Ever read a scholarly article only to realize that you cannot remember what you just read?
I started my PhD by going to the library and taking out books that I thought would give me a good background in my field, as well as books that I was told every graduate should read and be aware of. I’ve read a ridiculous amount over the last five years –– I have over 60 library books out right now! (Thank you, Penn State Libraries!)
However, as I’m nearing the end of my degree, I realize that while there were some crucial books and journal articles that had a huge impact on my research and changed the way I think about biology, I don’t remember the vast majority of what I’ve read –– even when I took notes!
Graduate students must keep up to date with the literature in their field and build up their knowledge, but the truth is, reading might not always be the best way to do this. And with more journals publishing more papers today than ever before, there simply isn’t enough time to read everything that’s relevant to your field.
One recently published book, The Lean PhD, is about how to streamline the PhD process and produce high-quality publishable research in less time. One of the ideas put forth is that the most effective way to learn something is not by reading about it, but by writing about it.
This idea is not new –– researchers have long been aware of the close relationship between reading and writing in understanding new material (see references below). And with writing being such a crucial part to publishing papers as well as finishing your dissertation, it makes sense to put more focus on writing rather then getting caught up in an endless reading list.
To try this out for yourself, put aside that ever-growing stack of papers on the corner of your desk and instead think about what you’re currently writing or planning to write. What’s stopping you from writing them? If you need background information about a certain area before you can start on a grant proposal or paper, then you know exactly what kinds of papers you need to seek out and why. Data collection is a slow process, but even if your projects are in progress, you should at least be able to start on the methods or even the introduction. Pull papers out of your to-read pile as you need them, and evaluate how useful they really are to your work –– you may find differences between what you thought was important and what you actually needed for your work.
From personal experience, I can say that while I did a lot of reading over the course of my PhD, the times that I felt the most productive and effective in my reading was when I was trying to write my own articles and papers. For me, trying to write about something showed me where the gaps in my knowledge were and what was important to know, and it helped guide my reading efforts to find what was most relevant to my research.
It was frustrating at times when I wanted to write and ended up getting caught up in a paper search instead, especially one time when I needed to wait weeks for an interlibrary loan to come in from overseas. But it was well worth it every time I finally found that one fact I was looking for or felt like I finally understood a tricky topic. It was always satisfying when I could go back and fill in that one missing sentence from the introduction with my newly gained knowledge, citing all of the resources I had found along the way.
I highly recommend graduate students to start writing sooner, rather than waiting until the end of your graduate program and then having a mad rush at the end. I wrote up each of my research projects as I finished them, at a rate of about one a year. That doesn’t mean I still didn’t have a mad rush at the end to finish up my dissertation, but it was immensely relieving having the majority of my thesis written, published and out of the way at that point. (Bonus: published dissertation chapters = fewer edits).
Even if you don’t think you’re at the point of being able to write, it can help to create a separate document or folder for each project you’re planning to write in the future. As you go about your business and hear about relevant papers or new discoveries, you can put citations or pdfs into a folder or even write notes into a document. When you do finally sit down to write, instead of staring at a blank page, you may find that you already have an outline, or at least several leads to get started.
Putting aside my reading list and getting straight into writing helped me make progress on my dissertation chapters and focus my efforts on finding the sources that I needed most for my research.
Do you think writing is the best way to read? What are your experiences? Leave your comments below!
More reading on the Relationship between reading and writing:
Graham, Steve, and Michael Hebert. "Writing to read: A meta-analysis of the impact of writing and writing instruction on reading." Harvard Educational Review 81, no. 4 (2011): 710-744. https://doi.org/10.17763/haer.81.4.t2k0m13756113566
Greene, Stuart. "Mining texts in reading to write." Journal of Advanced Composition (1992): 151-170. https://www.jstor.org/stable/20865834
Greene, Stuart. "The role of task in the development of academic thinking through reading and writing in a college history course." Research in the Teaching of English (1993): 46-75. https://www.jstor.org/stable/40171212
Stotsky, Sandra. "The role of writing in developmental reading." Journal of Reading 25, no. 4 (1982): 330-340. : https://www.jstor.org/stable/40030382
[Photo taken by author.]