Tips for Tackling Scholarly Reading More Efficiently and in Less Time

Freaked out by a super-long reading list? Check the syllabus for any upper-level undergraduate course or graduate course and you'll likely find a long list of required or suggested readings. Realistically a graduate student can expect to read multiple articles and, depending on the field, even a book each week. Plowing through those readings will take time, but you can learn how to read more efficiently. Here are a few tips to help you get more out of your reading in less time.

Scholarly reading - empirical articles and academic texts - require a different approach than leisure reading
The biggest mistake that students make is approaching their school assignments as if they were magazines or novels. Academic reading requires more work, specifically, an active approach. Read prepared to take notes, reread paragraphs, or look up related material. It's not simply a matter of kicking back and reading.

Read in multiple passes
Sounds counter-intuitive, but the efficient reading of academic articles and texts requires multiple passes. Don't start at the beginning and finish at the end. Instead, scan the document multiple times. Take a piecemeal approach wherein you skim for the big picture and fill in the details with each pass.

Don't Highlight
If you underline text, do so minimally and stay focused on the important details. Avoid the temptation to highlight every line. Heavy highlighting is a procrastination tool because usually you're marking what you should learn instead of focusing on learning it.

Start with the abstract then scan for relevance
Begin reading an article by reviewing the abstract and then the first couple of paragraphs. Scan the headings and read the last couple of paragraphs. Is the article relevant? If you're reading potential sources for a paper, a quick scan will help you determine an article's value. You might find that there is no need to read further as the article may not suit your needs.

Dive deep
If you deem that the material is necessary for your project, after your quick scan, read it for depth, but not from beginning to end. If an article, read the introduction (especially the end where the purpose and hypotheses are outlined) and conclusion sections to determine what the authors believe they studied and learned.

Then look at the method sections to determine how they addressed their question. Then the results section to examine how they analyzed their data. Finally, re-examine the discussion section to learn about how they interpret their results, especially within the context of the discipline.

You don't have to finish
You can stop reading at any time if you decide that the article isn't important - or if you think you have all the information that you need. You're not committed to reading the entire article.  Sometimes a detailed skim is all that you need. You can always reread the article later if needed.

Take a problem-solving approach
Approach an article as you would a jigsaw puzzle, working from the edges, the outside, in. Locate the corner pieces that establish the overall framework for the article, then fill in the details, the centerpieces. Remember that sometimes you won't need those inside pieces to grasp the material. Sure, this is a metaphor, but it means that you should learn what you can by reviewing the edges - the beginning and end, then fill in the details by reviewing headings and chapters, then, if needed, seek further details by reading the full text.

Once you step away from the one reading one-pass mindset you'll find that scholarly reading is not as hard as it looks. It requires a planful, active approach. Consider each reading strategically as one size does not fit all. Decide how much you need to know about it -- and stop once you've reached that point.

Be honest
This multiple-pass and drop-if-deemed-unnecessary approach requires honesty on your part. It's easy to quickly conclude that an article isn't useful or that you have learned all that you can -- when you really haven't. Be careful. Before dropping an article, quiz yourself on its content. If you can explain why an article isn't needed or articulate its main points and relevance to your project or course, you can move on to another reading. If you can't explain the reading and its relevance, then dive deeper and read it again.

Brainstorm & Incubate Ideas in Your Research Notebook

Successful academics conduct research - period. How do you get started? Where do you find research ideas?

 How to Find Research Ideas
Research ideas can come out of nowhere -- but don't count on yours to just flash on like a light bulb. Look for ideas systematically and at all times. Must you constantly rack your brain looking for topics? No. Just be open to new ideas.

 The most important thing to do when you discover an idea is to record it. Don't count on remembering it later. Instead, capture ideas quickly - without judgment. Then consider each at your convenience later. Keep a record of your ideas and activities as an ongoing log of your thoughts about your research. That is, maintain a research notebook. Your notebook might be a physical book or digital - whatever is most convenient and whatever you will actually use.

What to Write in Your Research Notebook

  • Notes on your research activities and any questions that arise
  • Problems in your research: What's not working?
  • Possible solutions to research problems
  • Alternative solutions or explanations for problems
  • Articles to read and researchers to follow
  • Student and faculty contacts and comments on their work
  • Notes on articles and papers you've read
  • Ideas and comments on your term papers and class assignments

Begin your log early in your graduate school career, long before you're pressed to find a dissertation topic. Write freely. Don't judge. Just write. Evaluate later. Your log is for your eyes only.

Keep Notes on Interesting Articles 
This is perhaps most important: When you read an interesting article, record it in your log (even if you don't think it's an area of research for you -- you never know what you'll decide years from now). Record the following:

  • The topic
  • How the authors studied it
  • What did they find
  • Ideas the authors suggest for further research
  •  What was striking? Why did you record it?
  • Your own ideas

Review Your Notebook Regularly 
Every now and then, read your notebook. Over time you may notice themes, thoughts that seem to connect, and patterns. Recurring themes may suggest avenues for research that might form your dissertation. Sure, not everything that you capture in your notebook will become a study, but a written record is an important way of learning about your research interests, defining them, and crafting workable ideas.

Regularly Update Your Notebook 
Keep your notebook up to date, even once you have found a dissertation topic. In fact, your notebook will be especially important once you start your own research. As you find potential dissertation ideas, thoroughly read the related literature, noting your thoughts. You'll never complete your review of the literature as new articles are constantly published. Be aware of the literature in your area and note how your work is different from others.

