I'll preface by saying I honestly have a load of anxiety associated with this by now, such that it detracts from reading.

I have never been a note-taker (only taking them when forced to by teachers, specific things such as formulas, as outlines of topics in preparation to guessable exam questions, or as a bullet-point list of what I am going to say – on the document that I am writing). Going into the third year of my undergraduate, I began to feel: ‘Well OK, now I need notes, because I am reading a lot of papers.’ A lot of time passes, and I am falling behind. I speak with the study skills folks about my concerns, they offer me some tips about summarizing and stuff, most of which I already put into practice, and their conclusion was that I was probably just anxious.

However, I kept falling behind, despite putting in more hours than most of my peers. It is apparent to me that I do not know how to take notes – possibly because I do not know how to use them.

Most of my notes essentially end up as paraphrasing. While I can then go through and summarize, I always feel this is an aimless activity, that doesn't really aid my understanding. In one case, I have literally more pages of typed notes than I the article has (25 pages of notes for a 22-page article), and certainly my handwritten notes are similar, and are often just lines and lines of prose summaries of paragraphs. (I can comment with examples of both typed and written notes if it'll help clarify.)

This leads me to ask for thoughts: How can I rectify this moving forward? It's gotten to the point where my academic future literally seems to hinge on this silly issue, because it takes me so long to make notes on content that I fall behind, all the while feeling that I am struggling to understand, etc. (Before, in the previous years, I just did a lot of reading, often wider and more extensively than most of my immediate peers, and it lead to positive interaction where people came to me with questions; now, I have really had all confidence shattered, I feel I cannot understand the papers I have spent a lot of time making notes on, even if in principle I do understand them as shown by my ability to answer questions on them. I even have pages of notes on how to make notes, and I certainly feel like I don't understand that.

Is note-taking an essential skill? Would it develop naturally if I 'needed' it? I can't help but wonder if I would find it developing as and when I needed it, without the thought and the stress, and the failing, but it is very clear that, because I never developed these skills, I really have no clue. At this point, I certainly feel as if I would probably understand more of my field at this point if I relied only of reading, because we are talking about days a week to make notes on single papers, and, again, I have not found single-two page summaries of the papers (as many prescribe with several questions about them) to be useful.

  • 3
    It would help a lot if I knew which field you are in. Commented May 9, 2019 at 8:32
  • 1
    For starters, try reading papers with a clear question in mind and only note that which is directly relevant to this question. Commented May 9, 2019 at 9:14
  • @FoldedChromatin I am in linguistics, and had intended to continue to study it at a higher level, or switch to a closely related field. Before I became too busy failing my course, I was very interested in a number of 'adjacent' fields and have read a deal of academic literature in them.
    – aspen
    Commented May 9, 2019 at 13:35
  • @henning I'll admit I have trouble with this unless I am critically going through methodology/results/assumptions/conclusions. Part of this is a lack of background info.I feel I 'read' mostly for the sake of learning, whereas when critically responding, I feel I am putting that learning into use. I can read a paper and very readily pick up on theoretical issues - they fail to motivate x, y methodological problem, but these would go into notes I would be making 'for a review' rather than 'for myself,' and it's this that I am unsure of, possibly because each paper forms part of a wider discourse
    – aspen
    Commented May 9, 2019 at 13:42
  • Sorry for the run-on replies: I have little issue with notetaking from textbooks, and much less issue taking notes from studies that explicitly define their terms and so forth (as they should be doing, but many fail to). But the feeling I get with most papers is the same I would get if I were presented with one of those old-school 'History' monographs, like the 'Oxford Histories of' - it is hard to parse. I can generally answer 'critically framed' questions about papers as well as being reasonably capable of responding to issues I do understand, but 'notes' don't seem intrinsic here.
    – aspen
    Commented May 9, 2019 at 13:54

1 Answer 1


I work in the field of biological sciences, specifically computational biology and am a newly graduated PhD. I say this, because I may make statements which are field specific.

Is note-taking an essential skill?

Partly no. While I do not consider note-taking to be an essential skill (because I have never been able to take good notes), now I lend much higher import to organisational skills and tools for the job.

For example, I have never been much of a note taker, but I have good contextual memory. So for most of my PhD, I invested in a reference manager, where I can quickly access my papers. I read papers end-to-end in the beginning because everything was very new at the time. But, for the better part of my PhD I have never read a paper end-to-end, I start from 1 paper and within the next 2 hours, I will have skimmed through another 5.

Afterwards, for the rest of the day(s) I will keep on thinking about what I had read, what it means, how does it conflict or fit with previous literature and how it relates to my work. These are all my mental notes.

If I need to go back to the paper, I can open up the reference manager and I can locate the paper to read the paragraphs of interest once again. There are many cases where I may not remember the author, title or journal and year of the paper (rarely happens). In such cases, I fallback on other papers which cited the paper of interest and which I may have happened across the same time.

Would it develop naturally if I 'needed' it?

In my experience, my current process works the best for me. Note taking did not help me when I needed it (under-grad, masters). But, the above process which I developed during my masters works the best for me. The only time I take notes, is when I need to visualise some ideas. Even then, they are not notes, but rather abstract drawings.

How can I rectify this moving forward? It's gotten to the point where my academic future literally seems to hinge on this silly issue, because it takes me so long to make notes on content that I fall behind, all the while feeling that I am struggling to understand

I would suggest that you make your peace with the idea that you (like me) cannot suitably apply note-taking procedures that have been developed by other people. Once you do this, you can try to tailor a procedure that works best for you. This should also help you boost your confidence. This, I think is key towards increasing your productivity.

  • Thanks for this. I think by now I am making notes for the sake of it. My general method has been to literally summarise each and every paragraph. At this point, I don't really know if this is actually (in)effective, and I have just been too low-functioning to put the hours in, or if it is most definitely ineffective, and that I should just go back to what flows naturally. I think I'm just anxiety-ridden, and want to get back into enjoying research literature rather than bashing my head into a wall. The hours I do put in seem to give little result, and it is hard to think clearly when anxious.
    – aspen
    Commented May 10, 2019 at 13:28

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