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PhD Tips: The Great Train of Literature – Can You Keep Up?

27th May 2016

Possibly even faster than Usain Bolt is the speed at which the academic world churns out papers and publications. Whilst it is fascinating to think of all the experiments being conducted worldwide at any one time, the conscientious researcher feels duty-bound to keep up with the latest developments. After all, a new discovery could shed light on a conundrum in your own work, or you may be about to replicate something already done. But how does one fit in “time for reading” into the already tricky balance of experiments, writing, family commitments and (if you’re lucky) a social life? One size certainly doesn’t fit all, so take your pick of these strategies:

A paper a day…

If you thrive on routine, a regular slot may work best for you. Whether it’s over breakfast, during morning coffee break, lunch or in downtime at home, make a habit of sitting down with a paper and blitzing through it. You could have a slightly longer session at the beginning of the week, so that you can make a list of new, relevant papers to read over the week ahead. If you need some motivation or are likely to forget, you could make yourself a chart or grid to fill in after each session. When it’s full, it’s up to you how you reward yourself!

Follow me!

Perhaps when you did your literature review, certain citations just kept coming up time and time again? Or maybe you were blown away at a conference by the genius of one researcher’s experiments? In that case, cut out the search engine and start following your “research idols” on ResearchGate, which can send you an email alert every time they publish a new paper. You can also get connected on LinkedIn or have a look at their institute’s webpages: these often include lists of publications. Also consider signing up to RS Feeds, subscribing to journal newsletters or setting up email notifications for databases such as Web of Science. You can even customize the latter with specific search terms so that you are automatically alerted when a paper that is relevant to your own project is released.

Make a club of it

If your lab doesn’t already have a journal club, consider setting one up or alternating them with lab meetings. In the usual format, each week someone is nominated to present a paper at the next session, which you then discuss as a group. Or perhaps you could try the Pecha Kucha method, where each person is only allowed a limited number of slides and a certain amount of time to spend on each one. This style of lightning-speed talks means you can blast through whole chunks of literature in a single session! And besides improving your knowledge, journal clubs are also great opportunities to practice your presentation and defence skills (vital for conferences and your viva!)

What’s everyone talking about?

If your lab group/department are too small to make a journal club feasible, try moving the discussion online. Use social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter to create groups to find researchers with similar interests. Then you can recommend papers to each other, discuss them and suggest improvements.

Get out of the lab

Often, busy lab environments just aren’t conducive to quiet reading. If you find it hard to settle down to read in your work environment, it may be best to change the scene completely and spend half a day each week working at home or in a different environment (museum cafes can make particularly good study sites!) In a more extreme form, you could take several days or even a week’s sabbatical to catch up, particularly if your lab regularly experiences periods of “downtime”, for instance during maintenance work. This doesn’t necessarily mean retreating to a remote beach hut equipped with WIFI, but getting into the habit of focusing your time will be useful when it comes to writing up your thesis…

Making sense of it all

So you’ve read your papers, now what? Almost as bad as not reading anything in the first place, is not being able to remember or recall what the key message was! It can be very frustrating when you want to look up at experiment you remember someone having done, but can’t remember who or when it was. Do spend some time in thinking how it would be best to retrieve key information. Perhaps you could make a spreadsheet database where you summarise each paper in 2-3 sentences, and give it some identification tags? (e.g. plant defence, hormones, cell culture techniques). Or make a wall chart where you can record citations under different headings? It only takes a minute or two and will be a tremendous investment for literature reviews!

Newspaper meCaroline Wood is midway through a PhD studying parasitic weeds at the University of Sheffield. When she’s not agonising over her experiments, she loves to write and will cover most scientific topics if they stay still long enough. In her spare time, she enjoys helping at public outreach events, hill walking and escapism at the cinema. She blogs at


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