How to decide what (and when) to read?

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In our newest “how can we help you?” thread, a grad student asks:

I’m a grad student working on my dissertation. There is just so much published in my research area and related areas. I always feel overwhelmed and not know exactly which to read first, and feel guilty that I’m not reading faster than I am, and not reading more topics that are written by under-represented scholars. And when I’m reading, I feel guilty about not writing more. How did you, or would you now, decide on what to read? How much did you read per week? How did you balance reading with writing?

These are really excellent questions, though perhaps not for the reasons one might expect. My own sense is that one of the biggest mistakes that grad students and other early-career people do is to spend way too much time reading. It was certainly a mistake that I made…

Early in my career, both during grad school and in my first job, I spent a heck of a lot of time reading books and journals in the search of research ideas–and it was an incredibly unproductive time for me. I hardly drafted anything, let alone publish stuff. I often felt like every good idea or position in a given debate had already been taken by people in the literature. Then, at one point, I remember hearing someone saying that at their elite grad program, some really well known philosopher advised students to think rather than read. This seemed bizarre to me at the time, but honestly, this is more or less how I approach research these days. I mostly come up with new ideas for papers not by reading the literature but simply by reflecting on questions about the world or ideas that spring to mind from daily life that inspire me in one way or another. It’s only after I come up with what seems like a cool idea that I check to see if it’s already been defended in the literature. Sometimes it is, but often enough it’s not!

I think this is one real advantage of the approach. One problem with reading a lot before writing is that, by its very nature, it lands one in the midst of ideas that have usually already been mined by a lot of people…which is precisely what makes it so hard to come up with an original contribution this way. And, to return to the OP’s questions (“How did you balance reading with writing?”), I almost always begin new projects not by reading, but instead by writing. Once I’m reasonably certain that a new idea hasn’t already been defended in the way that I want to defend it, which is usually fairly easy to find by searches on Google, Google Scholar, and PhilPapers, I simply begin writing–and then, while I’m writing, I read any books or articles that might be relevant and worth citing.

In other words, I mostly let writing dictate what I read–and, as luck would have it, it’s a great way to determine what to read and what not to. I will add, however, that I do make a point of reading widely while writing, including more obscure journals and work under-represented scholars, as I think think it’s important to do scholarship like this, rather than to merely cite work from dominant voices in a handful of elite journals. But these are just my tips and experiences. What are yours? I imagine that some readers might think that grad students should read more than people later in their career (which seems right), but again, my experience is that this didn’t work all that well for me or others that I knew in grad school. So, I’m curious to hear what others think!

Originally appeared on The Philosophers’ Cocoon Read More

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