Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Reading between the lines

As a PhD student learning to do some credible and innovative research, one question I have often asked, and am often asked about is, how much academic reading one needs to do for a PhD. The politically correct and socially desirable answer would be, “A lot. As much as you can”. However, my frustration stemmed from the fact that terms like “a lot” and “as much” do not mean much, unless you are able to quantify it. Even if you could put a number to these values, the number is bound to vary across fields. Thus, it comes back to the same old question, how much reading must one do in order to be best equipped to do some meaningful research work.

I have pored and pondered over this question for years, and over the years, I have come up with my own “Reading for Research” strategy. Since these are my own ideas that have stemmed from MY perception of the research world around me, it is needless to say that what I claim would not have any scientific basis or background research, and should be taken with a pinch, no, perhaps a fistful of salt. What works for me might not work for you.

I am the kind of person who can cure my own insomnia by reading. The moment I start reading academic papers or book, I fall asleep. Now this is ironic, given that I am expected to do some heavy reading because of what I do for a living. I heavily rely on two strategies to get my healthy share of reading nutrients for my academic diet. First, while reading a paper, I start with the abstract, the research questions, and findings. If I find it useful enough, I go on to the introduction, the literature review, the methodology, and the discussion. This is a skill my academic daddy taught me. As a person reading voluminous work, you need to master the art of skimming through, and glossing over things that would be superficial to your knowledge base, first focusing just on the findings. I am not advocating for such a practice, it’s just that it works brilliantly for me, and I heavily rely on this technique.

My second technique is even more sophisticated and less time consuming, for the lack of better terminology. While reading something, almost anything, I always try to keep track of the key words, phrases, and terminology used. I can always look it up later on when I want to, but for my primary reading needs, I hunt for keywords rather than reading every line and focusing on every word. Let me give you this analogy. In order to get an overall bird’s eye picture of a forest, you need to know that there are trees, and then there is some grassland, and a river flowing by. But you do not need to have an exact count of the trees, the small plants, or the number of fish in the river. This is how I view my world of research. It is important for me to know that the forest of information out there has trees and plants and animals. The day I need to keep a count of the number of trees, I will zoom in on the trees and count them. Till then, it is enough for me to know where things are in terms of their positionality. Let me put it this way. In order to be a good storehouse of knowledge, you don’t need to know where everything is. However, you do need to know where to look for things when you need them. My keyword strategy works excellent that way. It is far less of a cognitive load to just focus on the new words and terminology used, than to read every sentence about something. Sometimes, I even carry a scratch pad with me and write down all the new terms I learn so that later when I need it, I know where to look for it. Months later, some stalwart in the field will bounce off an occasional buzzword and already familiar with the keyword, I will know where to look it up. I get almost 4 times more reading done using this technique. Of course your reading speed and skills get better with time, and the more time you spend in the research world, the more acquainted you are with what is out there. Till then, for beginners and slackers like me, it is unproductive to fret and worry and be intimidated by the whole process of familiarizing oneself with the extensive body of knowledge out there. And like my academic daddy keeps telling me, it is important to think hard, but what is much more important to be successful is to think smart.



Biddu said...

"it is important to think hard, but what is much more important to be successful is to think smart."...cannot agree more!

the.orchestra.of.life said...

ahh ... the fun of skimming through papers ... good approach btw :)

Dew said...

Very informative post. I like the term "Academic Daddy" you use to refer to your professor. :)

The Tame Lion said...

Absolutely fantastic!

Rohini Prasanth said...

the line in bold says it all. I am a PhD student too. Just started so to speak. every time i start literature review I have alternating periods of excitement and a sense of being lost. Great write up. worthy of being shared.

Kolor said...

Have you heard of the types of knowledge theory.
1. Shit you know
2. Shit you know you don't know
3. Shit you don't know you don't know

Here is the reference to the paper - http://jangosteve.com/post/380926251/no-one-knows-what-theyre-doing