I am currently a fourth year PhD student studying plant ecology, and I absolutely love what I do. My research allows me to spend time learning about the topics that interest me most.
However, like most other graduate students I know, I've gone through some really challenging times, sometimes hitting rock bottom and feeling more overwhelmed, stressed, and anxious than any other time in my life. In fact, grad students have been shown to suffer from greater levels of depression and other mental disorders than the broader public.
In recent years, PhD dropout rates in the US have been as high as 50%. While some of that may be for good reason, I'm sure that a portion of those students left school because they were never taught how to handle and alleviate the psychological stressors of grad school.
Over the last 4 years of my PhD I've been developing a system to help me handle this stress and I was surprised by the simple solution that I found.
I began implementing the system about 6 months ago, and the results have been very exciting. I was able to increase my wellbeing, productivity, motivation, and self-confidence in ways I couldn't foresee. The fact that I have the time to work on HabitU speaks for itself.
Grad school is one of the most amazing opportunities to learn and make discoveries about the world we live in. There is no reason we shouldn't be able to make it a more enjoyable experience. I want to share my system by building a simple and easy to use mobile app.
We are currently in the app development stage, but the more interest there is (i.e., subscribers), the more funding we can get to complete our first beta release. Please spread the word about HabitU to your colleagues and department to help make this happen.
Sign up on www.HabitUapp.com to be one of the first to try our beta release.
Follow us on Twitter: @HabitUapp
- Luka Negoita
I never thought that I could get through as many as 20 scientific papers a day. Several weeks before my PhD general knowledge qualifying exam, I realized there was a virtual stack of papers filling a folder labeled “Key papers for quals” that I had not even come close to finish reading. I knew these were important papers I should know for the exam. They included some papers related to my research topic directly, some papers recommended to me by my research committee, but mostly papers on various themes of plant ecology that I had stumbled across in my endless Web of Science searches. Often, I’d find an interesting paper (i.e., “I should know about this…”) and then fall down the rabbit hole of searching all of its citations as well as all of those that cited it (thank you WoS). Several weeks before quals, the end result was me staring at a folder containing around 150 papers that I still hadn’t read.
I was surprised by what I found. I actually gained much more general knowledge from reading the scientific literature at a rapid pace than I had ever gained from spending as much time on fewer or even just one paper a day. It’s hard to understand without going through the experience yourself (see below), but something interesting happened to me. I began to make connections that I had never made before. Terms that I didn’t understand in one paper were explained in different words in the following paper. What was once a 2-dimensional haze of a topic began to expand into a palpable 3-dimensional form that made sense. It began to feel like I was eavesdropping on the conversations of academics. Words and phrases no longer stood alone, but they fell into the context of a broader scientific exploration of the topic. Reading in chronological order ensured that I read in the natural order by which the conversation was exchanged. Authors became more human, and I gained a sense of identity as one of them.
Here is my method:
1) Print the papers. Even after I got an iPad specifically for reading papers without having to print them, I find that it makes a big difference for my memory when I can physically hold the paper and scribble in the margins. All of these papers (scribbles and all) are now safely tucked away in a cabinet where I store my hard copies.
2) Organize the papers by major subject and year. For example, all my papers in the subject of plant strategy theory, island biogeography, or dispersal ecology would each be in their own pile with the earliest publication on top. Sometimes papers didn’t fit into any one specific topic--place it anywhere it fits or just start a new pile.
3) Use an actual timer and set it to 20 minutes. That’s all the time you get to read one paper. Unless the methods of the paper are of particular interest, focus exclusively on the intro and discussion. Capture the main story elements and write them in your own words in the margins. Highlight if you need to, but I found writing things in your own words in the margins to be exceptionally more useful for the following step. Keeping to 20 minutes will be hard at first, and there will definitely be details that you miss, but that is the nature of this method. Keep in mind you are not reading the papers to cite them, you are reading them to extract knowledge about your field.
4) Keep your computer handy. When the timer goes off, go back to the start of the paper and read through the notes you jotted in the margin. As you do this, write a short paragraph summarizing the paper in a text document on your computer. Title the paragraph according to the citation of the paper to make it simple and fast. The paragraph shouldn’t have to be much longer than this paragraph here. Writing the summary forces you to make a coherent story in your own words by revisiting your notes. Doing this shouldn’t take you more than another five to ten minutes. Start a new line for the next citation and paragraph in the same document.
5) Repeat. Take a 15 minute break every 2-3 papers. Congratulate yourself on a day well spent.
Giving yourself time to carefully read any one paper on its own is undoubtedly critical for grasping the details and understanding a particular research study. I've since gone back and spent more time carefully re-reading many of those papers. However, if the goal is to understand the overall stance of a research community on a particular topic, I find it helpful to read multiple papers in close succession. Perhaps if I wasn’t so rushed for quals I might choose to do only 10 papers a day, but I would still recommend the 20 minute read and quick succession between papers. The short time forces you to get good at finding the key sentences quickly, while keeping your attention focused.
In making connections between papers, I also noticed the need to go back and look at previous summaries I wrote in the document. Feel free to edit those as you learn new things in the following papers so that the paragraphs begin to form an overall story together as well.
This was just one of the things I did to study for my general knowledge qualifying exam, but it is something I’d recommend others try. Even if for just a day and only 10 papers. Find a subject you don’t completely understand yet, and do a web of science search to find the top 10 cited papers on a particular topic. Print those papers out, organize them in time, and start the timer.
I am curious to hear about anyone else’s experience with this. Comment below if you try this or if you have any other suggestions or tips on ways to read the scientific literature.