From my research internship experiences (my previous University didn't really focus on research much) and what my current advisers told me, a general flow of a PhD is like any other long(er)-time project:

  • familiarize oneself with state-of-the-art on the subject

  • generate your own ideas (by trial-and-error) and integrate with current approaches

    (with this phase becoming a lot fuzzier the more advanced your "project" is)

  • write it up for the world to know.

As a fresh PhD student, I'm currently in the middle of familiarizing myself with the state of the art, following the advice of many older students ("be a brave soldier in the beginning and do and read everything your advisers throw/send/e-mail your way"). And I do understand the importance of it (in fact, more often than not, I love it). But, it does give one an impression of self-uselessness sometimes (I have a talk with myself every few weeks or so to remind myself of my motivation and resolve the "uselessness" issue).

So, my question is: Typically, how much time would a fresh PhD student spend on going through state-of-the-art at the beginning of his/her PhD?

And some sub-questions:

  • is it expected/typical to produce some kind of output (articles?) during this period?
  • what kind of output is expected at the end of this period?
  • what would be some indicators that this period is ending which a student himself can notice

In the end, just to provide some context: I'm doing a PhD in Europe, and we have a limit of 3 years for a PhD (sometimes extended for up to 6 months) and I'm studying Computer Science.

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    Europe is big, and last I checked, Sweden works differently from UK works differently from Germany works differently from France… Jan 17, 2013 at 14:28
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    @MikaelVejdemo-Johansson I don't doubt it does, but I'm not looking for country-specific response. The part of the context I think is relevant is a limit of 3-3.5 years to finish the PhD, not 4 and not 5+. If there's any other information you think is relevant I'll gladly provide it. If you think the country is relevant here - pleas tell me why, I can edit it in.
    – penelope
    Jan 17, 2013 at 14:37
  • A relevant question to this: academia.stackexchange.com/questions/5073/… It details as to how you should go through the process of reading papers and how to read those papers.
    – Naresh
    Jan 18, 2013 at 10:42
  • @Naresh thank you for the link. But essentially, I'm not looking for advice in how to read papers. I think by now I discovered what the "output" should be, and which process I should apply to the "input" in order to be most efficient while reading. I'm just looking for the fairly course stopping criterion, so that it's easier for me to realize if I have fallen in to the trap of too much reading and not enough doing, and reexamine my direction for proceeding.
    – penelope
    Jan 18, 2013 at 12:55

6 Answers 6


Your question likely indicates that you need to work on your communication with your advisor. Hasn't he told you what is expect and how you are progressing?

I will try and keep this answer focused on the question, but I apologize if it strays.

Some indicators that your are becoming familiar with the field:

  • When you talk to your supervisor you are familiar with some of the references mention and names start to mean something to you. Better familiarity is when this holds when you talk to colleagues and go to talks and seminars
  • When you have read/glanced at most of the references in articles that you read. Better is when the most exciting thing about reading new literature is finding a reference to something you didn't know about

As far as output, ideally during the course of your dissertation you should become familiar enough with the relevant literature to write a literature review article. You should feel like you could write a review at the end of the familiarization stage. Actually writing a full review is probably a bit premature, since you want the review to tie in with your eventual dissertation. I would suggest that a useful output is a dissertation proposal with a strong literature review based motivation. This is not a publishable output, but it is tangible.

  • 2
    Finally somebody who's answering what I asked, not trying to imbue the importance of the beginning research and reading phase on me! Thank you :) As for my adviser, I'm still trying to find a relationship dynamic that works for both of us. If it doesn't succeed, than that's most probably my next question I'll be posting in a month or so ;)
    – penelope
    Jan 18, 2013 at 15:16

I don't think there is a clear transition between “familiarizing oneself with the subject” and “being an expert in this topic, and generate new ideas and approaches”. The transition is gradual, and it's called “the PhD”.

However, there are ways to quantify this evolution. For example, ask yourself: in a discussion with your advisor and a few other experts on a topic related to your PhD, how able are you to make useful comments and suggestions? How often do you come to your advisor saying “I have tried to do X because I read about it and I think it can apply to my issue”?

Regarding the written “output” of the beginning of a PhD, it pretty much depends on you and your advisor. Mostly, the output is knowledge in your mind, but it can also be useful to make notes (both for yourself and your advisor) on each subtopic you discover. For myself, as an advisor, I ask students to contribute bibliographic notes (written or orally) every now and then, for me and other students of the group who work on related topics.

