Reading Papers - Iterative Process

Hi guys, I would like to ask for your input on something.

I recently left a Ph.D. program because I hated every single aspect of the experience and while reading the papers my anxiety went through the roof because even though I understood the words when they were put together I felt completely lost.

I am going to apply to two programs at the end of the year and I have been reading some papers from the faculty of both programs. While the papers from program A go down smoothly and make me feel like “I can write something like this…”, the papers from program B make me feel very similar to the one I just left even though I deeply care about the topic.

Although, today I was reading one theoretical paper about one topic, was unable to go through it because I wasn’t understanding, took a few hours to breathe a little and started reading a “basic” empirical one about the same topic that explained some basic concepts that helped me understanding somethings the first paper was talking about.

My question is: I have been watching videos on YouTube saying that reading scientific papers is an interactive process. I always thought that this was the scenario because each time you read, you learn and absorb something new (not meaning you didn’t understand it). Is this iterative process more related to this absorption thing I just mentioned or is it related to understanding new things I mentioned first? Or is it both?

Because damn… It is frustrating reading something you are supposed to understand and you just aren’t. And I know what the words mean but when they are put together to express something, it seems things just go off rails.

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I surely feel the frustration you are experiencing.

I would argue that some papers from topic A might be difficult to understand and absorb as well. If so, maybe it is not only entirely the topic per se to be the cause of your frustration: it might depend on the authors, the style, the kind of paper (if review, or new discoveries…).

Personally, as first month PhD student, I find frustrating studying the literature. However, I think (i hope) it is kind of normal and everyone experience that. Maybe it is all about keeping doing it, until the matter is more understood, until there are enough “connections” inside your brain to make the reading ease.

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@AleLampis thank you very much for your input!! It is good to know that I am not alone in this fight!! :fist:

Putting in a few words what you just wrote, your approach is “Trust the process”. I can not tell you how much I hate this. In my opinion, a process is an inanimate thing that will work according to its design. Following your and my experience, how the f@ck am I going to trust something that makes me feel miserable, frustrated, and with imposter syndrome?! I will trust people who are able to see that something is not working, aka this very same process, and do something to improve such process or at least really help others coping with this. Not the process.

I agree with you about some papers from topic A might be difficult. My sample is the papers from the faculty of the universities I want to apply to at the end of this year. And from what I have been reading over the last months, many papers assume we know about every method and vocabulary they are talking about, but the papers from one of the universities actually cared to give a brief explanation on the most complicated topics. And they did that with one or two sentences so, it’s not an impossible thing to do.

Anyway, thank you for sharing your experience! It is good to know I am not alone in this boat and please forgive me for ranting over this. :sweat:

In a certain way, I trust the process. Not blindly, but from previous experiences and some advices I received (also from my supervisors). Still, sometimes it makes me feel exactly as you said: miserable, frustrated, etc…

Still, what if keep going studying the literature, even if frustrating, will bring you to satisfaction? Maybe you realize it only when you need it (design the research question, find what is missing…). There is no way to avoid it, and I believe there is no research without studying the literature.

It would be nice to understand if the majority of people just felt (or are felling) this bummer when studying the literature. It might be a relief for me!

Hi! I am also a new Ph.D. student here. And you are certainly not alone.

The first few months into the program, I felt very sleepy (sorry to say this) reading the literature. I guess part of the reason is that I am not quite familiar with the subject.

What my professor had done completely put me on a different end. I had to choose a paper and give criticism within a certain timeline (1-2 weeks), and it taught me how to quickly skim and get the idea of the paper before delving deeply into finding possible flaws. Do not get me wrong, as not a single paper is perfect. It is the process and the pressure that has helped me get through it. Perhaps as you are studying on your own, the pressure may not be as present as having someone pushing you continuously.
Up until now, I still find myself clueless about an article, but it’s getting easier to read than before. I asked a few other friends who are in the final years of their Ph.D. They also agreed that reading is not entirely easy. I function better in the evening. The biological clock can make a difference when you start reading as well, so you can try different timeframes to see what fits.

Hope the frustration while reading will be replaced by fun and curiosity. All the best!


I totally relate. I read the words and I know each and everyone of them, same with the sentence and paragraph, and then … blank! But I know, no I don’t understand, but I do know, and so goes the inner chatter back-and-forth. So strange it’s there in the back of my head and I feel like I want to shove it towards the front of my brain and then I’ll have it. I have found that you cannot rush deep thinking. I sometimes am frustrated at myself for not doing more writing or reading, but I’m thinking and I have not even been aware that’s what I’m doing. In the mean time I try and do simple tasks, update journal, attend online training workshops, work on thesis layout until I can write. This way I don’t beat myself up for wasting time, I’m not wasting I’m processing. I’ve also been baking heaps! Stress makes me bake, the other day my husband said, “you bake because it’s within your control”. So true and I never before knew that’s what I do, plus I’m good at baking whereas I’m not so sure of my academic ability haha.

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