I have recently had a change of interest and would like to focus on a different area within my field. That being said, I want to stress that the area happens to differ quite a bit from my current area. I am not too far in my studies, so it's not like I am changing my PhD thesis midway or anything like that.

However, I would like to know how I can most effectively get to grips with my new topic. I am obviously not completely new to it, but I have so much more knowledge in my old topic and am now worried that it will be a disadvantage, because I might be competing with people for PhD spots that have had their focus for many years and thus much better writing samples etc.

Any advice on how to become good relatively fast?

  • I will assume that by "becoming good" you actually mean acquiring knowledge in the field? – Chris Mar 14 '16 at 2:39
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    If there were a special trick to "become good fast" then wouldn't everyone do it? Maybe they already are? Maybe "fast" is not as fast as we'd wish, and "good" is farther in the distance than we'd imagined? – paul garrett Mar 14 '16 at 13:05
  • Hippocrates already said it: "ars longa,vita brevis" (sorry, I haven't the original greek at hand). It translates into "to learn the art takes a long time, life to practice it is short" – vonbrand Mar 15 '16 at 1:17
  • @paulgarrett maybe everyone is, but I don't know about it? Also, I have not asked for the magic pill here that makes me jump the queue. But it is certainly true that some approaches to a new topic are more fruitful than others. (Although maybe not for everyone) – Ken Goldhaus Mar 15 '16 at 15:57

The simple answer is: Review Lectures, then read the referenced books / papers (in this order).

There are a variety of good lectures on free course websites out there. (For example on youtube or coursera.) It'll give you a good introduction and - more importantly - will tell you what is relevant to know about in this field.

If you can't find a lecture or at least slides, try to find a few (recent) PhD dissertations in the field and read their introductions / related work / background chapters. These are usually available for free and they will give you a good overview of what is considered relevant.

You could then move on to study recent research papers, but - depending on your prior knowledge - you may not know half the methods that have been used here.

In any case, find out which are the most relevant conferences in this field and see which Professors publish there a regularly. (The Prof. is usually last on the author list). From there you'll hopefully find the most key people in the field and check out their websites and latest publications to see what they are working on.

I'll have to stretch that the right approach will largely depend on how well you are familiar with the basics of the field already. You may have to study a few books or some additional mathematics course work relevant to this new field you are interested in.

Since you appear to be going to university - maybe it's also a good idea to just ask the Prof. most relevant to this field on campus for references and guidance. They will most likely know who's book and publications to read. Maybe this should actually be the first thing you want to do ...


Try this:

  1. Read a lot of original papers in the field, ideally by the best and/or pioneering people in the field (they usually write better and they know why they are doing particular things, rather than regurgitating it from textbook knowledge).

  2. Then go to a few of the best conference(s) in the field and listen to as much as you possibly can. Visit posters, talk to people, as much as you can handle.

  3. If you can find a friendly local expert, buttonhole them to explain the big picture to you.

  4. Then give a seminar or seminar series on the topic.

  5. Write mini "lecture notes" for the seminar you gave. Estimate 8 pages for 2 hours of seminar.

  6. Voila, instant-expert! (well, not quite, but you now have a head-start).

  • #2 is a good idea, but I assume it's difficult for many master students to afford a trip and pay high fees often associated with attendance of the top conferences. Yes, they usually have student prices, but you have to be really dedicated - I also doubt it will be the best approach, since those meetings are often more networking than educating people. They also generally don't discuss the basics of the field there, but if you have the means to do it - go for it :) – Chris Mar 17 '16 at 23:30
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    I talk from experience, this is what I did. On #2, you are right: it is expensive. I was advised by a sponsor to go to my first conference ever, and was promised significant travel support for a report in return, so I dared to go (and did as stated above). I came back, and reported, but the sponsor conveniently "forgot" his promise even after multiple reminders, which ripped a big hole in my finances. Nonetheless, I never really resented it, because the advice was worth the hole in my pocket. I used conferences for networking later, but my first ones were predominantly for learning. – Captain Emacs Mar 18 '16 at 1:40

Sorry to disappoint, but the "toil away at a topic for 3 to 5 years until your thesis is done" is the fast track.

  • I did not ask for a fast track. I am just interested in ways to organise yourself which might be better than others when e.g. approaching a new topic. See also my comment to paulgarret – Ken Goldhaus Mar 15 '16 at 15:59
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    @KenGoldhaus well you did use the words "quickly" and "relatively fast" in your question. By your clarifying comment about not asking for a fast track, it now sounds like what you're really asking is "how can I get good at a new subject at a normal rate?" which, as other have pointed out, is a very standard question with standard answers, so you can hardly expect people to offer some amazing new insights here. – Dan Romik Mar 15 '16 at 16:21
  • @DanRomik I agree that I should have maybe not used the phrases 'quickly' or 'relatively fast'. Let's say 'effectively' then. Speed is often an indicator of effectiveness, so that's why I wrote what I wrote. No reason though to assume I am talking about a fast track. I hope it's clearer now. (also, let's not forget the word 'relative' there. but enough) – Ken Goldhaus Mar 15 '16 at 18:35
  • I disagree. Part of the objectives of higher education is being able to familiarise oneself with a new, related topic, in a reasonable time frame, by drawing from what you already know. – Davidmh Mar 15 '16 at 18:55
  • @KenGoldhaus, my comment stands. The best known way to learn a new topic effectively and in depth is as I state. – vonbrand Mar 15 '16 at 19:13

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