Tip: Give yourself time to think

masters phd research Jun 26, 2023
Man thinking

When I was a PhD student, my supervisor told me this: “spend double the amount of time thinking about your reading”.

I found this a very interesting take compared to my other PhD cohort mates. In my cohort, there were researchers shortlisting close to 400+ abstracts for their literature reviews which pretty much meant that they spend their first few months of their PhD just reading papers. Naturally, with deadlines, this became somewhat of a rush.

My supervisor suggested that I need to spend more like thinking about the papers than reading them which seemed quite counter-intuitive.


It is not the number of papers that matter

Like most people, I suffered from great imposter syndrome. I felt I lack the knowledge befitting a PhD level student and so the first thing I did after securing the PhD programme was to read broadly. I read almost everything that seemed remotely related to my research. On hindsight, I realised as much as you need to know practically everything in your field, you need to actually understand all of them as well.
I started amassing papers quickly in the first few months and set myself a lofty aim of reading 300+ papers in the first 2 months, which meant 5 papers a day, every day. That seemed rather reasonable to me. I was going to rapid reading workshops to speed up my progress. It was a comfortable few months for me as all I had to do was to read. Soon I found out that I started forgetting the papers I have read very quickly. They all become confused masses of methodology and theory and I was nowhere close to understanding my field.

It is not about the number of papers that you read and that means beyond accumulating large numbers of papers and declaring an impressive number of shortlisted papers in your literature review strategy, you need understand the papers you are reading. By that, I mean knowing why the researcher made certain decisions, how the arguments were put forth in the paper, why the claims are made etc. I was just reading for the sake of reading, words entered my brain and immediately went into my mental trash can.


You need to understand your reading

Understanding your reading requires time. You need to allow yourself time to analyse the paper, critique it, explore relevant references, make judgements about it, explore how it relates to your prior knowledge and assumptions and think about how it informs your decisions later.


You need time to do all of that.


As counter-intuitive as it may seem, you need to slow down your reading. I am not saying you need to read fewer papers but as you read, set aside some time for some mental housekeeping. A good understanding of a paper will serve you far more than a skimpy understanding of 100 papers that you cannot remember anyway.

This serves you far better when you are in the Viva later where you may be expected to regurgitate contents of specific papers. You will also be in a far better position to support your defence and supplement it with relevant references that you can confidently quote.