The Sassy Scientist – Back to Basics

The Sassy Scientist – Back to Basics

We’ve spent a lot of time in the past talking about imposter syndrome, coping with the stresses of academic life and how to make sure you’re looking after yourself. Today though, it’s time for a little practical advice. As a new PhD researcher, Felix has been feeling like he’s been thrown in the deep end and is desperately trying to catch up. However, he feels like it is taking him considerably longer to read papers than his peers, which is why he has asked:

What is the best way to read a paper?

Dear Felix,

You’ve managed to bag yourself a PhD without knowing how to read a paper?! That is truly impressive, and you’re clearly doing a lot better in some regards than you might think.

The key to reading a paper is to not actually read all of the paper. Now this might seem a little counterintuitive, but I assure you that any speed reader will give the same advice. I’m assuming you’re feeling somewhat like you’re a tractor on the motorway, constantly being overtaken, because you can’t keep up with the literature. What you don’t realise is that while you’re reading a paper from start to finish in its entirety, everyone else is reading the abstract, conclusions and maybe the method if it seems relevant. Papers are kind of like children, they matter a lot more to the people who birthed them i.e. when you meet up (read the paper) you don’t need to know every minute detail of their life, you just want the highlights.

Control-F is your friend. Save the environment, don’t print and only use the digital PDFs. This too will save you loads of time as you can skip to all the parts that mention your study area and not have to wade through pages of boring interpretations of how the method has been applied to somewhere else in the world. Because there is definitely no benefit to drawing comparisons with other areas or broadening your general geological knowledge.

Lastly – confidence is key. Everyone is always fibbing about how much they’ve read. When your supervisor asks “Have you read X?” the answer is “Yes”. Bluff your way through the conversation, don’t admit you haven’t read it and move that paper to the top of your list.

Yours truly

The Sassy Scientist

PS: I think it was definitely aimed at scientists struggling with reading papers when AJR sang “Can we skip to the good part?”

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I am currently employed at a first tier research institute where I am continuously working with the greatest minds to further our understanding of the solid Earth system. Whether it is mantle or lithosphere structure and dynamics, solid Earth rheology parameters, earthquake processes, integrating observations with model predictions or inversions: you have read a paper of mine. Even if you are working on a topic I haven’t mentioned here, I still know everything about it. Do you have any problems in your research career? I have already experienced them. Do you struggle with your work-life balance? Been there, done that. Nowadays, I have only one hobby: helping you out by answering the most poignant questions in geodynamics, research and life. I am waiting for you right here. Get inspired.

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