Handling a Heavy Reading Load

This blog post was inspired by an exchange on twitter with a new grad student (not my own).

Reading in grad school is not about preparing for a test; it is about learning and then applying what you’ve learned.

Basic Advice:

  1. Get organized and make a list.
  2. Set aside an hour or two early in the week and skim the first and last few paragraphs of articles, or intros and conclusions for books. Note: A good intro and conclusion should contain the following information:
    • Main thesis or theses
    • Key Evidence
    • Basic Structure of the Argument

Once you’ve deduced this you can move on to the next book/article.

3. Based on that skimming go back to your list, prioritize, evaluate degree of reading difficulty, and also your level of interest.

4.  Create a reading schedule that always puts difficulty/boring reading that is a priority at the start of every study day/period. Leave the interesting/easier reads for later.

Additional tips:

  • Book reviews are your friends! If you’re assigned whole books, get in the habit of reading two reviews in top journals for each.  This is a good alternative for step no. 2 above and can get your through in a pinch if you run out of time to read properly.
  • What is your active note taking strategy? Do you highlight or underline (I do with a mechanical pencil and also may notes in the margins)?  Or do you write out notes in a note book.  Book flags and post-it notes are another great strategy.  As is a blog!  (Or even tweeting your reading.) The point of note-taking isn’t really the notes themselves, it’s to improve your retention and to keep yourself engaged with the text.
  • Reading with no fixed purpose is the easiest way to lose your concentration. Always keep a question in mind when you read.  You can make up a question for each work OR use one question/lens for everything.  (g. what would the Marxist perspective on this be? Or, what is the nature of evidence used?)
  • Set a time limit for each work you’re assigned and also for each class. Once you reach the limit move on to the next work/class.  This in conjunction with step no. 2 will ensure even if you don’t read everything you will have enough so as to keep your head above water for your seminar discussions.

Time management:

To maximize your work days create some variation of a schedule like this for yourself:

8-9am: prepare for day/domestic stuff

9-11am: read

11-11.30am: break, drink tea, a little social media, walk around the block eat something

11.30am-1 pm: read

1-2pm: lunch (high protein, low carb), a little social media, walk around the block, domestic stuff

2-3.30pm:  over ice water or coffee, read again.  Be sure to work on highlighting and note taking.  (Most people start to flag at this point in the day!)

3.30-4pm: answer all professional emails

4-4.30pm: break, drink tea, a little social media, walk around the block eat something

4.30-6pm: read

6 pm-8pm: domestic stuff, dinner

8-10pm: read

10-11pm: wind down for the day: don’t read, try not to look at a screen, instead take a walk or talk to friends/family, or make lunch for the day.

11pm: bed.

DON’T WORK IN THE BREAKS!  This is nine solid hours of work in which no block of time longer than 2 hours.  It is sustainable.  And it also used even when you lose any one, or two, or even three of the five study periods to other commitments.  Time management is the key to grad school.

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