Eva Lantsoght is a PhD Candidate in Structural Engineering at Delft University of Technology and blogs about academia and concrete research on PhD Talk. You can follow her on twitter at @evalantsoght.
Does the following situation sound familiar to you?
Your supervisor gave you some papers to start exploring your topic. You start reading, excited to learn more about the subject. Then you start looking up all the references and continue reading from there. You follow a few journals in your field and print out all the recent relevant publications on this topic. Meanwhile, the number of publications you want to look at keeps on growing, along with the pile of prints on your desk, and slowly, your mood sinks down under the weight of this massive amount of information you've gathered.
Don't despair - the amount of work on your topic that's "out there" might seem like an inextricable mass of information that will devour you like quicksand. Plowing through this pile is a large task indeed, but you can plan for it and eat that elephant - one bit at a time.
To help you cut that elephant into bite-sized pieces, we've compiled an easy-to-follow plan of six steps of actions for you.
Step 1: What do you really need to know?
Do you have your research question defined, or are you looking for the gaps in the knowledge to sharpen your research question? Before you start reading through all the information, you must have an idea of what you are looking for. If you are completely new to exploring a topic, then state your purpose as "grasping the basic concepts of topic XX". If you are looking for contradictory theories on the effect of parameter Y on event Z, then state this clearly.
Having a clear goal and intention set will help you to read at the right level at this step in your research. You will notice as well that the outcome of reading for different goals will make you notice different aspects of a certain publication.
Step 2: How much time do you have?
You can spend between 20 minutes and an entire day (or even days) reading a paper. If you want to structure and plan your work, then put yourself a deadline (even if your supervisor didn't give you one).
Once you know how much time you have, start planning. For example, if you have a month of time: take 1,5 weeks to study the essentials, 1 week to explore the periphery and 1 week to write your literature review on this topic (and the additional days in the month will serve as a buffer in your planning).
Step 3: Study the essentials
Identify the key publications in your field of study. A good way to start is to find a comprehensive review paper or a state-of-the-art report, and start by chewing through the references of this paper or report.
To get a grasp of a new subject you need to spend some time studying the basic principles and equations. You will need to sit down, take notes, and work your way slowly through the material as if you were a student going through a difficult chapter of a textbook. You might feel like you're spending too much time on too few papers, but with this work you are building the foundations for all your further reading.
Step 4: Speed through the periphery
Separate all the papers that are maybe interesting, or maybe can give you some additional insights, but that don't seem to be absolutely key to your field of study. Note that these are not of lesser importance, you can't skip on the periphery, but to understand the concepts, you'll need less time to try to deeply understand all the elements that are discussed.
A key skill to develop here is speedreading. Start training yourself today. You can train your eyes (and try to mute that inner reading voice) with this online tool. Train yourself in looking at a cluster of words at the same time, instead of each single word at a time.
If a paper classifies as pertaining to the periphery, then simply preview it: read the abstract, intro, conclusions and then go over the figures - that will typically already give you all the information you need.
If you need to read additional sections, skim them. Here is how skimming works (from Brainpickings):
Think of your eyes as magnets. Force them to move fast. Sweep them across each and every line of type. Pick up only a few key words in each line.
Step 5: Archive what you read
As important as reading itself, being able to find that paper and looking up additional information is a vital element to controlling the mass of information you will gather over time as a researcher.
You can archive hard copies as well as keep a digital archive. Stick to a system for your hard copies (for example, archiving alphabetically by the last name of the first author), and use reference managing software on your computer for your digital archive. Just make sure you can find your documents, even after 3 years when you are writing your dissertation!
Step 6: Keep an eye on the output
What was known as truth yesterday might be disputed by new test results tomorrow. Don't stick to only the publications that were available when you first started reading about the subject. Instead, develop a strategy to keep up with the output. You can subscribe to the updates on publications of the most relevant journal(s), or you can set up an RSS feed for some important keywords.
How do you master your reading loads? Let us know in the comments below.
[Image creative commons licensed by Flickr user bottled_void]