This ‘episode’ of #thingsilearnedingradschool will be quick since I think it’s an easy one! It’s an easy one to explain anyway. Maybe not so easy to master. But, hopefully this will help!
If you haven’t already figured out, scientists do a whole lot more reading and writing than actual science-ing a lot of the time. Especially in academia. If you’re not publishing your work in peer-reviewed journals, it’s hard to tell whether you’re being productive, whether the taxpayer dollars that are funding your grant are going to good use, and whether the science you’re doing is actually good science.
Don’t get me wrong, there are some adjustments that need to be made with this whole “publish or perish” model, but I get why it became a thing in the first place.
Sooo, it would make sense that as a scientist, you should actually READ all those papers your colleagues are publishing, right?
When you start out in grad school, you FOR SURE want to get fairly deep into the literature fairly quickly, so you a) get a sense for where the field is going, b) understand how they got there, and probably most importantly, c) figure out what’s already been done.
Trust me when I say you DO NOT want to spend a whole year, 1 month, or even 1 week really, working on something someone has already done and published. Grad school goes by fast and you really don’t want to waste time reinventing the wheel.
Early on, you may not even know what you want to do yet.
#Gradschool #protip: The discussion sections are prime thesis-topic hunting grounds.
Knowledge. Gap. Central.
Another thing: don’t forget about text books entirely. Literature is definitely the best way to keep up on what’s current, but a Nobel Laureate once told me he won his prize by questioning what everyone in his field said was “known.”
Grad school is the time to question everything...
Finally, it’s also important to constantly circle back to the literature throughout your PhD (and beyond). In my third year, I was done taking classes, I finished my policy internship in DC, I wasn’t teaching any classes, and all the instruments in lab were working.
This made it so that I could just be in lab every day and be super productive. I would run a few experiments each day, glance over the results briefly to see what step to take next, and then troubleshoot, tweaking something daily as I went along.
It was during that time that I came across a problem I couldn’t figure out with a simple tweak. Nothing was working! So, I thought I’d check the literature to see if anyone else had come across this issue. As it turned out, someone had already published a paper on that experiment I was running, and that issue I ran in to. Thankfully, it was only a week lost, but I felt so silly! It was there the whole time!
Lesson learned: Before you tweak something, throw a few quick keywords into Web of Science and see if anything comes back.
It’s easier now more than ever to do these kind of quick searches online, and in some cases, you can even set an alert to let you know when someone has published something in your field with those keywords (ResearchGate, GoogleScholar).
Final thought: if you have a hard time convincing yourself to sit down and read that pile of literature you've been collecting, I'll tell you, it gets easier and you get faster, the more you read. You gradually get better at skimming for and finding the important information, and knowing when you actually need to go find that other citation or not. Try some of these to help you get on track:
1. Set a schedule for yourself. Start out slow. One paper every other day. Read in the lab in between experiments, or at home while you're cooking dinner.
2. Categorize by topic and priority. Try making a "Read Now" and a "Save for Later" folder within folders organized by "Background Info", "Methods", or "Comparable Results" for example. Or, if your work is interdisciplinary, try breaking it up by field of study to keep everything organized.
3. Start with the Conclusions/Discussion. It's tempting to pick up a paper and read it front to back, but you'll quickly learn that there just aren't enough hours in the day to do that each time. Plus, you'll start to notice that the introductions and background sections within a field of study tend to repeat a few main ideas in several different ways.
4. Start using Mendeley, EndNote, or something similar from the beginning. These will help you keep your sources organized and will make it easier to cite come time to publish. They can feel a bit intimidating at first but oftentimes your university library will have a person or even a class/workshop to show you how to use it.
What methods have you found helpful? Share below!
Welcome to Think Like a Postdoc. If you're a fan of science as much as I am, and/or are curious about getting a degree in a STEM field, or pursuing an interdisciplinary graduate degree (all from the perspective of a graduate student), then you're in the right place. Think Like a Postdoc also includes posts about my current lab and field research, including analytical chemistry, Arctic biogeochemistry, and energy & environmental policy. Comments and questions are always welcomed. And please tell me what you want to hear about next!
Questions to Ask Before Choosing Grad Program
First Semester of Grad School
Field Work in Alaska
Science Conference Dos and Don'ts
Women in STEM Series
Things I've Learned in Grad School Series
Blogs I Follow
Mass Spectrometry Blog
The Grad Student Way
Anthony's Science Blog
The Thesis Whisperer
Fossils and Shit
Science Communication Breakdown
Science Communication Media
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