First, read 2,000 papers, then begin your Ph.D. research

Every now and then we get an inadvertent and surprising piece of advice. For my husband, David Queller, advice that stuck came back when he was an undergraduate at the University of Illinois and had last week’s seminar speaker, Doug Schemske, as a teaching assistant in a biology course. Doug mentioned that he was slow to begin research as a graduate student because he first had to read the 2,000 or so important papers in his chosen field.

Two thousand! That is a lot! It would certainly take a year. How would you read so many papers “mit verstand” (with understanding) as my father would say? How would you catalogue them, or would you? Could you really focus on reading such a glorious abundance of papers without taking up a net or a microscope and digging in yourself?

I suppose this is an area where people differ, with some preferring to dig into a project, perhaps suggested by an advisor, then doing the matching reading. The subsequent projects would be increasingly independent. All would be accompanied by reading, reading, reading. Others would just prefer to do the reading first, then begin the projects. I don’t suppose that would fit very well with our department’s 3 to 6 month rotation system.

Reading the literature puts our own work in context. It makes us humble, for so much excellent work is out there and we ignore it to our scientific peril. It is hard to read critically. It takes several times. I like to internalize the paper, think about the figures, and what the null models are. What might have been shown that is not shown? What different angles can be taken? How does this paper differ from a set of similar approaches to a question?

Discovering cool papers and reading them is a crucial early step to scientific independence. I love it when I see that patient, slightly exasperated expression on the face of one of my students. They have read something I haven’t, allowing them to see a weakness in an argument I’m making. This means they are working hard towards autonomy, understanding that knowing what has been done before is essential information.

I barely remember those days where reading could be the main activity. They began for me as an undergraduate in Richard D. Alexander‘s group at the University of Michigan. We were in the museum, and there were little libraries throughout. My last year there Dick and I met once a week, Friday morning. Then there were the days at the University of Texas where Don Feener had always read more than we had and had a knack for picking the most important papers out of the new journals that lined the mezzanine of the zoology library in Patterson Labs. All that reading formed me, gave me insights into questions I still study, though in different ways, with different organisms.

What should grad students read today? Everything they can get their hands on related to their specific project is a start. But they should read farther than that. Sign up for email prompts for tables of contents in the main journals. Browse the titles, then read a few papers that have nothing to do with your research. Get some breadth. It could pay off with unintended consequences. And it will help you along the Schemske path, 2,000 papers at a time.


Doug Schemske, with Xiangjun Tian and Pu Huang.

About Joan E. Strassmann

Evolutionary biologist, studies social behavior in insects & microbes, interested in education, travel, birds, tropics, nature, food; biology professor at Washington University in St. Louis
This entry was posted in Follow a scientist, Managing an academic career. Bookmark the permalink.

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