When you begin your research, note its progress in your notebook. Write down questions, problems that emerge, and notes on your methodology and results. Your research notebook is a record of what you hypothesized, did, and found, as well as a place to consider the implications of your work. Continue to read current articles about your topic and record your comments. You'll find your research record invaluable as you write your dissertation.

What to Expect in Grad School

Thinking about grad school - pursing a PhD? Beginning a doctoral program? Prepare yourself for several years of intense research, studying, and professional growth. Like anything else in life, realistic expectations will be critical to your success. What should you know?

Successful Graduate Students are Autonomous 
Expect much less structure. Grad school requires independent thinking and initiative as you'll be responsible for guiding your own professional development. You may have to choose your own advisor, and you definitely will have to have to figure out a way to get along and work with him or her. It will be up to you, with a little guidance, to carve out an area of research and find a dissertation topic, as well as make the professional contacts that are essential to advancing in your field and getting a job after graduation.

Accustomed to undergrad, new grad students often wait for someone to tell them what to do. Many wait without answers or direction and become fearful about their futures, which can lead to paralysis. For success in graduate school, be prepared to take control of your own education.

Graduate School is Not Like Undergrad 
I've said it before but it's worth repeating. Doctoral programs are nothing like college. If you're considering graduate school because you're doing well in college and like school, be aware that grad school will likely be very different than the last 16 or more years of school you've experienced. Graduate study, especially at the doctoral level, is an apprenticeship. Instead of sitting in class for a couple of hours a day and then being free to play, grad school is more like a job that occupies all of your time. You'll spend a great deal of your time working on research in your advisor or mentor's lab, as a formal research assistant or simply to get experience.

Research Rules in Graduate School
The purpose of doctoral education is to learn to do research. The emphasis is on learning how to gather information and construct knowledge independently. As a researcher or professor, much of your job will consist of gathering materials, reading it, thinking about it, and designing studies to test your ideas about it. Grad school, especially doctoral education, is preparation for a career in research.

Don't Expect a Speedy Finish
Typically a doctoral program is a five to eight-year commitment. Usually the first year is the most structured year, entailing classes and lots of reading. Most students are required to pass a set of comprehensive exams at various points in the program in order to continue. For example, in my graduate program, students took a set of comprehensive exams at the end of the first year to receive their master's degrees and then another set after completing all coursework (at the end of the third year) to progress to doctoral candidate status (often informally referred to as ABD - all-but-dissertation status).

The Dissertation Determines Your Fate 
The doctoral dissertation is the basis for earning a PhD. You'll spend a great deal of time searching for a thesis topic and advisor, and then reading up on your topic to prepare your dissertation proposal. Once the proposal is accepted by your dissertation committee (typically composed of 5 professors who you and your advisor have chosen based on their knowledge of the field), you're free to begin your research study. You'll plug away for months or often years until you've conducted your research, made some conclusions, and written it all up. Then comes your dissertation defense: you'll present your research to your dissertation committee, answer questions, and defend the validity of your work. When your presentation is complete you'll be asked to leave the room while your dissertation discusses your candidacy. Who knows? They might really be gossiping or dissecting Game of Thrones. Finally, your mentor will emerge and, hopefully, say, "Congratulations, doctor!"

How Grad School is Different From Undergrad

The first days of the semester are always busy, but the first days of grad school will likely pass in a blur of classes, orientations, and meetings. I remember little of my first day of grad school a couple of decades ago. What stands out is an orientation speech by the chair of the department who explained that grad school entails a critical transition from consumer of knowledge to producer of knowledge. That’s what it’s all about, but I had never thought of it that way. I was to become a producer of knowledge? I went through the rest of the day in a daze.

Totally overwhelmed, I got home, changed into comfortable clothes, and discovered that I put my shirt on inside out and backward. Stressed? Those first few weeks of school I learned that graduate school was way different than I expected. In the coming years, I would put in intellectual sweat, emotional equity, and much more time than I ever expected. Despite this, I wouldn't trade my time in graduate school for anything. And, if grad school is right for you, I suspect that you will feel the same way.

So, how do you make a smooth transition to graduate school? Here are four major differences between college and grad school.

It's Not Just Classes 
Classes are a big part of master's programs and the first couple of years of doctoral programs. But grad school entails more than completing a series of classes. You will take courses during the first couple of years of your PhD program, but your later years will emphasize research (and you probably won't take any courses during those later years). The purpose of grad school is to develop a professional understanding of your discipline through independent reading and study.

Apprenticeship Model
Most of what you learn in grad school will not come from classes, but from other activities, like doing research and attending conferences. You'll choose and work closely with a faculty member on his or her research. As an apprentice of sorts, you'll learn how to define research problems, design and carry out research projects to test your hypotheses and disseminate your results. The end goal is to become an independent scholar and design your own research program.

It’s a Job
Approach grad school as a full-time job; it's not "school" in the undergraduate sense. If you soared through college with little studying, you're in for a big culture shock. The reading lists will be longer and more extensive than you've encountered in college. More importantly, you'll be expected to read and be prepared to critically evaluate and discuss it all. Most grad programs require that you take initiative for your learning and demonstrate a commitment to your career. Remember that no one will hold your hand and walk you through. You must provide your own motivation. Also note that if you’re receiving funding from your department or program, you’re probably expected to put in full-time hours – and are probably forbidden from outside work.

You'll Become Socialized to Your Field 
Why is graduate school so different from undergrad? Graduate training teaches you the information and skills that you need to be a professional. However, being a professional requires more than coursework and experiences. You'll be socialized into your profession. In other words, you will learn the norms and values of your field and you will learn to think like a professional in your field. Are you ready?