Reading Strategies for Graduate Students

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I must confess. When I was applying last year to the PhD program and talking with current students, I blew off their comments that “there’s more reading than you can handle.” I thought – my only job will be school. I don’t have a full-time job, so I will be able to focus all on school. In case you can’t see where this is going – boy, was I WRONG! Needless to say, completing the reading for three courses each week takes a lot of time and energy and competes with spending time with my family, upkeep of my house, maintaining sanity by working out, and a barely existent social life. As I mentioned in an earlier post about priorities, I want to think seriously about reading strategies and how graduate students can not only get all of the reading done, but get something out of it also. Here’s what I’ve got thus far.

The Three C’s of Reading: Completion, Comprehension, and Critique


  • Read during any chunk of time that you have available. Don’t just set aside several hours at a time to tackle your book list. Take advantage of a spare 20-30 minutes you have between classes or on the bus, whatever it may be. Resist the urge to check Facebook, Twitter, etc. and the pages that you can get through will add up quickly. 
  • Read sitting upright. This might sound really silly, but it all has to do with where you are reading. If I sat in the Lazyboy to read and put the footrest up, my body was on enough of an angle that I would start to doze off after only 15 minutes of reading. As soon as I moved to the couch, which sits more upright with the footrest out, it made a big difference. I could sit and read all morning without getting tired at all. Same goes for reading in bed: don’t do it. You mix your brain signals up and end up having trouble falling asleep at night or not being able to stay awake to read. Find a spot that becomes your reading spot and stick with it. You’ll train your mind to focus on what you’re doing when you’re sitting there and become more productive. 


  • Takes notes. (Duh!) Lots of notes. This means writing in your books and having a pen available when you are reading. I like to write down key words that summarize/explain a paragraph, and note key ideas at the bottom of a page. This helps a lot for class discussion – when I flip pages, I can easily remember what the section/chapter is about from my notes instead of having to re-read a paragraph. This is also connected to the idea to…
  • Develop your own shorthand. Book margins are small, so there’s not a lot of room to write. This is where your own personal abbreviations come in handy. You can get more ideas into a small space. For example, I will put a star in the margin beside the author’s main claim(s) for the chapters so that I can easily locate them amidst my other notes. I also like to abbreviate “-tion” words with a raised small “n” with a line under it – something my calculus teacher did in college to abbreviate the word “function.” Genius! It not only saves time, but also allows me to put more summarizing/critiquing thoughts on the page.
  • Write down your thoughts after chapters. At the end of each chapter, I like to go to my computer and type down the key ideas that I gleaned from the reading. This allows me to materialize my thoughts and forces me to immediately summarize what I know as a result of reading the chapter. If I’m reading an article, this means that I summarize at the end of large sections. 


  • Connect scholars to one another as you read. Scholarship is an ongoing conversation, and likely if you are reading for one class, many of the writers are essentially having a dialogue with each other. Think about what else you’ve read on the topic and what other scholars might have to say about what you are reading now. This is great food for discussion in class and shows that you can synthesize ideas (and remember things from week to week!).
  • Question what you read. How do these people know what they know? What is the writer’s methodology? Theoretical thrust? Of course, you always want to learn new ideas/findings/theories from a reading, but you also want to objectively question how the writer arrived at these conclusions. 

Of course, these are my personal reading strategies and not something I got out of a textbook or from a Suite101 webpage (ha!). They may not work for everyone, which is why I have a burning question – what do YOU do to accomplish your reading lists, to not only complete the readings, but to comprehend, to critique, and to positively participate in your seminars?

6 thoughts on “Reading Strategies for Graduate Students

  1. My issue right now is taking notes in the books and journal articles I’m reading takes so long, especially for when I’m using a dissertation as a source. Any advice?

  2. Roy – You’re absolutely right. Reading AND taking notes at the same time is time consuming. I would say to read well, though, and have usable material from reading, notes are a must. I try to keep them as short as possible by using my own shorthand – a little star in the text where I see a strong point, a question mark where I disagree, and various other shorthand symbols and abbreviations that help keep the writing to a minimum. Sorry I’m not more help – it’s such a necessary evil!

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