Read, read, read if you want to succeed!
Reading is one of the most essential skills that any grad student has at their disposal. The ability to read, fast or slow, gives you access to a massive amount of knowledge. Everyday you read many pages on the internet: the news, the weather, and (probably more than you should) facebook. Let’s face it, without reading, you cannot get by in this life, let alone your research. So how come reading is practically the last thing that we want to do as a grad student?
When I first joined my lab, the first thing my advisor told me to do is read several papers by some of the leaders in my field. I went to the internet, found a few papers by these scientists, read them, thought about them, and then went to entertain my mind elsewhere on the internet. I looked at reading scholarly articles as I did when I was an undergrad: I glanced through the articles and then decided I’ll look up something when I need to know it. I’m here to tell you right now, this is definitely NOT the way to approach scientific articles. When it came time for my first presentation at a conference, my lack of in-depth reading into the literature really came through in the question and answer session. An alarm went off in mine and my advisors head: I had not read enough in the literature to become familiar, let alone proficient, in my field. I was way behind and I felt like I had wasted a lot of time in my graduate career.
Fast forward just a year or so and my story is significantly different. I read quite a bit and I’ve gained the experience I need to be able to critically analyze the literature and gain what I need from it. I’ll tell you the steps I took to get to this point and how I significantly increased my confidence in my knowledge of my field.
1. Read Avidly This first secret is to be persistent. The only way to gain the knowledge and confidence that you need to succeed in your field is to be aggressive with the amount that you read. Download and print off as many papers as you can and start reading them. Be doggedly relentless in your reading. If you’re waiting for an experiment to finish or you feel bored, then that is the time to pick up an article and read it!
2. Record It A strong motivator for me was to always right down what I read. I have a notebook handy where I write down every single paper that I read. I record the authors (Last Name, First Initials format) the title of the article and the year it was published. I also keep track of how many articles I’ve read and the date I read it. Making a spreadsheet and keeping track of the total papers you read during a week will give a you good accounting of how much you’ve actually read over the past year.
3. Start with Review Articles Sometimes staring at a search bar in Google Scholar or PubMed can be a bit intimidating. I’ve found the best place to start is with a review article in your field. If you don’t know any, ask a fellow lab mate or your advisor for some good review articles. These manuscripts will give you good overview of the research that has been done in your field, plus it gives you a great jumping point for getting more articles. Read through the references and mark any that seem interesting or relevant and then go read them!
4. Read grant proposals Grant proposals, particularly those written by your advisor, can be immensely helpful in directing you towards better literature. By critically reading the proposal, you can get an accurate picture of what is the current state of the research and you will be able to see which articles the proposal author deems most important. You really cannot go wrong by selecting a few of these citations and seeking out the manuscripts.
5. Do not fear Wikipedia Some professors may still hate on Wikipedia, but ask any grad student and they will tell you that they spend a ton of time on Wikipedia. If there is a term, phrase, symbol, gene, chemical, or really anything that you don’t know, then go to Wikipedia. Chances are you will find your answer. If you don’t find it, then I would make it your goal to make that page and fill it in once you figure out the answer. Wikipedia can be ten times faster in helping you look information up than can other sources.
6. Think Critically As you become more familiar with the research in your field, really start thinking about the work being presented in the manuscripts that you read. Don’t take everything you read at face value. These people in other labs are humans too and they are prone to errors as well. Especially with controversial data, take the time to really analyze the data and convince yourself that their conclusions are logically sound and fit with the data.
7. Don’t neglect the oldies Just because a paper was published before you were born doesn’t mean it can’t be valuable to your work. In my field in particular, the majority of the pioneering work was done in the 80’s and 90’s. Being able to see where the field came from can give you great perspective on knowledge base and help you draw new conclusions and new directions in your work.
8. Literature Presentations Many labs may do this already, but if they don’t, you should definitely recommend your lab add these. Literature presentations involve one member of the lab selecting a true research article (not a review article) and presenting the main data in the paper and then offering criticisms of the work. Generally this would be done during a lab meeting and all the students would then discuss the together the conclusions of the paper and why they think the authors were correct/incorrect. This can be very helpful for you as a student because it will give you feedback from your peers about how well you can critically think and you may gain new insight into the work based on others’ criticisms. Literature presentations are a positive tool all around and I highly recommend them for any lab group.
9. Know what you need This tip will come a bit later in the game after you’ve become comfortable with some of the literature in your field (100+ papers). As you get into your research and the literature, you will start to have a picture of where your work is going. At this point, you will want to make more selective choices about what you are reading. You will probably recognize areas that you may not be as familiar with or concepts that aren’t as strong in your mind; in this case you will want to seek out papers that address these topics. Recognizing where the gaps are in your knowledge base can aide you in seeking out new papers to read.
10. Be organized My last tip comes mainly from a personal desire to be organized. Organizing all of your scholarly articles can significantly help you down the road. I use an Apple computer and there is a nifty program called Papers that organizes your scholarly articles. I call it iTunes for research articles. The advantage to using this program is that it instantly makes all of my articles searchable. Now I can enter one term and immediately pull up all the articles associated with that term. In addition to electronic organization, I have 25 file folders that I use to organize the physical copies of my papers based on the first author’s last name. Using this in combination with my digital management allows me very quick access to any paper that I have read. The advantages to this system are that my desk remains less cluttered, I can find what I’m looking for quickly, and I won’t waste my time or resources reprinting or rereading articles I’ve already looked at. Different things work for different people, so if you have another way of organizing your research articles, please let me know!
Following these tips will guarantee that you will gain valuable knowledge about your field. You will be able to dig deep into an article and draw on your knowledge to assess the authors conclusions for validity. If you leave here remembering only two things from this list of advice, remember these: read avidly and record it. You cannot assess progress without observation and observation will practically guilt you into reading more. Read, read, read and you definitely will succeed!
Click on my Very Useful Links for the websites I use to find my articles as well as some handy tools to help you read more.
“It is what you read when you don’t have to that determines what you will be when you can’t help it.” ~Oscar Wilde