How to read in grad school

Rex over at Savage Minds has a couple of fantastic recent posts, An article a day and Pacing: work smarter, not harder that every grad student should read, including (especially?) me ten years ago. Of course, during coursework (and for MA students that’s most of the degree) the pace will be different – the ‘article a day’ adage applies best to PhD students past the coursework phase, because you’re already reading a massive amount of material not of your own choosing.

I do think that regardless of level, one of the factors that distinguishes a superlative from a mediocre grad student is the ability to read and synthesize large amounts of material in a self-motivated, self-directed way. Even if you are one of the (majority of) graduate students who has a ‘real’ (non-academic) life with a job or a family or health problems or something else, the ability to pull through and read an article does really make a difference in keeping active and making good progress. As Rex writes, “The number one main job of graduate students is to read. You just have to a read an absolute ton of stuff. There is no substitute for reading. A ton. Of. Stuff.” Hear, hear.

I’m interested in what people think about the balance between books and articles. Obviously a 300-page book is far less work than ten 30-page articles, and the value of the monograph versus the article is discipline-specific. And you may get a 300-page edited volume but only read one chapter, or one chapter plus the introduction. My own graduate training was far more book-oriented than article-oriented, which was partly due to the personalities and scholarly temperaments of my mentors and partly due to my own choices. How to know not only how much to read, but what sorts of things to read?

I’m also curious about the balance between ‘things I need to read for the dissertation’ versus ‘things I need to read to keep up to date in the field’. For me, I spent most of my time on the former to the neglect of the latter – only when I was done the dissertation and on my postdoc could I devote a significant amount of time to the ‘breadth reading’ I’d need to be a good teacher. I still assign readings for courses that I haven’t yet read but would like to – of the eleven books in my grad seminar on writing systems and literacy offered this fall, I’d only read five before putting together the syllabus. I imagine this is fairly standard practice among academics in humanities and social sciences fields.

The other thing I’d add to this discussion is that one needs to avoid wild swings in productivity. I used to be terrible at this, and still am not great. But then there will come a time (and of course, it will come) when you take a week off for vacation, or to get married, or for an illness, or *something*, and it’s easy to feel that now you are ‘behind’. Well, no. You had a gap. It ended. If you beat yourself up over the gap, you just make it longer. And if weeks become months, then hie thee to your professional of choice to help move forward. OK?

Author: schrisomalis

Anthropologist, Wayne State University. Professional numbers guy. Rare Words: Blog:

6 thoughts on “How to read in grad school”

    1. I agree (in principle) and so does Kerim, another one of the bloggers at Savage Minds, who has just posted a response arguing the same thing. It is a little different, for me – I’ve never heard of a reader’s block, or at least never experienced one. Moreover, I very often must wait for materials to read, or for research to be completed, before beginning any writing on a project.

  1. I recognise lots of this, particularly the setting reading that I haven’t yet (though over time, this changes) and the beating onself up about catching up. I had a ridiculous OCD track-keeping system for the early part of my Ph. D. for this, which of course took nearly as much time as the work, and even once a long-suffering partner managed to say something kindly meant that made me realise how ridiculous it was, and eventually dump much of it, I was still notionally behind, in my head. I actually caught up, with the help of a certain amount of creative arithmetic, and still find these kind of structures helpful in structuring my sense of what’s reasonable to expect of a day’s effort, but it took a lot of tuning to bring it into the category of discipline and out of neurosis.

    I myself would rather read the articles than the equivalent-length book. At a chapter a day I’ll wind up living with most books for a good part of a month. That is too long to spend with one scholarly viewpoint, I find. It would have to be a really good book to hold my attention for all that time, I will always tune out and miss something and wish it was nearer being read unless it’s astonishing. Articles therefore keep me better stimulated. The bit that I still need to cut down is note-taking (which I do at length, and often helps me understand better, but is still time-sucking) and bibliographical recording of the cites to follow up, almost all of which I know I never will.

  2. I tend to agree about the articles versus books, and if I had an e-reader (if there was one that had what I wanted) I would spend all my time with it, I suspect. On the other hand, books in anthropology (other than mine, apparently) tend to be shorter (<300 pages) and less dense than those in history, so it's more like a week for me, if it's at all interesting. The month-long books are ones that for which I really have a palpable distaste for some reason.

  3. I have been thinking about this today, and I realized that the most important seminars I had in grad school were ones where we read a primary source every week. It is not like we never read any secondary works, but if there was an imperative for me it was reading the source and tracking down what early editors had said about it.

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