Why is reading so hard?


One of the things that comes with being a grad student/scientist/engineer/etc. is that there is a TON of reading to do.  Sometimes it’s for classes, or for keeping on top of your field, or for writing the intro or background section of your thesis/paper/report/application.  And you’re not just reading for fun.  You’re reading to:

  • understand what you’re reading (okay, duh)
  • figure out how it fits in with other research
  • figure out how it fits in with your research
  • be able to explain it your own words
  • remember it later, when it inevitably becomes relevant to you again (tougher than it sounds)

I’m constantly struggling with how to do all of these things effectively, and have yet to figure out the secret, the magic bullet, the holy grail of academic journal reading.  Here are some disparate theories or thoughts that I’ve cobbled together on the subject of reading.

Writing is key

I guess different people have different learning styles:  some people are auditory learners, visual learners or tactile learners (to name a few).  I think I would fall into the category of a writing, or possibly speaking, learner.  I’ve found that if I just read and highlight the crap out of a paper, I may  think I understand it at the time, but start losing it immediately after finishing it.  It’s really annoying.  I want to just sit in my comfy chair with a highlighter in one hand, and a cup of coffee beside me.  I want it to be fun and painless.  Like watching a movie… about science… with a ton of equations… ugh.  Okay, after trying and failing the “relaxing” method too many times, I’ve finally admitted to myself that I am just wasting my time.  If I don’t invest a bit more effort into typing my little synopsis as I go, then I am going to just have to go back and re-read it anyway.  Which is an even bigger pain.

Figuring out the figures

This is a tip that has pretty much been pounded into my head since starting grad school. (curiously, I don’t remember anyone telling me this in undergrad – maybe we didn’t read many papers back then?)  Understand the figures.  In fact, go through the paper and try to understand the figures before tackling the text.

Non-linear reading

This one kind of goes with figuring out the figures.  Most people I’ve talked to do not recommend reading a paper straight through.  Read the title (obvs!), the abstract, the intro, and the conclusion to get the gist of what the paper is about.  That sort of “primes” your brain for what to look for in the paper.  Additionally, I think it’s a good idea to scan the section titles so you know the structure of the paper before reading it.  And the great thing is, depending on what you need that paper for, you might be able to get by with just reading the intro and conclusion, and looking at the figures.  Although knowing when that’s enough can be tricky.

BFM (brute force method)

As time goes on, and as I read more papers on fin whale acoustics, I’ve found that they do get easier.  I mean, incrementally.  It still takes me a minimum of two or three hours to go through a paper carefully (and often more), but I find that I get more out of it now than I used to.  Here’s the caveat though:  this is only true for baleen whale acoustics.  Once I veer away from that very specific topic, the difficulty level rises again.  I think that I really get the most out of papers where I recognize a lot of what they’re saying from other papers.  Not that it’s a big revelation, really, I think it’s basic learning theory:  if you’ve built up a sort of “architecture” about a subject, then you’re not re-learning whole body of knowledge when you read about a related topic.  You’re actually just incrementally adding to what you already know.  Not to mention you’re learning the jargon as you go – those words and phrases that are short-cuts for people in the field, but completely confusing to those that are not.

So what?  Well, I think it really means that there really is no magic bullet, at least for me.  I just have to slog through a certain number of papers until I get the gist of the subject matter.  And I have to write notes about what I’m reading.

I’m curious as to whether others have similar experiences…  although I suspect some lucky folks can skip the writing/summarizing altogether and just read it and get it.  And if that’s you:  please tell me your secret!



2 thoughts on “Why is reading so hard?

  1. Hmmmm, I remember this difficulty with my PhD work. I read and read and re-read and re-read a lot. I would pick up a paper and give it a go and put it down frustrated but then come back to it a few weeks (months?) later and it would make a bit more sense.

    The way I look at it is you’re trying to read a text book on the very specific subject matter that you’re working on but you’re having to cobble together the textbook from bits and pieces of information. Once you do a preliminary pass over the bulk of the material, you’ll invariably have to go back and revisit stuff. Imagine the neural network growing in your brain. You have to keep feeding it the information over and over, often times from different points of view from different papers, and then one day….it clicks!

    Keep reading. Do whatever it takes to help your brain synthesize the information and be aware that you’ll have to re-read stuff. It will click. If it doesn’t, then try hitting some text books on the fundamentals that you’re missing out on.

    1. Thanks, Jonathan! That is really good (and reassuring) advice. I like that idea: thinking of it like I’m growing my neural network. Good to know I’m not the only one who needs to read and re-read!

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