Alex Hodgson
August 13, 2013 --

Grad School Tips: So Many Papers to Read, So Little Time

Papers Blog Things I Wish I knew in Grad School Feature Image

When I began working in my grad school lab, I was handed a stack of scientific articles as part of my “welcome package”.  I was told that I would need to spend a lot of time reading while I was slowly gearing up for the experiments needed for my project. I was eager to learn so I’d sit at my bench trying to absorb as much information as I could, while also secretly wishing that like everyone else, I had something to stir, some gel to run, or some measurements to make. More often however, I found myself staring at those pages until all the letters became a blur and my head started nodding. I felt ashamed. How could I be a scientist if I couldn’t stay awake reading papers for more than a couple of hours? Why did I find them so dry when I actually liked the science?

Now I know I’m not alone.

After years in the lab, I’ve seen many incoming grad students, keeners or not, fall into that same state of suspended animation.  I now realize there were two reasons those papers were so sleep-inducing…

First, many of them were research articles that were hard to follow if you didn’t have the necessary background. You could re-read a sentence ten times and it wouldn’t make a difference.

And second, when you don’t know enough yet to get the big picture, it is hard to see how those papers have any relevance to your own research project.

So if you feel stuck reading too many articles, many of which seem also to make no sense whatsoever, here are a few suggestions I’ve found helpful over the years:

  1. Download ReadCube Papers 🙂 The enhanced PDF, quick search, 1-click downloads and recommendations are just some of the many features that will save you time and help you connect with relevant information around that particular paper.
  2. Start with a review article on the topic that covers the area of your research. It doesn’t have to be the latest one; choose the one that is written in an accessible language because at this point, you are just trying to understand the basics. Very often, the research article you had trouble understanding have references for review articles in their introduction and discussion sections. That’s where you could start searching for relevant review papers. If in the review, there are still terms, or concepts that you don’t understand, then go and grab a textbook. You will often find very clear explanations there. Wikipedia is pretty useful too 🙂
  3. Take notes while you read: Use the annotation and highlighting tools within ReadCube Papers to jot down useful facts and ideas, and anything that you don’t understand so you can look it up later. Slowly, you will be able to start connecting the dots.
  4. Read with purpose: At the beginning, I felt like I needed to read everything a keyword search in PubMed returned because they all seem like they had something to do with the topic I was interested in. But the problem is, you simply don’t have time to read everything. So before you start looking for papers, ask yourself what exactly it is that you want to find out/learn today that will help with your project. For example, this could be as broad as: What are the cellular mechanisms believed to be the cause of Alzheimer’s disease; to specific or experiment-related questions like: What are the common techniques used for studying changes in protein phosphorylation.
  5. And finally, as you’ve finally gained a good grasp of your project and spend more time doing experiments, don’t forget to keep checking ReadCube Papers’ recommendation engine – it will allow you to stay up to date with the field and help you in generating new ideas to move your project forward.