Back to the Basics: Learning to Read

Back to Basics Fairbanks blog 6

Wondering why nobody else is in the reading room, the grad student glumly realizes that it is a late Saturday night.


I am sure that you read the title of this and thought, “This is crazy. I already know how to read. I learned how to read in kindergarten.” If this is the case, you would be completely right. You read through undergraduate, for your job, and (god forbid) just for fun sometimes. But reading for graduate school is very different. It is not unexpected in a single graduate seminar to have to read a book a week (or 5-8 academic articles depending on the field). So, if you are taking a standard graduate course load that means, 3-5 books a week that you must substantively and critically discuss with your classmates on top of your other new responsibilities as a graduate student.  Again, you may think this is easy (and for some it will be), but for most this is an overwhelming proposition. So here are a few tips to help you navigate through this task:


  1. Read Strategically– When you are reading for class, often you do not need to read every single word in a book. If you try to read every word, it will take you twice the amount of time to get through the material (if not more). Before I read, I tend to look to the table of contents of a book or abstract of an article to be able to manage my time. My first stops in reading after that are the introduction and the conclusion.  The introduction will give you the roadmap of the book and (hopefully) the theoretical contribution. The conclusion will restate the findings and often provide broader connotations or connections to the field. From there, you can pick chapters that you want a more in-depth understanding of.
  2. Skim or you Might Drown– This is a point that builds off the first. When you are reading for class, skimming the material in some chapters is okay. This is very different than what you did in high school or undergrad! This does not mean that you skip through and read a page in every chapter at random. This means that when you are up to your neck in the next set of readings for seminar, you read to grasp the major contributions of the piece. In my case, I made up short note sheets about each reading. I would jot the research question, the theory, the hypothesis, the data/methods (generally very cursory), and the conclusion/contribution. This format will vary from field to field, but it provides a general guideline.
  3. Be Critical in your Analysis– Part of being a graduate student is learning to critically analyze literature. When I say critically, I do not always mean negatively. A mistake many graduate students make when reading is that they only look for the things that are wrong with a piece of work. While this is part of your job, remember that in many cases (especially the beginning) you are reading fundamental work in your field.These authors have made major contributions, methodologically or theoretically, so its not always necessary to rip a piece to shreds when analyzing it. I do not recommend rejecting an entire theory, simply because the author did not specify a statistical model the way you would have or because they improperly used an oxford comma!
  4. Take Good Notes – Unless you have an eidetic memory, you will need good notes for your discussion in seminar. In my case, I like to write in the margins of things as I am reading. It helps me to keep track of my thoughts as I am reading. Generally, I transcribe my notes later into Zotero/OneNote/Word, after my seminar, because it helps me to keep my own thoughts and that of my classmates on the piece in one place (this is super helpful once you start studying for your comprehensive/qualifying/field exams). I like to have my fellow student’s thoughts as well, because often they may have a better understanding of a piece than you.

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