You’re a wide-eyed new grad student. You get to your first day of classes ready to show everyone your brilliance. Then you take a look at the syllabus and gasp. 1 book…per week? You’ve always been a bookworm, it’s why you’re here … but you’re taking THREE classes. That’s three books every week you need to read. How on earth could you keep up with that?
This scene probably hits close to home for everyone who’s ever been in grad school. It sure does for me, since that’s an autobiographical story! There are tons of things you have to adjust to when you enter grad school, and reading effectively is one of them. It’s crucial to not spend all your time doing these class readings, because then you won’t make progress on your own research, writing, and relaxation (yes, you’re allowed to do that in grad school too).
With this post I’ll try and give my best insights on how to navigate the enormous amount of reading that smacks you in the face immediately upon entering, and how to make a meaningful contribution to the classroom discussions.
So how much do you really need to read?
My opinion might not be the one you want to hear, but it’s the only honest answer:
The Bare Bones
I’ll start at the end. What you should know by the time you’ve “finished” a book is the main thesis/argument, 2 or 3 examples proving the thesis, and some main sources that the thesis rests on. Also state clearly if you found that argument convincing or not, and back up why. In my experience, that’s plenty to get you through a class session.
Bonus points if you can point to where this book rests in the literature. For instance, did this author make an innovative argument or is the intervention negligible? But that requires outside knowledge and you don’t really need that for a typical classroom discussion.
So that’s what you need. But the process of getting what you need is not always clear-cut.
I’ve experienced all extremes of this equation. There were times I had all I needed within 10 pages and didn’t read any further. Then there have been times that I read every page of a book and still had no idea what it was about. And naturally there has been everything in between.
But for the most part, if you read effectively, you can go through a book or more in 1 day. So mastering your own reading style will give you the tools to tackle all the grad school reading and still have a life at the same time!
The Classic Advice
In your prep for grad school, you’ve probably heard that a good speed reading practice is carefully reading the book’s introduction and conclusion, then just skimming a few internal chapters. This is sometimes helpful advice, but not always.
This advice depends a lot upon authors cooperating with it. It assumes that the intro and conclusions are written well, or at least written in a way that gives you all the necessary information you need to assess the book. As someone who’s read hundreds (maybe thousands?) of books, I can tell you this is definitely not always the case. Not all introductions concisely lay out the entire argument and supporting evidence, and not all conclusions provide a nice summation of the book’s contents.
The worst is reading a giant book with a poorly-written thesis and tons of meandering chapters, only to get an “Epilogue” that doesn’t really sum up anything. The classic advice will probably leave you more confused than enlightened.
So at best, I’d say you should treat the classic advice like a guideline. Deviate from it when it’s not working.
Start out by giving the intro a read, and see how well things are laid out. If the intro leaves you confused and puzzled on where the book is heading, it’s a good indication that the classic advice won’t work out for you. You’ll have to read more of the book to get the main idea.
Know Your Professor
As Sun Tzu wrote, “If you know your enemy as you know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles.” Of course I’m not advocating viewing your professors as your enemies. But the allusion is still apt. Knowing how to read effectively (at least in a classroom setting) requires knowing your professor as much as knowing the particular book. All professors are different and accordingly focus on different things. Some will ask about historiography; some about sources; some want stories or examples from the book.
When you’ve gotten to know your professors, you can then read with their requirements in mind. If one of your professors really likes bringing up sources, then make sure you have a look at the footnotes. Bring up that the author is using some questionable sources, or perhaps praise the way the author creatively used some sources.
These little tricks will help you get through class even if a book completely mystified you. If you read for what a professor likes, you can still make a meaningful contribution to the discussion.
Pro tip: Getting a knack for understanding what particular professors want will also help you out during comps. Each member of your committee will have different interests and styles, and will therefore ask you different questions. If you get good at reading your professors in your two years or so of classwork before comps, your process will definitely be a lot smoother.
I find that some academics make it seem as if all you need is the main thesis of a book. But it’s not enough to just get the argument and then move on. The content of a book is still important. There’s a reason the author wrote several hundred pages here — those pages were needed to prove the point. So within this book should be numerous examples demonstrating the thesis. In my experience, locking down 2 or 3 of those examples gives you plenty to talk about in class.
So don’t neglect those middle chapters. I know they can seem like a distraction and you just want to stop reading for the day, but the author put them there for a reason. So don’t skip over these sections, just read them effectively. Read them with an eye towards how they support the main thesis (or, on the contrary, how they don’t support the thesis).
Note down these examples as you read, and a few details about them. How are they introduced? Do they support or not support the thesis? What sources support those examples? This is plenty for a class discussion.
Look at the Sources
Speaking of sources, I’ll come clean on this one: I really didn’t follow this advice much during my classwork. I usually felt satisfied enough with just reading the book’s contents.
But you should really consider doing as I say and not as I do here. While I don’t always follow this advice, it can really give you something extra to talk about in the class discussion. If you bring up a questionable source that the author has based their argument on, it can really give a new angle to your discussion. Your professor will probably notice this insightful comment too.
So before throwing that book on the couch and walking away for the night, flip to the endnotes and bibliography. Even a quick skim might give you a few points to bring up in class.
Admit When You’re Confused
Now you could follow all this advice completely and still be utterly lost when you finish a book. You have no idea what the thesis is, the examples are all over the place,and the sources don’t tell you much either. You just don’t know where to begin.
Let me tell you right now: That’s okay.
You’re not stupid, don’t skip class, don’t call your mom and tell her you can’t do it, don’t drop out of grad school (there are times when you should consider quitting, but this isn’t one of them).
It’s almost inevitable that you’ll feel this way at some point (probably many points) in grad school. And it’s also inevitable that your classmates will feel the exact same way too.
So if you find yourself saying “Wtf did I just read?” after closing a book, admit it! During the class discussion, say you were extremely confused and want to try and figure this book out. You might just find that once you admit, others come out and admit it too. You’ll see you’re not alone. Then through the course of the discussion, you can hopefully come to an understanding of what you missed.
And if you don’t understand it at the end, I’ll tell you something else — it probably doesn’t matter. In the long trend of your graduate career not understanding a book won’t make a difference. You’ll probably never see it again. And if it turns out that the big is important for your graduate work, you can revisit it later on when you’re more experienced and probably better-suited to unpacking its argument. That’s also happened to me, and a few books that completely baffled me early on became some of my favorites after I revisited them later on.
Develop Your Own Style
Everything here is just a suggestion. It’s the way I’ve developed over the years to most effectively read quickly. But I wouldn’t pretend my method is perfect. It’s not. It’s just what works for me. Reading style is very personal, and we all develop our own over time.
Whatever advice you use, treat it as a suggestion. Try out different styles and tweak them as you see fit. It only has to work for you.
So when you have a look at your first grad school syllabus and see the amount of reading to do, don’t panic! It’s a lot, yes. It’s true you’ll be spending a ton of time reading during your classwork.
But is is manageable. Try out some tips from others, and eventually develop your own reading style. Once you get to that point, it’ll be much easier to finish a book within a day and have plenty to talk about in class.