PhDLife. How to stay on top of the literature.

Hello science lovers! Apologies for the short hiatus on the blog for the past two weeks. Lab work got busy, intern life got busy, scicomm life got busy and personal life got busy so the blog had to be put on the back burner for a little while so I didn’t burnout completely. But now I’m back with some more tips about staying on top of the literature during your PhD.


Doing a PhD allows you to answer some unique research questions and trains you to become an expert in whatever your chosen field may be. It is an incredible opportunity that allows you to be the first person in the world to discover something new and push the forefront of scientific knowledge, or the knowledge of ANY research area! But you’re not alone. There will be thousands of other people asking similar questions that together with the work you do create a bigger picture to solve the mysteries of life! But the knowledge that your peers may uncover might be able to tweak the direction that your own research is going in, or perhaps answer that question you’ve been wondering about, or provide that missing piece of the puzzle that fits your hypothesis. While conferences are a good way on top of the most recent advances in your field, they are not always accessible to all researchers. So, another way research is disseminated is through publications.

A study back in 2009 revealed that there were 2.5 million new publications released, and that number seems to be increasing by an average of 3% each year! So that’s a lot of reading. Obviously I don’t need to read all of them, but still reading only the scientific papers that are relevant to my field, or other big science papers that I may be interested in – even that number can be completely overwhelming!

But staying on top of the new publications in your field is a must for any PhD student. Because what if you missed a key idea that is critical to your research? You could have spent months of work and far too much money trying to answer a question that has already been answered, or on something that is a complete waste of time and effort. But the amount of reading you need to do is completely overwhelming, I could easily spent a full week making progress through my ‘To Read’ pile to find that by the end of the week it has only gotten bigger. Regardless of how much time you spend reading – which I don’t do enough of – there will always be more you can read because so many more publications are released that may be relevant to you every single week! So, I thought I would share some top tips for trying to stay on top of this mountain of reading!


Put all those papers you’ve read into a reference manager from the beginning.

When searching through the literature for one particular thing, it is very easy I find to get lost clicking from reference to reference to reference. Then a few weeks or months later, you’ll remember reading something but can’t remember what the publication was. I’ve done this many times before and have never managed to recover that one that I wanted! But if I had used a reference manager like Endnote or Mendeley for example right from the beginning then I could have categorised all the papers I had read which might have made it easier to find again. This also makes it so much easier to write lab reports and theses as all your references are in one place. Plus I am able to keep track of the papers I need to read and what categories they belong to. It’s basically a massive digital filing cabinet for your reading material. And if you don’t have one already. Get one now! I wish I had had one right from the start rather than trying to catch up.


Don’t beat yourself up about not reading.

I’ll let you in on a little secret – I am yet to meet a PhD student who is completely up to date on the literature in their field and hasn’t got a massive pile to read! I don’t think it’s possible to know everything, so there will always be more and more that you can read. So, don’t beat yourselves up about not doing enough reading or not knowing about that new paper that’s just come out. Read as much as you can, but you will never reach that finish line whilst trying to generate data for your thesis and, more importantly, to have a life! But that is completely normal!


Use social media to point out new interesting publications.

Different social media platforms, in my opinion, have different uses for me, my research and science. While I love to use Instagram for a more fun and engaging way of science communication, Twitter is more of a networking and discussion platform. So, I make sure that I follow the relevant journals for my field and any other researchers in similar fields as another way to talk about recent advances. I get links to recent publications in my newsfeed and sometimes you can get into discussions with others that will recommend certain papers that you should read. The scientific community on Twitter I have found to be really helpful and has always opened my eyes to new material, new opportunities and new discoveries, so I think social media is definitely worth a go.


Talk to your supervisor.

A significant proportion of the papers I read are recommendations from my supervisors. Whether it’s something interesting they’ve read and think I will benefit from, or whether it’s a follow up from our discussions about potential mechanisms to explain my results or interesting papers that might help us plan the next experiments I do. I usually get one email a week at least from my supervisors with a paper recommendation. But they can’t help you unless they know what your results are and what your plans are, so I cannot stress enough how important it is to chat with your supervisor about your progress. My supervisors normally get alerts from different journals each week too that show the newest publications, so they will be able to tell you the research that is hot of the press!


Try the 365 day challenge.

I think the problem with the mountain of reading we need to do is that we just don’t have enough time to spend on it. There’s always something else we could be doing in lab or at home. So, the ‘To Read’ piles continue to mount up because we don’t set aside time – something I am definitely guilty of! But perhaps to make us feel like we are making some progress with reading, we need to set aside some time every week or every two weeks – whatever works best for you! But if you really want to break the habit, you could try the 365 day challenge. This involves reading one new paper every day for a year! Something I wanted to do this year, but I gave up a long time ago! Many people are managing to do it though and definitely feel better for doing so! But the bottom line is that you have to make the time to stay on top of the literature.


But what about you? What are your top tips for staying on top of the literature?


Science love.


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5 thoughts on “PhDLife. How to stay on top of the literature.

    1. This is definitely true. Probably the reason I failed so miserably doing it. But 365 is alot. So maybe we should start off with the 104 challenge and read two per week πŸ™‚


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