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Reading for Graduate School

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Many new graduate students find themselves assigned much more reading than they ever had to do in their previous schooling. In some fields, the amount might be similar, but the type and difficulty may increase significantly. One of the best ways to be successful in graduate school, both in terms of doing well in coursework and in terms of preparing yourself to be a scholar, is to learn to read strategically.

Reading for Classes

When you read for your classes, your professors may assign you more reading than they actually expect you to complete, at least word-for-word. Typically this will include both material from textbooks or scholarly monographs and articles from scholarly journals. In American academic contexts, these texts are usually organized in a fairly consistent structure, with the main ideas frontloaded in the introduction and backloaded in the conclusion. Rather than expecting you to read the entire article cover to cover, for instance, most professors read articles by reading the abstract and introduction, reading the discussion, and then looking for important information in the middle sections (literature review, methods, results). This may vary somewhat by field, but in general scholars do not read texts linearly; instead, they read strategically, looking first for main ideas and then looking for information that would support or refute those main ideas in the middle sections. You can use these same strategies when you read texts for coursework, so that you can cover more ground in a reasonable time and so that you can glean the most out of the texts as you take notes in preparation for class.

Part of doing reading for class is gaining an understanding of the scholarly conversations in your field. One strategy you can use to make this easier for yourself is to make a list, database, or other chart that tracks the source of the readings (are they monographs from a particular press, are they articles from a particular journal or set of journals?) and the common sources in the bibliographies (which authors and texts appear regularly?). Over time, this information will help you find the journals and presses you like to read from, and will help give you an idea of which texts and authors are foundational for your field or research area (and which you therefore need to perhaps read more carefully). This is not to say that texts from other authors, journals, or presses are not valuable; it can be just as revealing to ask yourself why these common publication venues and authors are so often used, and what gaps in the literature are not addressed by these common texts.

Reading for Research

Becoming a scholar in a particular field usually means having a good grasp of the literature in the field. You don't need to read every journal, but scholars typically keep abreast of new research and know older research well in the areas where they work, plus adjacent areas that might speak to their work. For instance, a scholar in Technical and Professional Communication who researches rhetoric and communication in engineering settings might read titles and abstracts in the major journals in their field, but only read articles that have to do with engineering, engineering education, and workplace communication.

Reading for research follows a similar process to the strategic reading you might do for class (described above), but goes deeper on texts that are useful for your research topics. You might also write on these texts after reading in a more detailed way than your typical note-taking process; for texts that you might cite in your work, writing a short annotated bibliography entry may be more helpful for you later on than a set of notes.

One key strategy in reading for research is to identify what specifically about the text is useful for you. Is it the topic? The research questions? The approach, the methods? You can then focus your reading, note-taking, and writing more heavily in those areas.

It's also a good idea to start using a citation manager early and often when you read for research. A good citation management software can help you organize your resources, more easily find sources you already read and need to retrieve, and even track your own publications for easy retrieval.

Reading for Genre Mastery

Learning to write in the various genres required in graduate school and in academia often involves a great deal of reading examples. It's important to analyze examples systematically so that you can quickly understand what a genre asks you to do. Some key features to look for include:

  • Sections/Organization — how is the document broken up? What goes in each area? 
  • Rhetorical Moves — how does the author understand their audience, purpose, and context? What strategies do they use?
  • Paragraphing — how long is the typical paragraph? What information do most paragraphs contain and how are they organized?
  • Style — what does a typical sentence look like? What is the language and vocabulary like? 

The OWL has a vidcast and several handouts to help with genre analysis and reverse outlining here.