How (Not) to Screw Up In Grad School

On Reading

reading-1425948Graduate students often find themselves reading a narrowing range of publications. As the saying goes, a PhD student knows more and more about less and less.

This laser-beam-like focus can be fostered by the dynamics of graduate education itself, where the scope of the existing literature in your sub-discipline can be daunting, and new developments arrive at an ever-faster pace. With only so much time in the day, you absolutely must keep on top of the literature specific to your own research—so that is where you concentrate your time and energy.

The unfortunate upshot can be that graduate students sometimes have a hard time staying abreast of broader development in their discipline, in higher education, or even in society more generally.

While this is entirely understandable—and indeed somewhat predictable—it is also something you should consciously work against. Try to read widely. Doing so provides numerous benefits, even if these advantages are not immediately apparent.

Most basically, reading widely makes you more interesting and erudite.

More instrumentally, having read a broad set of works over an extended period of time can play a role when you enter the job market. Hiring committees are undeniably looking to recruit people with a particular subject matter expertise and skill set. However, they are also hiring someone who could be their colleague for decades to come. Job candidates who can casually converse about trends in the discipline, or in society, or in higher education, are inherently more interesting and appealing. Being able to speak in an informed manner about the world outside of your narrow academic niche is part of what makes you a scholar. On the flip side, job candidates who don’t have at least a rudimentary knowledge of developments in the EU, or the refugee situation, or the recent Supreme Court decision, for example, can be seen as narrow or parochial.

Reading outside your particular research area often results in serendipitous discoveries that will inform your specialized research. Don’t be surprised if you stumble across parallel situations and garner new insights from reading about topics you did not initially believe had any connection to your own work.

Reading widely is also tremendously useful in teaching.

It allows you to easily draw upon a range of examples when crafting your lectures and other teaching materials. It fosters a level of ease in those more unscripted moments in the classroom, as you can casually connect impromptu discussions with assorted developments in science, the arts, or society more generally.

At the same time, we do not want to layer on yet more tasks for students who might already feel overloaded. But if you approach this in the right way, reading other material can feel like a welcome break from your normal work. Towards that end you might even think about formally structuring (even scheduling) a reading regime into your weekly or monthly routine. Ideally, this would involve at least three categories of readings.

First, be sure to read works in your field’s dominant scholarly journals. As your research starts to become more focused, it is easy to lose touch with the wider trends in your discipline.

To counter this tendency, pick what you believe to be the top journal in your field, and read an article from the most recent volume every week. It doesn’t matter if that article does not immediately appear connected to your current research interests. The point is to keep attuned to diverse substantive, theoretical, and methodological developments. Doing so will also help you remain conversant with a wider range of individuals in your discipline. You will be surprised by how often you will end up referring to articles you read years ago, which at the time seemed far from your specific interests.

Second, read selections from a major international newspaper, such as the Guardian, Times of India, New York Times, Washington Post, or the like. These are the global trend-setters and some of the only newspapers that still maintain some capacity for investigative journalism. Again, don’t seek out articles on topics about which you already know a great deal, but read more randomly about things that might not seem to have an immediate bearing on your academic interests.

Consciously choosing to read articles written by people who do not share your politics can be a tremendously valuable way to nuance your own views on important topics.

Rather than just reading the articles that arrive as links via Twitter or Facebook, consider actually subscribing to a newspaper.

The articles you are fed on social media have been automatically generated to align with your previous reading and viewing patterns. The cumulative result is that you tend to be exposed to articles that reinforce your existing beliefs and interests. Given that a key aim of your reading regime is to expand your worldview, it is worth actually making your own selections about what to read, rather than letting an algorithm decide what is best for you.

Finally, read publications dealing with higher education, such as the Chronicle of Higher Education, or the Times Higher Education. These magazines are key vehicles for documenting trends in higher education, and also help set the political agenda for universities and colleges.

So don’t just read “10 Steps to PhD Failure,” and the like. Read with an eye towards discerning the key issues in the educational sector. Ask around. Maybe your department already subscribes – or can be persuaded to take out a subscription. Many higher education periodicals will allow you to subscribe to their “top weekly articles” so you can get the titles and descriptions for free at the very least. Some services will email you the “top 10” trending articles from all of these venues each week. For those PhD students who plan on working in the university or college system, it is useful as you set out on your career to have some wider understanding of how these institutions work, the national and international-level debates, and the political pressures facing higher education. If you envision a career in a different sector be sure to read comparable publications focused on those fields.

Being aware of the trends in your discipline, higher education, and society more broadly will ensure that you can converse with your future colleagues and will make you a more well-rounded scholar.

Reading regularly will also ensure you don’t lose touch with the world beyond your own dataset. Graduate students, professors, and professionals more generally must engage with a variety of audiences. Being well read will help you communicate effectively in job interviews, the classroom, in your own media appearances, and in administrative committee meetings. Read regularly, but also read widely.

Image: Oliver Gruener for FreeImages

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This entry was posted on June 14, 2016 by and tagged , .

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