DSDE 6320 – Qual Research Notes (On Reading in Grad School)

Tips for Reading in Grad School

From Miriam Sweeney:

Read strategically. Do not read linearly. She wrote: “Reading strategically instead of linearly will make you a more efficient and effective academic reader.  Getting familiar with how different formats of writing are structured will give you the confidence and control to find the information you need in them more efficiently.”

If you’re reading a journal article:

…start by checking the name of the journal that published the article.  This will key you in to the scope and boundaries that the article is working within.  Next, carefully read the title and the abstract of the piece.  A good abstract should clearly explain the main argument of the article, the kind of evidence the author uses, and a succinct conclusion, or what the author found out.  Armed with this information, look over the introduction to see how the author is framing their work, paying attention to the citations they use.  This tells you who the author is trying to be in dialogue with. Next, flip to the discussion section.  Sometimes this is separate than the conclusion, sometimes not, depending on the disciplinary standards of the author and journal.  Read the discussion and conclusion carefully.  These sections will explain the author’s main arguments and the “why you should care” piece. Now you can go back through the article armed with the knowledge of where the author is leading you and browse over methods and results sections.  Pay attention particularly to images and data visualizations.  Note how these things relate to or support the discussion and conclusion sections you read.

If you’re reading a book:

As an academic reader your job is to mine the text you are reading for information.  Instead of cruising along the narrative, you need to dive in, find the information you need, and move along to the next stack of readings for class….

In academic books, the introduction is where the author states all of their main points, the framework they will use, and an outline of what information will be covered in each chapter.  Next, look over the last chapter.  This is the conclusion, which will restate the main arguments of the author and will often contextualize these arguments in a broader context, suggest next steps, or speculate solutions or alternatives.

Remember, you are not really expected to read every single word of the book; your mandate is to understand the author’s main ideas, arguments, and be able to articulate why this discussion matters.

Take (detailed, specific) notes as you read.

Develop a system of your own whether it is sticking a post-it note in the book and jotting something down, or opening up RefWorks or Zotero, or Word and throwing some notes down as you read.  Whatever you do, remember that future you will have NO IDEA what present you is thinking, no matter how brilliant a thought it is.  Be specific, include detailed citations and pages numbers for direct quotes so you don’t have to chase them later.

Here’s a pro tip from the author: “If you are reading as preparation for a class, make sure you are also jotting down 3-5 questions, observations, or provocations that you can use in class for participation.”

From Dr. Raul Pacheco (if you don’t follow him on Twitter or read his blog, you should. He is a wealth of information.):

 I do take notes off of my readings, and I use them as writing prompts.

The method I use to write my synthetic notes is very similar to a shorter memorandum (I’ve written about how to write extensive and detailed memoranda here, but for synthetic notes, I am looking at less than a page, almost like a rhetorical precis). There’s a number of good resources on how to write critiques of journal articles and book chapters, and how to summarize them, but here is my own method.

  • I start by copying the citation (already formatted) from Mendeley on to an empty page (either electronic or in my Everything Notebook).
  • I then proceed with basic AIC content extraction (Abstract, Introduction, Conclusion). When I extract content using AIC, I don’t overlook the methods nor the data analysis, I simply summarize them, VERY, VERY BRIEFLY. I don’t type the headings “Abstract”, “Introduction”, nor “Conclusion”. I simply write a couple of paragraphs summarizing all the insights I gained from these. Since I’m very analog, I usually highlight those insights, or I scribble on the sides of the printed reading material.
  • I run through the middle of the paper rapidly (this technique is also known as skimming), and if I find something that catches my attention but I don’t have the time to delve in depth, I attach a Post-It adhesive note that protrudes ever so lightly off of the side of the page. That way, I know that I need to go back to that paper.
  • Since I learn better when I transcribe notes, I often copy verbatim my analog (in paper) synthetic notes off of my Everything Notebook into a digital file (usually in Micro$oft Word). I save the file with a brief summary of the article’s title, usually SN which is shorthand for synthetic notes.
  • I save all my synthetic notes into a folder, which is usually different from the folder where I have detailed memorandums. You should note that if you expand your synthetic notes, you may be able to easily create a very detailed memo. I don’t usually overwrite the synthetic note file, but I make a copy and use that document to expand into a memorandum.


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