To all the junior grad students out there

For the love all you hold dear and sacred in the world, KEEP UP WITH THE LITERATURE.

There are many good reasons for keeping up with the literature, but the one that concerns me right now is that if you don’t, then when you get to the point where you are writing the literature review for your thesis, you are going to be in hell.

Ask me how I know.

If I have to read just one more paper on this particular topic in my field I am going to run through the lab shrieking and pulling my hair out and talking to little blue aliens so that they’ll lock me up in a psych ward where I won’t have to look at journal articles at all (although, with my luck some well-meaning lab mate will bring me papers to read so I can keep busy).

I really and truly wish I could go back in time and pull aside my younger self and say, “Dude, I know you hate reading journal articles because they are dry and inevitably bore the hell out of you but in addition to being critical to your development as a scientist and giving you insight into your own research and inspiring you to be creative as a scientist it is important for you read these papers NOW because you are definitely going to have to read these papers SOMEDAY and if you don’t do it now, one day will be sitting at your desk with piles and piles of papers sitting around you while you search for a different color of highlighter just so you can have a little bit of variety and you will be wondering how many trees you are going to have to plant in order to offset the amount of paper you have used to  print papers in the last couple of weeks.  It will not be pretty.  It will, in fact, be ghastly and you will wander around the lab moaning about how you should have been reading these papers all along until your lab mates want to strangle you.”

[I would also like to go back in time and tell myself, “Hey, you know that negative control for that yeast two-hybrid experiment that you don’t think you need to do because you’ve essentially done the same thing by having two known proteins that don’t interact?  Yeah, do the control.  Trust me.”]

So, in conclusion, I am in a hell of my own devising.  One that has descended upon me because I was a bad, bad grad student and didn’t keep up with the literature.  Don’t be like me.  Save yourself the pain and agony of having to read all of those papers all at once.  Also, take notes.  Because one day you’re going to try to remember which bit of information was in which paper so that you can cite it properly.

Now, if you will excuse me, I need to try to find my green highlighter.  I know I left it around here somewhere.

14 thoughts on “To all the junior grad students out there

  1. I am totally in the same position as you, although I thought I was actually keeping up with my reading so I thought I would just say that it doesn’t matter if you *did* do the reading, if you didn’t take good notes on it…for myself, I wish I had made a little note with each expt which papers were relevant to it. Because I *know* now that I did certain experiments because I read a paper and so-and-so saw such-and-such but damned if I can remember their name….

  2. This is a great post. I had a very organized friend in grad school and she had a special notebook where she wrote all the key information about each manuscripts she read. I thought wow she is way organized. I wonder if she still went through the same lit hell in writing her dissertation.

  3. I just went through this when trying to write a paper – and since I want to write my thesis in the next few months, it was a good lesson to learn.

    Thankfully, my PhD qualifying exam was based on 30 selected papers in my field – so I was forced to read those early on! If it wasn’t for that, I’d be even worse off than now :S

  4. Amen! I just finished the first half of my thesis, and it was painful. Write one sentence. Go look up paper that supports that sentence, READ the paper, note appropriate citing information, file away. Rinse, repeat. Woohoo! Two sentences!

    Definitely going to keep up better for my PhD thesis in a few years.

  5. For my undergrad thesis I kept a notebook where I wrote a summary of each paper I read and what their key results were. That worked ok for 50 articles, but what is a good method for hundreds of articles? A spreadsheet, a relational database, a bibliography program?

  6. I am in the same situation. I want to get a Mac for my next computer because there’s this program called “Papers” which helps you take notes on every PDF you have to read, and put keywords and such so you can, you know, find it again amidst all the other PDFs when you need it. Lit review. Ugh.

  7. i was in that hell during my master’s thesis, not because i didn’t read (oh i did, piles and piles of papers!) but i didn’t take notes on them. now i go thru, highlight/underline/whatever, then on the backs of the refs pages, summarize the important points, key results and CITE THE PAGE NUMBER! also, if there’s a relevant ref cited that i don’t have, i’ll note that too. in the body of the paper, i also keep margin notes, like remember this for X experiment. that’s easier than writing it all out on the back sometimes.

    just in case you’re wondering, i switched fields from master’s to ph.d so i’m a junior grad in a different field with different piles of papers to read 🙂

  8. I second Papers – that’s what I use now and it’s beautiful.

    Works like iTunes, I can create different folders for different topics. And, put papers in more than one folder without duplicating said paper.

    And, I can take notes and write key words on each paper that are searchable later.

  9. Good post! Thanks a lot.
    I am finishing my master and I suffered a lot also!
    Could someone share their view on how to take note for papers and how to organize them
    I am going to start my PhD, I don’t want to go thru hell again…

  10. I feel your pain. I suffered through that hell for my thesis proposal, and I never want to do it again. To that end, I have created a “thesis bible”. It’s a huge notebook (I started out with a one subject, and now it’s 5), with sections for each aspect of my thesis, such as “5-ht2A and GABA interations”, 5-HT2A and glutamate interactions”, etc. Then, for every paper I read, I take the tidbits I get out of them and put them in the bible, trying to get it down to one line. In the margin, I cite chapter and verse, with the first author and the year. This means that, when I’m writing on any one subject, I turn to a given page, and just go. Works REALLY well to keep stuff organized. Though if you do this in hardcopy (like I do), you will want to make sure you have a scanned copy of it as well. Just in case.

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