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I'm in my first semester at a Master's level program in mental health counseling, and I have aspirations of perhaps eventually getting my PhD. I'm presently working on a project for a class about PTSD and after about a day of digging, I found a plethora of theoretical models; some of which are older, some of which are newer and have been built off of previous ones. Traumatology is a much larger and more developed field than I had initially thought, and there are numerous complicating issues, one example being the interaction and overlap with dissociative features/disorders and developmental pathways and models.

I'm starting to get overwhelmed by all the connections I'm seeing and all the articles and books I want/have to read in order to do a half way decent job, and it doesn't help that I'm on a time crunch.

I have had this experience in my undergrad a bit, but managed to scrape by with a research paper that didn't end up amounting to much. I was not satisfied with that outcome, and don't want to repeat that in any of my Master's level courses, but I find myself uncertain of what effective research even looks like or what to expect from myself.

I have 3 questions, the first two are iterations of the same question.

  1. How could I orient myself in the literature of any given field without "getting lost" when pursuing a research project, an overview, or even just a rudimentary understanding as the basis for a question in a different field that has some interactions or influences with the one I am investigating?

For instance, perhaps I decide in my PhD to develop a project on topic x and want to include perspectives from fields y and z, which I have a good foundation for but am not intimately familiar with the literature or theoretical models of the fields themselves.

  1. How do I know when I'm trying too hard to understand/give an account for a phenomenon that is not immediately and directly relevant to the topic of my paper?

For instance, if I'm really interested in doing a paper about the relationship between some particular feature of the interactions between pathology A and B, but I get caught in the weeds in trying to understand/explain to the reader competing behavioral models for understanding A and contrasting the cognitive and behavioral models for B.

  1. How do you deal with feeling overwhelmed when doing research?
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Start with well-written review papers. These are designed to do exactly what you ask: to orient a reader to the state of knowledge in some field. If you are working on something multidisciplinary you may need a separate orientation for each discipline if there isn't a good review that already makes the connection for you.

Then, once you are oriented, you can start to dig. Try to discipline yourself towards pursuing a specific goal in your literature search. When you find offshoots, label them as future places to dig but don't start excavating them quite yet.

Other than that, try to stay organized. Organize your thoughts by writing down what you are learning, make concept maps if they help you, or start organizing references into nested bulleted lists. Be open to reorganizing as things develop.


I want to add an addendum concerning your specific field of research. Published science in biology and medicine, and even more so in areas related to mental health/psychiatry/counseling, may contain a lot of conflicting information. These fields deal with some of the most complex systems humans know of, and our core knowledgebase is extremely lacking. If you're used to reading textbook descriptions of "how things are", the actual academic literature is by comparison extraordinarily muddy (this is true of all fields, no doubt, but I think especially the ones I've mentioned). It may help to know to accept this, and to not treat any one paper as Truth. There are competing models and competing hypotheses and competing approaches to treatment because none have yet "won".

Adding from a comment: if you are wondering how to find review papers...

There are some journals that only contain reviews. Some of these are good journals (and since reviews tend to get cited a lot, you can often discover them by their very high impact factors), some are not (these will tend not to be cited much). Some indexes, like PubMed, allow you to filter for only reviews (I don't know how accurate these filters are). Otherwise, adding "review" to a search string will help. You won't get all reviews, but many of the top results will be.

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    are there journals which collect review papers? or is there a way to specifically search for them/find review articles? or is it simply sufficient to type a search string which includes the words "review" into any academic search engine? – Good Ol' Saint Nick Dec 2 '20 at 18:09
  • also, I really appreciate the addendum you added. That's very important to keep in mind. Thanks for the thoughtful response! – Good Ol' Saint Nick Dec 2 '20 at 18:15
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    @NicholasJ All of the above. Yes, there are journals that only contain reviews. Some of these are good journals (and since reviews tend to get cited a lot, you can often discover them by their very high impact factors), some are not (these will tend not to be cited much). Some indexes, like PubMed, allow you to filter for only reviews (I don't know how accurate these filters are). Otherwise, yes, adding "review" to a search string will help. You won't get all reviews, but many of the top results will be. – Bryan Krause Dec 2 '20 at 18:15
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    You can also start with particular individuals, if there happen to be some pillars in your field (an advisor would be a good person to help you identify who these are). These people will often write reviews or book chapters summarizing their work and related work, and their stature in the field makes it likely that others in the area would have also read these. Though, beware that big personalities often come with strong opinions, so don't only read from one author. – Bryan Krause Dec 2 '20 at 18:18
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    @benxyzzy I agree that you can get some information from dates, and certainly help contextualize things that may seem to conflict (especially when we talk of dates separated by decades), but I don't know that I'd recommend using it as a central way to organize things. In my area of research, anyways, people are coming at things from very different bases of knowledge, and sometimes operating quite unaware of each other. Therefore, there is not an orderly progression of knowledge, rather a cluttered free-for-all. – Bryan Krause Dec 2 '20 at 18:27
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The first answer by Bryan Krause is excellent. I only add a few points.

