So alongside my lab and glasshouse work this week, my goal has been to tackle that most hated of PhD chores – reading. For those of you who haven’t had the pleasure of reading a scientific paper, an accurate and very amusing summary of the events involved can be

found here. After enjoying the novelty of gamification last week, I decided to apply this principle to my reading list, in hopes that I might actually start to enjoy the process.

Reading papers is something that all scientists (particularly PhD students) are encouraged to do, but doing something just because you “ought” to has never engendered much motivation in me. With this in mind I approached my goal with a question: What do I want from my reading?

My answer was two-fold:

  • Firstly I want to broaden my knowledge and understanding of topics which are in touching distance of my own research
  • Secondly I want to generate an easily searchable database of references which I can consult and utilise at any time when I am called upon to produce a piece of written work (report, poster, research paper)

Armed with these aims for reading I wanted to get an idea of how other people managed their reading, I asked a couple of people in my group and the general response seemed to be that reading a little and often was a typical approach. By this I mean that setting time aside once a week to read the abstracts (and possibly discussions) of the papers recently published in their areas of interest (Google scholar alerts can be extremely helpful for this).

OK, so I’d now spent a bit of time thinking about why I wanted to read and finding out what others do. Now was time to formulate my own plan. I already use a reference manager (Mendeley) and subscribe to Google scholar alerts, this was a good starting point. I liked the idea of aiming to read the abstracts of papers rather than trying to read the whole thing from the get go, that made my rather long “To-read” list seem immediately more manageable. For someone such as myself who is as readily distracted as a kitten in a yarn shop, bite-sized tasks are infinitely more achievable.

In terms of forming a habit out of reading, I decided to add a recurring spot in my calendar which I set aside for reading each week. When it came to making a commitment to this spot I thought back as to how I recently insured that my morning yoga practice became an essential part of my morning routine. Following the advice of my favourite online instructor (YBC) I had adopted the same attitude to the daily appointment with my yoga mat as I do to a meeting with my boss; there are very few things I would cancel a meeting with my supervisor for and this appointment had the same priority. This attitude was exactly what I needed if I was going to stick to my reading promise.

Feeling like I had taken a step in a positive direction I then turned my attention to my second reading objective (a searchable and comprehensible database of literature). Despite several years of compiling notes for lectures I still don’t have a consistent way of indexing these notes (groan). There are so many pieces of note-taking software out there that days can be lost trying to find one that completely suits you (in my experience Evernote and OneNote are the best of them but that may simply be from regular use rather than any level of excellence). Now was the time to finally make a decision about which software to use and to stick to it. I chose OneNote. OneNote is already well set up for the kind of notes database I was looking for and it comes with an easy to use search feature. (Just FYI I am not endorsed by any of the companies whose software is mentioned in this article, all opinions my own)

“Now Claudia, this is all sounds great, but did you do any actual reading?” I hear you ask. Yes, I did. Just not an awful lot … I sat down with my my list of google scholar alerts, trawled throught them to see which were of interest and was left with two papers to put into my “To-read” file. Neither of them were exactly aligned with my field of research, but they were  worth me at least reading the abstract I thought. I read the abstract and discussion for each of them opened a One Note page for each and wrote a few summarising bulletpoints. I then re-assigned the papers from my “To-read” file to files which are assigned to their respective areas of research.

Excellent, after devising a refined system for reading I had succesfully and relatively painlessly implemented it. Time will tell whether I’ll achieve my reading goals this way but I expect I’ll soon find out. Those of you who have been paying attention may have noticed that gamification has not made a single appearance on this whole process, I think that novelty may have been left by the wayside for the time being, I’ll let you know if it gets incorporated in future reading endeavours.

Apologies if this week’s post has been a little tedious, it’s more of a reflection than anything else. I’ll try to think of something a little more excting for the next one.In the meantime, do you have any tips for habit building or academic reading? Let me know in the comments.

Until next time

C x


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