘viva’ or ‘viva voce’).”

“Irrespective of the type of programme, provider or subject, certain elements are key to the success of doctoral programmes:

A high-quality and vibrant research environment;

Supervision that is appropriate to the candidate and the stage he/she has reached in the programme;

Access to resources and development opportunities;

Opportunities for peer interaction and support;

Demanding but fair academic standards; and,

The need for the candidate to take responsibility for his/her own learning and research output.”

Studying for a doctorate means doing, as well as learning about, research.

Doctoral education is, by nature, an individual experience. Each person’s route to the degree is different.”

Access to an active and vibrant research environment, including contact with other researchers, is fundamental to doctoral candidates’ success, irrespective of subject, mode of study, or location.”

The need for a research environment and contact with other researchers has got me thinking. I feel quite lucky that I discovered professional social researcher Helen Kara and her blog. She writes about research, how to do research, and has knowledge of the field in general. She is also author of several books on how to do research as a doctoral student and otherwise. 

I am contributing to her Patreon to the level where every two months we can talk over Skype. When I have more money I will contribute more. For now, this minimal amount means I can bounce ideas of research methods off her. It may seem trivial but so far she has been a great help. She has pointed out some other blogs on doctoral education (*) and suggested ways I could find out about getting independent ethical approval. Another point she raise, which I wouldn’t have thought of myself, was about who owns the intellectual property of the thesis.

I am at the very early stages but I already feel an enthusiasm for reaching out to others. The lack of reaching out when I started doing my previous PhD was one of my weaknesses. Back then, unfortunately, there was no Twitter, or social media communities. There was no Patreon and I didn’t really know of networks of social researchers.

By the end of this post, my Mind Map has evolved as follows:

How to research your own PhD — inspired by Scott Young’s ‘Ultralearning’ — Part I


I came across Scott Young on the Learning to Learn course taught by McMaster University & University of California San Diego. This was a course designed to provide strategies and the latest research on learning techniques. Young was featured for his work at completing an MIT degree without going to MIT, and in 12 months rather than four years.

He now makes a career out of his entrepreneurship and his latest book is called Ultralearning.  It’s a fascinating read, exploring how people learnt a lot, effectively, and, at times, quickly. He provides case studies and strategies on how to do the learning as well.

Ultralearning: A strategy for acquiring skills and knowledge that is both self-directed and intense.

I find it inspiring.

Techniques, strategies and perseverance are some of the most important components to learning and excelling. Often, however, these are expected to be somehow ‘internally’ discovered and for people to be born smart. Fixed intelligence is one of the most harmful myths out there. Luckily, more work on neuroplasticity and the growth mindset has shown that people can learn and excel once they know how.

Young shows us ‘how’.

I’ve always wanted to spend my life studying but education is unaffordable in the UK for me in my circumstances. I want to learn from home, at my pace, around my child care, full-time work, and social obligations — and in English.

The main part of this process is learning. I want to learn more about a subject and in great depth. However, the learning part is about methodology. From what I understand, from my years as a social researcher and a one-time PhD student, the process of gaining a PhD is really about learning how to research.

It’s about discovering the following:
How to review the literature,
Find the best research [most appropriate] methods, and
Investigate a topic in a robust way, and demonstrate that you have contributed to knowledge in your field.

Which topic

The first part of the equation, at which I have failed so far, is to find a topic.
Some I have recently been researching and have found interesting are as follows:
– Scrutiny in local politics
– Austerity and the way it has allowed CICs and religious groups to gain control of public services
– Local literature and how it represents its region
Propaganda and local media; coverage and scrutiny of local council in relation to the mayor’s dealings with the churches.

My favourite so far is the latter one: ‘Propaganda and local media; coverage and scrutiny of the local council in relation to the mayor’s dealings with the churches’. It also seems to include some of the other topics as well so that’s even more interesting to me.

The Bristol mayor’s involvement with the churches is a subject I have already written about and which has been ignored by the local press. It is almost certainly newsworthy if public money or officials are involved.

Which field

The second question is within which field would this research lie?
Some of the ones I could see fitting in are as follows:
Propaganda studies,
Local politics,
Human geography,
Politics –social capital and rational choice theory– and

One suggestion given to me on how to discover further research and where it sits in which departments, was to search Google Scholar. It’s a simple idea but an effective one. Considering that my topic is –temporarily– the affect of the local media on scrutinising local politics especially to do with religious involvement, I searched for “local politics uk media”.

One of the results is “Who Cares about Local Politics? Media Influences on Local Political Involvement, Issue Awareness, and Attitude Strength”. The authors are from the Communications department at Cornell University. The article is about US politics but I’m just looking at which department and research field is appropriate, so the geographical specifics don’t really matter at the moment.

One tip I picked up from Helen Kara, professional researcher, in her book about how to do a PhD was to assess the abstract, introduction and conclusion in order to discover whether the article would be a useful one.
This seems a useful strategy to me for now so I will stick with it.

Literature Review

Another tip was how to work on a literature review. The first time around at PhD research, I saved all my references in an Excel spreadsheet. I also used Zotero for addition of references straight into my Word documents.
I am familiar with Zotero but I last used it over a decade ago so was a bit dubious about whether better facilities were available. Kara mentioned it in her book recently so that seemed to be recent enough to at least make me give it a go. I downloaded and installed it.

I have added the article about local media from Cornell in and was reminded quite quickly of how simple Zotero is to use.
When or if I start with the Excel spreadsheet, I can use it through Google Docs and add a link.

Assessment Criteria

When Young did his MIT degree in a year project, he had criteria by which to assess his level of completion, and access to resources.

In relation to resources, I can probably get access to them at the University of Bristol or University of the West of England libraries. In relation to criteria, however, I will have to do some more reading about what will be required.

Some books to explore:
Doing Your Research Project: A Guide for First-time Researchers
Authoring a PhD by Patrick Dunleavy
[End of Part I — TBC]
In the following parts, I intend to explore how to assess criteria for a PhD; Research proposal; Time limits or at least some plan on how to structure my time; …

This is the first post on my new blog. I’m just getting this new blog going, so stay tuned for more. Subscribe below to get notified when I post new updates.

About me

My name is Joanna, and in the spirit of confessional tones, I am happy to tell you that I am a social researcher.

Professionally, I am a book editor and knitwear designer but I trained and worked as a social researcher for years. I began a PhD in 2005 and did not complete it. From 2008 onward, I worked as a researcher within higher education. In 2015, I could no longer afford to commute and so switched to freelance work.

I focused on editing and on knitting. It’s the editing that mostly pays the bills. The knitting, not so much.

At the back of my mind, however, I yearned to still be able to research and that’s how this blog came about.


I am making sure I document everything in a blog because 1) it’s a great way to keep this process as linear as possible; 2) it helps me keep my thoughts coherent and structured; and 3) if I can help someone else with what I’m doing then I’ll be happy knowing I’ve contributed to their knowledge.

Feel free to get in touch. I’d be more than happy to hear from you.

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