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October 25th, 2014

How to Read for Grad School

One of the very first things you’ll learn in graduate school is that your professors will assign a lot of reading. A lot of reading!

Depending on your field, each week you may be asked to read anywhere from several journal articles (mainly STEM fields) up to an entire book per class (social sciences and humanities).

How can you manage all of this reading? Here are a few tips to help get you through those pages.

How to Read for Grad School

  1. Remember, you can’t read it all…

The first thing is to recognize that you can’t read all of it in the time allotted. Graduate professors, quite deliberately, usually assign more reading than the average graduate student can complete in a given week. With research, teaching, sleeping, eating, and your personal life, there aren’t enough hours in the day to read all of the materials you are assigned.

This means that you’re going to have to get creative in how you manage the reading load so that you cover the material requested.

  1. Prioritize your readings

Since you know that you can’t read it all, you’re going to have to figure out which of the readings are most important for a particular week.

Start by organizing your readings into three groups:

  • anything that you’re going to read closely;
  • articles/chapters/books that you’ll “actively skim;”
  • anything left that you will try and skim if you have time.

But how do you determine which assignments to read closely and which to put on the back burner? Sometimes professors will make it obvious by designating certain readings as “required” and others as “optional,” or by foreshadowing what you’ll talk about in your next session.

You can try to surmise this yourself by quickly looking through the materials that are assigned and finding their common theme. From there, you should be able to determine which readings are ‘core’ and which are peripheral to the main theme.

What about ease of reading? It’s tempting to select the papers or books that you think will be the easiest to get through, but take caution. Often, the thorniest theoretical papers are the seminal ones that are the heart of the themes your graduate professor is trying to convey. They’re likely to be on your qualifying exams down the road. But if two or more papers look equally important and have similar purposes in the assigned readings, sometimes a good strategy is to pick the one that captures your interest most.

Read ‘Closely’ by Taking Notes

Doing a “close reading” of graduate school papers is not like reading a pleasure book. You’re looking for key themes and discussion points – things that are relevant to your research and scholarship. When doing your close readings, take notes!

If you are using a paper copy, you can annotate right onto the paper. If you’re averse to writing on your paper – or don’t have enough room – brightly colored sticky notes can help flag specific sections in which you have a particularly insightful comment. These notes will be helpful to refer back to when discussing articles in class.

Skim Actively

While you’re not reading every single word, you’re also not just reading headings. Read the first and last sentences of each paragraph. Scan your eyes over each paragraph to see if there are important supporting points or keywords.

After skimming a section, take a moment to summarize what you skimmed – jotting down brief synthesis notes can help, although they won’t be as extensive as the notes from the materials you read closely. Writing down broad questions you have can help, too – they may be questions you want to raise during the discussion or in your seminar paper.

Whether you are reading closely or skimming actively, you should ask yourself questions as you read. Constantly challenge yourself: What is the point of this passage? What is the author trying to convey? How does this connect to my own scholarship? How does this connect to the larger body of work in my field?

  1. Don’t read when you’re sleepy

Graduate school life is super busy, and many grad students find themselves getting around to their reading late at night, after they’ve spent a full day in the lab or classroom.

If your lids are feeling heavy, put the article down and go to sleep!

You’re not going to absorb the information in a meaningful way, while at the same time your cutting into precious time that could be spent on other more enjoyable aspects of your life. A double-whammy of wasted time and missed opportunity!

Set time aside to take care of yourself. Sleep is important, so make sure you get enough of it! In the end, it’s better to have meaningfully consumed a smaller portion of your reading than it is to have read it all and retained nothing.

  1. Figure out what works for you

One of the perennial questions I get about reading in graduate school is “should I use electronic resources, or hard copies?” I think this is a personal question that depends on your individual preferences and desires, but in so doing highlights an important point: you’ve got to figure out what works for you.

Some students have a difficult time concentrating when staring at lighted electronic screens; others prefer the ease of annotating paper copies. On the other hand, all that printed paper can be an organizational nightmare that for some can be a distraction in itself.

Whether you like reading real paper or the electronic version, try different options and see what ‘clicks.’ Likewise, try switching up the environment where you read to find the best fit:

  • Morning/afternoon/night?
  • Office? Library? The local coffee shop?
  • Music? Total silence? Background noise?

Getting through your reading doesn’t just take steely perseverance, it also takes common sense and a personal strategy that works for you.


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