  1. Apart from review papers, also good contemporary papers that are close to what you are interested in can give you some orientation by how they survey the literature in the introduction and maybe in some more specialist parts connected to what you want to work on. This will also give you an idea how much the experts think should be taken into account (note though that often papers are cited that those who cite them have not fully read - maybe they just had a very quick look and have decided that this serves as a reference for a specific issue they want to highlight).
  2. It is important to acknowledge that there may be so much literature that is related in one way or another that the task of reading and understanding all would be too much to ask for everyone. Even the top researchers ignore some stuff, just because they have to, there's too much out there. A good attitude could be to restrict oneself to a well defined small "subproblem" and to consciously take some things for granted that are backed up by good recent literature. It is important to define limitations of the area of interest and to leave some issues out (and rather stick to one position that is taken by some literature even if some others disagree with that), but at the same time to not forget there is more and to remain aware of the limits of the approach you are taking. You don't need to present your material as if you knew everything, you can say things like "there are other approaches but I don't consider them here; they could be topics for further research". Sure, you may miss something important, but with a modest enough way of presenting/writing, whenever somebody makes you aware of what could be beneficial to take additionally into account, you do not have to defend that this was ignored but can rather say, "thank you, good hint, I'll have a look at that". Surely at masters stage and early in the PhD, people should understand that you can't know it all.
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It can also be useful to quantitatively analyse the literature from the information in databases such as scopus. For example, a few lines of code in the bibliometrix package in R (I'm sure there are alternatives) can tell you the most cited authors, papers and other useful info very quickly. If you have the time you can even take this a step further and look at the whole citation network that shows you clusters around research groups.

It can also be helpful to keep track of search terms you have used and also to tell databases to notify you of publications that contain some keywords as they are published.

This is more targeted at your first question in addition to the answers already posted :)

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It seems like question 3 (How do you deal with feeling overwhelmed when doing research?) is still mostly left unanswered. I can offer my suggestions as a PhD student in the US between computer science and media studies, and encourage others to post theirs.

I often think of the short-term (e.g, day-length) feeling of overwhelm as indigestion. The parallels are pretty apt. It implies the process of absorbing difficult research information is a lot like 'digestion' - slow and mostly unconscious. (A good walk also helps both.)

With that said, there are techniques I use occasionally to make sense of what I'm reading. Most beneficial is annotating the paper with highlights and comments. Oftentimes it's an informal reaction ("Wow!", "Boom!", "WTF?") and sometimes it's longer ("Same idea as that Blascovich personal space paper"). I also have spreadsheets of papers with some sort of categorization. Oftentimes, though, I'm more distracted by trying to find the right way to organize the papers that I miss the details in the papers themselves. Your experience may be different, though.

It was helpful for me to accept that I'm not going to understand the paper at the first pass, I'm not going to remember everything I need, and that's OK. Someone spent at least six months on this work - usually much longer. The work is complicated and strange and new (or at least was at the time the paper was written).

The long-term feeling of overwhelm is a different problem. I'd suspect you're still acclimating to knowledge having a frontier and questions not having satisfying answers. It is a hard process to begin to trust that something can't be known right now and, relatedly, to build the skill of judging whether it is knowable or not. In my experience and what others have told me, this is a rite of passage for academia. Congratulations!

Perhaps the most practical piece of advice when you're just starting out is to pattern-match other papers. Depending on the venue we submit to, we may have zero, one, or 3-5 theoretical perspectives in a paper. Oftentimes they exist to show you've done your literature review, you're a legitimate researcher, and that it's relevant to previous work. I have never felt 100% confident that the theory I've chosen is absolutely the best theory to reference, or even felt 100% confident that the theory is 100% 'right'. As Bryan Krause said in his addendum, "These fields deal with some of the most complex systems humans know of, and our core knowledgebase is extremely lacking." Of course, it is still useful to learn these methods deeply - but as you point out, the trouble is knowing how much is too much. Paper-writing is more of an art than a science, and if you feel uncomfortable, ask for feedback.

Another tip for addressing overwhelm is to talk to others about the research. It's easy to forget how far you've come and what you've learned when you're immersed in it. I hope you have a handful of friends that also enjoy learning for learning's sake with whom you can discuss what you're finding.

All in all, these are good questions to ask but difficult questions to answer. As you do, you'll be building your skills as a researcher.

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Use your supervisor as a reality check

Part of the journey from bachelor to master to PhD is becoming a more independent researcher. But you're not a PhD graduate yet, you're not expected to be fully independent yet. (Amazing: as a kid you're forever told that you'll be completely independent at 18.)

Of course it's not the job of your supervisor to tell you exactly what to do and do your searching for you. But they should know your field better than you and can give you some boundaries. They can help you make sense of the big mass of literature if you ask questions like:

  • Is there a paper or author that you recommend I absolutely read? Is there a good paper to start with on the tangent I ran into?
  • I read this paper but I'm not sure if I agree with it, what do you think about it?
  • I found these five papers that seem to cover the issue, is there anything major that I overlooked?
  • I got this surprising new experimental result/I ran into this technical obstacle, and I think I need to investigate this tangent a bit more. Or maybe I think I need a technique to solve this problem. Which direction would you look into?

The literature for most fields is like a vast mountain range and you need a guide, to have any idea what the possible destinations even are (and which ones are feasible for you to climb, at your current skill level and within the timespan of your education program).

The ultimate goal is that you learn the territory yourself so that you don't need a guide anymore. But that's something you learn over time. Most of it will be because you spend a lot of time reading, and eventually a bigger picture emerges. The role of the supervisor is as a guide in this territory, but not as a guide who shows around a tourist once, but as training a new guide.

Read effectively

Also, make sure you're reading papers in a pragmatic way. This video lecture by Andrew Ng gives a very actionable explanation of the technique of reading academic papers. Some key topics in there that I think are useful:

  • How to "investigate" a single paper to determine if it's useful to you. It's something most of us have been told various times, but may not have needed until we started reading multiple advanced papers, at which point just brute force reading isn't efficient enough anymore.
  • How to read a lot of papers over a year; what he calls the "Saturday morning problem". You get a real understanding of a field not by working hard for a week, but by chipping away at it patiently for months.

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