This is my first year in grad school. As an undergrad, I was the type of student that always did all the reading required for every class. Now that I’m in grad school, though, my reading load is enormous. I try to do it all, but things still fall through the cracks. How do prioritize my reading so that if something falls through the cracks it is the reading that is not as important to my classes?
Dear Reading Overload,
One thing is for sure: If you hate reading, you will hate graduate school. The readings definitely pile up in graduate school, and the earlier you are in your program, the more reading you are likely to have. This is because you are taking all of your required coursework before completing your thesis and/or dissertation. Unlike undergraduate courses, most graduate courses rely on the honor system for doing the assigned readings. In undergrad, if you don’t do the assigned reading, you may miss a question on an exam. In graduate school, if you don’t do the assigned reading, you may look unprepared to your peers and faculty when you bring nothing to seminar discussions. This will not bode well for you when completing qualifying exams, theses, or dissertations, or when a panel of faculty determines whether you pass or fail.
If you want to know how to prioritize your readings, ask yourself, “What will happen if I don’t read this chapter/article/book/essay?” If you run the risk of getting a poor grade on a quiz, exam, or some other type of evaluation, you should read it. Some graduate programs have a strict policy that if you don’t earn at least a B in your core courses, you are in jeopardy of getting kicked out. If you run the risk of simply looking unprepared and/or non-participatory, you may be able to skim the reading and/or skip it altogether; however, be forewarned that skipping readings may come back to hurt you at a later time because you may lose out on important information related to future projects. You might even be unprepared during a defense when a faculty member throws you a “curve ball” question, or you may leave your faculty and fellow peers with a negative evaluation of you as being one who simply does enough to get by. This won’t be good when you want to ask someone for a favor (e.g., writing a letter of recommendation).
Another well-kept secret in graduate school is how to effectively skim an article. As it turns out, well-written text is relatively easy to skim. To do this, identify the main purpose and supporting arguments. If it’s a research article, you should be able to easily identify the theoretical framework and any variables derived from this framework. Then, try to understand what the author(s) found and how this information adds to the current body of literature. Identifying this information can give you the highlights and prep you with enough information to make some logical deductions, generate some new ideas, and form connections with other bodies of research. If any of it is confusing, you should go back and read through the background information before continuing through your initial scan of the text. Sometimes, extremely dense material cannot be skimmed but should be thoroughly read to be understood.
As long as you understand the consequences of letting a reading slip here or there, you should be okay. Remember that over time, your reading load will lessen a bit because your course load will be lighter. Also, you will become better at reading through things quickly and skimming text for main points. By this point in your graduate career, you will have other problems to deal with, but at least a large reading load won’t be one of them!
–Sara Brady, PhD