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CamGuides: Becoming a Graduate Student

Read smarter, not harder

What I found difficult was the amount of reading you had to do each week. But I soon got the hang of it.

- MPhil Music student, 2018


a student reads a book while sitting at a desk, with bookshelves in the background, and a pen in her handMost graduate courses require you to read a lot of academic texts. These can be challenging, using complex language, and requiring subject knowledge. You will regularly have to keep hold of academic arguments for protracted periods of time, and you will need to read academic texts critically, and make effective notes so that you can reference your work later and ensure you are avoiding plagiarism.

The sheer amount of reading can itself be a challenge for students. There are no shortcuts to read faster, or understand materials more quickly. You can, however, improve your reading speed with practice, and below are some strategies that you can try out to improve your reading techniques.

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Try out different reading strategies to find out what works best for you.

It will be helpful for you to try these out with real examples of academic writing. Search the Directory of Open Access Journals to find articles relevant to you if you want to do this.

Before reading

Consider your purpose: What do you hope to achieve from reading? If you're looking for specific facts, then you might be able to read quickly; if you're hoping to identify parts of an argument you intend to use or refute, then you'll have to read closely.

Look around the text: What can you tell about the text without reading it? Is there an abstract or any other prefatory reading? How long is it? Is the author known to you? How is the text organised and structured? Registering the type of information you're being presented with can help you to start reading with a critical frame of mind.

During reading

Scan and skim the text:

  • Scanning: reading very quickly while looking for particular information or words, focusing your attention on spotting these words or phrases. This is helpful if you want to find something very specific, or if you're unsure about how relevant a text is to you.
  • Skimming: reading to get an overview - exploring how the text is structured and its broad themes, rather than the specific detail.

Close reading: It might be that what you've picked up from scanning and skimming the text is sufficient for your purposes, but in all likelihood you're going to need to read through the text more carefully, and with a critical frame of mind.

Read actively, not passively: as you're reading, ask critical questions of the text. What is the author's argument, and what evidence do they provide? What questions are they answering, and how effective is their answer?

Annotating: As long as it's your own copy, annotate the text with your questions and thoughts. Highlighting or underlining salient points might not always be the most useful tactic; instead, try to be consistent with symbols e.g. always put an asterisk next to a key idea that you'll want to revisit, or a question mark next to something that puzzles you.

After reading

Write a summary: Summarise the salient points of the text you've just read - it'll ensure that you've understood, and might remember it better. Include your response to the text, but make it clear which parts of your notes are your ideas, and which are the author's.

Keep track of bibliographic data: Lastly, make sure you've made a note of exactly what you've read so that you can reference it effectively later.


With thanks to:

#1 and #6 Laura Erel (MPhil Music)

#2 Nicole Tamer (MPhil Linguistics)

#3, #5 and #7 Deepa Iyer (MPhil International Development)

#4 Anya Melkina (MPhil Japanese Studies)

Image credits

CC-BY-SA by @camdiary via University of Cambridge