How to read in grad school
Posted by schrisomalis on June 13, 2010
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?