Everyone’s PhD is different, but one aspect of this academic journey is a constant: There is a lot to read. No matter the discipline, there are always hundreds of articles, books, and other media that are relevant to your research – and even more literature that is not.
A PhD is therefore more than your typical term paper for which you consult a dozen or so texts. Instead of tens, there are hundreds of articles, chapters, graphs, tables, videos and more you need to keep an eye on. As it is difficult to judge a book by its cover, you will probably also spend a lot of time reading texts that turn out to be insignificant.
No matter its importance, new information is first stored in your short-term memory, which makes it susceptible to two limiting factors: duration and capacity.
View it like a continuously recording surveillance camera. It is always taking in and saving new information, but once the file gets too big, previous data gets deleted. To preserve something noteworthy, that piece gets saved and can be accessed later on.
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Why should I use reading strategies?
Now there is good news and bad news. While we unfortunately cannot transfer information to the easily accessible long-term memory by simply pushing a button, we can employ consolidation methods such as repetition and mnemonic devices to store our knowledge in our long-term memory. The bad news, though, is that our long-term memory is only theoretically unlimited, and it is also not safe from decay over time.
However, not all is lost. There are strategies that will help you to retain the information you find in articles, books, or any other type of media. In fact, there is quite a range of products. We have… C2R, PQ4R, SQP2RS, maybe even some OK5R or SQRQCQ.
No, these aren’t black market cognition-enhancing drugs. They are actually abbreviating strategies aimed at structuring the reading process. They each propose various steps to be followed when reading a text to guide you through certain sections with various means. Feel free to try some of them for yourself, but be aware that there is always more to it than just working on the text itself.
The benefits of a structured approach to reading
You need to acknowledge that reading isn’t something you can just do on the side. It requires your attention from the beginning to the end, or else you will keep needing to re-read because you missed a connection. Especially for complicated literature, using a structured approach can help your understanding.
No matter which steps each strategy wants you to follow throughout the reading process, all of them share a common goal: to make reading easier for you and to gain quicker access to the information you actually need. And once you find a method that works for you, you can save both time and energy, while also building up your literary knowledge and becoming an expert in your field.
Taking the amount of literature and the limitations of our cognitive capacity into account, we need to consider strategies that’ll help keep important information accessible in the long run.
There are three major areas which you can manipulate when it comes to reading for your PhD: before, while, and after working on a text.
So, let us explore which actions you can take to read better and improve long-term accessibility of new information.
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- You don’t just put a dozen chemicals into a container, shake them up, and hope for them to turn into gold. (Chemists, please correct me if I am wrong.) So why should it be the same with literature? While it might be possible to just read whatever you find and make sense of it later on, you should consider getting an overview of your bibliography first, group texts on the same domain together, and differentiate between basic and advanced literature.
- Create a distraction-free environment. Your smartphone’s notifications will only disrupt your reading flow, so turn them off. The text in front of you should be the only thing keeping your mind busy. It might be hard to disconnect for a while, but being in the right state of mind will help you process the text more effectively.
- Get an idea of the text in front of you. Skim the text for its headings to understand how it is divided. Taking visual material such as graphs, pictures, or tables into account can also point you toward crucial sections. The point is to narrow down which sections of a text are relevant to you, so you are not wasting time with reading irrelevant chapters.
- Even if you have selected the parts you deem necessary, do not read them from the beginning to the end immediately. Instead, search for specific keywords that are of interest for your research in the introductory paragraphs as well as the summaries. This can reduce your final workload even more. You can always go back to an article or text later on, but remember that unnecessary information can overwrite important information in your short-term memory.
- Depending on how much time you have, the difficulty of the text, and how fast you can read, you can now choose between reading the remaining sections from start to finish (this may be better for understanding logical connections), or scanning the text for keywords and surrounding sentences.
- Take the pressure off your short-term memory by highlighting important sections of the text, adding comments to help you reconstruct your thoughts and deductions during a later reading, and adding page markers to point to relevant paragraphs. Once you have dealt with the text, create a summary, e.g. on a flashcard, containing basic metadata such as author(s), year, and the title, and the information you want to take away from it. You can also use this free note-taking template we’ve put together. When done right, looking at these notes can replace the need to go back into the original text. There are many programs you can use to make digital libraries of your literature. While their primary purpose is to collect all the metadata and help you to generate citations, you can also add keywords, comments, and reviews to each entry. Much to the flashcards, such organization can make specific information readily accessible at a later point in time, and you can integrate cross-references between your texts
- Take breaks, ideally after some breakthrough or a completed section as defined by yourself, e.g. one article, two chapters, thirty minutes. You can use them to give the new information a second thought, get your dopamine rush by checking all the ever so important notifications on your smartphone, or to relax for a moment.
- Reading for a long period of time, especially on a digital display, can cause your eyes to get dry and you might develop trouble focusing. Give them some rest, e.g. by closing them for a while or looking into the distance. You may consider increasing the font size for digital texts or adjusting the lights when reading from paper.
- To transfer the knowledge into your long-term memory, you should periodically repeat the information and deductions you gathered from the texts. By revisiting previously read literature, you may now view them with a different perspective or make new connections.
- It can be difficult to change your habits and you may not have liked the approach you took with the first few texts. Take some time to reflect on the strategy used to work on the literature and whether it really saved you time, helped you in narrowing down the essential information, and increased the information’s accessibility. Figure out which step causes you trouble and try fine-tuning it.
No matter the length or difficulty of the next text on your pile of literature, you should now be well-equipped to work on it. Changing your typical way of reading might at first feel a bit unfamiliar, but I encourage you to embrace this feeling and to knowingly reflect upon the changes you experience. Academic reading is not easy, but you can make it easier.
Paul Druschke is an early career academic and PhD researcher at the Technische Universität Dresden in Germany. Aside from his research at the Institute of Geography, he is teaching courses on academic writing, time and stress management, and leadership competencies. Find him on Twitter and Instagram @pauldruschke.
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