I am a 2nd year PhD student working on a project which involves control systems and power systems. For the next stage of my work, I have to learn about a control systems technique which I am not familiar with. It involves advanced mathematics and control systems concepts. So I picked the most well-known book in that area and started going through it. However, when I was at the middle and I could not understand a certain concept which the book assumes that the reader is familiar with, I searched for some other references and ended up finding the 'best' references: lecture notes from top universities, video lectures, other books. However, at the end I am struggling to decide upon what to read, what not to read and the references which I am going to pick to learn the content which I need. Simply speaking I am overloaded with reference texts and struggling to make a judgement.

Having faced such a problem, in general, what would be the advice you could give to avoid getting 'lost' in trying to follow all the references ? How can I be selective and proceed with a single references and finish learning what is required.


2 Answers 2


It sounds like you have two (related) questions, I will try to answer both:

  • how to not get too distracted by references to other sources?
  • how to pick the best reference to read?

If your goal is to finish a certain book, but you get "distracted" by following references, you have to choose: (1) go back to the book as soon as you learned what is necessary to continue, or (2) decide that your new goal is to "learn about subject X" and that following more references helps you achieve this goal.

It is perfectly normal to find, follow and read references while studying (in fact, this is pretty much the definition of studying). If you have no specific learning goal in mind, you should either set such a goal, or just keep reading what interests you most.

If you have no good reason to pick any reference over the other: just pick one and start reading. It sounds like you want to pick "the best" reference, but what is "best" depends on your prior knowledge, your goal, and your personal preferences.

Of course the "best" reference also depends on its quality, but the problem here is that you need to read it first in order to assess the quality. There are not many people who have read all the text books, and even if you find one their preferences may differ from yours, and the order in which they have read them may affect their judgement: You can ask your supervisor to recommend good reference texts, but do not be afraid to ignore the advice.

Finally, it sounds to me as if you are being too perfectionist looking for the "perfect" reference (which does not exist, see above). So just pick one that looks interesting and start reading, but do not be afraid to switch if this reference turns out to be unsuitable (too hard, to easy, badly written, etc.) Also, reading more texts on the same subject will often deepen your understanding, and in addition repetition is known to improve memory.


When I am digging into a new body of literature or a new concept for the first time, I like to create a list to stay organized. I generally create some sort of reference tracker where I write the title, author(s), reference type, a link to the resource, and some summary. I use a spreadsheet (excel, google sheets, notion) to track all of this. This helps me keep track of all of the references I've come across that I want to read---especially if they come up in multiple places (when that does happen, it helps me identify a resource I think I should be reading, because it's being cited often).

When it comes to evaluating the reference to use, that is going to be based on your learning style. In the past, I often just pick something to start with and see if it works. Does this reference or resource answer my question or help me have a better idea of what I'm trying to learn? If it isn't, I move on to the next reference and try again. It's a time consuming process, but it will help you in the future when you have to do this again. You will have learned what types of resources suit you, your needs, and your learning style best.

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