When I start reading a research paper in my research area, I flooded with a lot of new words, techniques etc.. In the majority of cases, I start reading the relevant textbooks for expertise in order to understand the research paper well, instead of going to research papers again. I am not sure whether it will work, but gives it confidence in the topics under research.

It is well known that textbook reading may take lot of time and energy. Continuity can also be an important factor while comprehending a textbook.

At least in my university, studying research papers is much encouraged by experts or professors. And supervisors, known to me, suggest textbooks to read very rarely. I am not sure about the practices of other countries.

What is the role of textbook reading for a PhD researcher?

Is it underrated? Why do some supervisors ask for reading research papers only, and don't give explicit priority to textbook reading?

Do PhD students of top universities has habit of reading textbooks?

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    Use all tools at hand as you find use for them. Textbooks fill certain niches. Commented Jun 27, 2021 at 23:29
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    Earlier today, I answered an email from a prospective student who asked for suggestions of things to read in my area. My answer listed just textbooks. On the other hand, by the time you're doing independent research, you'll very probably need lots of background knowledge that isn't (yet) covered in textbooks, so you'll have to read the relevant papers. Commented Jun 28, 2021 at 0:24
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    My advice @hanugm: Your career is in YOUR hands. Don’t imagine your instructors to be your educational parents, they are helpful guides, imperfect and human, that’s all. The ball is in your court. Learn what you can and, most importantly, understand your field with any and all resources available to you. I wish you best in your future endeavors! Commented Jun 28, 2021 at 2:58
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    One thing I have found quite useful when textbooks are scant are certain PHD theses, which are often written with less knowledge assumed than the average paper. Reading the introductory sections of a relevant thesis can be helpful background. Commented Jun 29, 2021 at 1:29
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    I suggest training yourself to read textbooks. I didn't need to in high school and usually didn't need to in college. By the time I started grad school, I wasn't used to reading textbooks except as occasional references. I really wish I had trained myself to read them earlier.
    – jvriesem
    Commented Jun 29, 2021 at 13:27

6 Answers 6


I am an established academic and I read textbooks. I read introductory texts when moving into new areas, and more targeted texts as reference material. I also watch YouTube videos - if someone else has taken the time to put information in a context that is easy for me to absorb why not use it?

What you should be considering is what you will get out of the text. Textbooks are usually great for general background information or to overview a field. They can also be helpful to learn specific techniques. Sometimes, there'll be a text that perfectly introduces what you need, and does it well. When that's the case - use it.

As a newer researcher you need to make sure that you are reading in a structured and organised way, not just randomly trying to absorb everything and equating reading with advancement. Sometimes textbooks are useful. Other times they are not. Just make sure you are reading with purpose.


Reading whole text books takes a lot of time and should only happen in cases were the book covers your PhD topic or closer field to a large part. Beside that, I would limit reading selected sections or maybe chapters, to understand common knowledge.

Usually text books teach you common results most researchers would agree on. They try to be comprehensive and teach the reader. Papers discuss new approaches and ideas, which might turn out to be insufficient or plain wrong. Over the time the idea of a paper might be embedded in a larger context or be viewed from a different angle, which might make it easier to understand.

You have to do both as a PhD student:

  • you have to get the common knowledge, that should happen in your Bachelor or Master studies. There your read text books. As a PhD student you should know the terms and common knowledge and read less text books.
  • you have to understand the current research in your field and compare your own work this the work of others. For that you read papers. In most cases, you don't have to understand every detail, but you should get the idea. Maybe you have to learn to skip understanding these details. Only papers that are very close to your work, you have to understand bit by bit - because you have to explain what distinguishes your work and why your approach is worth investigating.
  1. A really well-written book or monograph can reduce the time required to get the core content from up to a dozen or more research papers.
  2. A deep research paper can have ideas hidden in it which even the experts (and sometimes authors!) have missed.

One of the ways one succeeds in research is by finding ideas which others have missed. Such insights are unlikely to be found if one follows a well-laid out development such as is often seen in textbooks.

On the other hand, there are many forests worth of research papers. You could easily miss the trees if you spend all your time in them!

An approach that has been useful personally (for mathematical topics) is to make notes on assumptions while reading research papers and go back to those notes if one looses the track completely. The assumptions could then be followed up through textbooks. Similarly, while reading texts, it can be quicker to avoid reading "line-by-line" and fix "rough" arguments on one's own. If a sufficiently wide gap in one's understanding is detected, one can go back and read the relevant section in detail.


This depends very much on what you're trying to learn, but you should never rule out the right textbook (or any other tool you can use to acquire knowledge, for that matter).

In quite a few cases, if you're brand new to a field you may not even be able to follow research articles until you've hit the textbooks. If for no other reason, in early papers in a field notation hasn't even been settled upon. Newer papers will tend to use consistent notation, but probably wouldn't provide definitions for the unfamiliar.

Also, some stuff you need to learn to round out your education and help you communicate with those adjacent to your space. I did my PhD in a systems neuroscience area, and was woefully inadequate in neuroanatomy at some point. It would have been a huge waste of time to learn neuroanatomy from the literature when there are dozens of good textbooks -- and I used the textbooks. I may not have the understanding of a practitioner in the field, and my knowledge isn't nuanced, but I'm not a neuroanatomist -- I'm a neuroscientist that needs familiarity with neuroanatomy.


There are many different qualities of textbooks, after all! :)

Many are exactly imitations of older (not necessarily good, but successful) books, perhaps with better graphics, or some other superficial changes.

Some have resonated with for-profit publishers' ideologies, and are heavily promoted.


Even among those which aim to serve their subject, there is often a tendency to be toooo encyclopedic, which has some virtues (for reference purposes), but does certainly heavily mask story lines.

And, yes, sometimes there are monographs ... which can be exactly what you need, if they hit your interests, or can be completely orthogonal to your goals.

It is highly non-trivial to gauge the quality of a book without looking through it in some detail (not to mention having an idea about the relative competence of the author). So, for myself, I've bought (out of my own pocket, supposedly from my clothing budget... :) thousands of books, most of which are high-end textbooks. I've looked through every one, searching for potentially amazing ideas that were previously unknown to me...

EDIT: Likewise, I certainly do also look through a great many on-line preprints for the same reasons...

Yes, some expense, and one of my activities is to try to replace some ridiculously expensive textbooks by my own lecture notes, in several subjects.

But/and both for my own purposes and for purposes of competent exposition, I do need to know whether I'm missing something... especially in fields where I supposedly am expert. :)

True, not everyone can skim through books or large papers quickly. So a strategy that requires that may be infeasible for some. I'd hesitate to "excuse" it, though, as though not doing so were essentially irrelevant.

Yes, I do essentially require my own research students to read most of my own notes, as opposed to explicitly requiring reading of "official textbooks", but this is less forgiving than it might sound, since my own notes do cover quite a bit. And, my people seem to be inclined to look at the standard textbooks in any case.

(This is in math, at an R1 state school in the U.S.)


I rather suspect this is very much down to the subject being researched. As someone who has a Ph.D in Chemistry I would have said that 90% of my research needs came from published papers and monographs as they were probably the most relevant source. Chemistry textbooks would give you a valuable insight into the fundamentals of an area but research would be far more up-to-date.

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