  • Thank you for your answer. I do understand that the transition is gradual, as well as the fact that I will (should) never stop keeping my knowledge up-to-date. But, the pure beginning, when I am not expected to work on anything new (I'm supposed to read and decide on a best approach(es) among the bunch to try out later) can be a bit scary: am I reading too broad? Focusing on something too much? Going into too much details...? There is always something new to learn, but I was interested in at least a ballpark estimate of how long this period usually lasts.
    – penelope
    Jan 17, 2013 at 15:26
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    @penelope It depends very much. In the cases I know, it doesn't last longer than a month. It is part of the advisor to give some guidance at the beginning, to help the student start working, rather than just reading endlessly. Some things you don't learn/realize just by reading!
    – F'x
    Jan 17, 2013 at 15:31

I'm hesitant to make broad generalizations across disciplines, but I've seen this pattern a few times in a number of fields, so for what it's worth:

  • You can expend to spend the better part of a year (or more) familiarizing yourself with the field itself.

  • You can expect to spend another better part of a year (or more) familiarizing yourself with the state-of-the-art in that field.

  • You can expect to spend the rest of your life staying up to date on what's being done.

  • While you're doing all this, you will also be implementing some of the research you're reading about, doing coursework, teaching, grading, writing grants, and doing actual research. This will take time away from simply reading up on stuff.


Initially, you should really just seek to understand. Thousands (or tens of thousands, or hundreds of thousands) of brilliant people have been working on problems for many years. If you're going to contribute, hadn't you better understand what some of them did, and why? So read, think, ask questions. Your initial goal is not to produce anything except familiarity with the core concepts and techniques. Or, to put it another way, you should be producing ideas and questions, hopefully to talk about with another lab member or your mentor. If you skip this phase, you'll either be slavishly following your mentor's directions without understanding why; duplicating work that's already well-established, probably (though not necessarily!) in an inferior way; or working on something that is fun for you perhaps, but not particularly relevant for anything. (Many Ph.D. students, in my experience, do end up falling afoul of one or more of these.)

Now, you ought not expect at the end of this period that you'll have as keen a grasp of the field and directions as your mentor; the point is to start getting the perspective you need to understand why, for instance, your mentor suggests using a bayesian analysis of job-completion times to help with load balancing.

At this point--unless your mentor is highly concerned about this--I wouldn't fret too much about producing papers. Get yourself in a position where you can produce good papers. Once you're there, then work out the next part of the plan (you'll very likely find that it depends heavily on what you're planning to do, which you won't know until you understand the literature and appropriate techniques).

  • Thank you for your answer. There's a lot of good advice, but not exactly what I was aiming for. I know the importance of this phase, people repeated it to me over and over again, and I see the importance for myself. But, people have also repeatedly warned me not to get to wrapped up in the reading. That's why I wanted some kind of an upper limit for the length of this phase, so that if I find my self still only reading after X months, I can stop and re-examine if there's something I am maybe doing wrong, getting to wrapped up in all of it.
    – penelope
    Jan 18, 2013 at 12:51
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    @penelope - With all due respect, I think those people are wrong, or at least are telling you what to do instead of how to do it. If you stop reading before you understand your field, you're going to be in trouble, and if you have trouble judging whether your mastery is adequate yourself, you should rely not upon time limits but your advisor and/or other more experienced group members. That said, as soon as you feel like you can attempt something fairly useful you should start spending some of your time on it. It really helps focus your attention on the right part of the literature.
    – Rex Kerr
    Jan 18, 2013 at 12:56
  • I don't think they're wrong -- it happened to me on a 3 months project I once had. Adviser wasn't advising much, and by the time I was finished with my reading, I realized there was no chance in hell to actually do the things I had to. And about how to do it, and how to know and estimate when this phase is coming to an end, well, yes, I am a bit confused about that part. Which is exactly why I asked the question in the first place :)
    – penelope
    Jan 18, 2013 at 13:02
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    @penelope - I'm not sure there is a good solution to an advisor who is not advising you when you need it, other than to find other people with the requisite experience. They'll know things like how long it takes to get a paper published in that particular sub-discipline, whether your mentor lets papers sit around on their desk for months at a time or gets them out quickly, etc., all of which we can't help with and are critical pieces of information for planning timing.
    – Rex Kerr
    Jan 18, 2013 at 13:14
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    @penelope - You certainly can, but I'm not sure that's any worse than doing a lousy job because you're not well-enough informed! This is why I'm trying to stress what-you-know metrics rather than how-much-time.
    – Rex Kerr
    Jan 18, 2013 at 13:49

My advice: don't read everything otherwise you will never finish! Finishing your PhD should be your goal.

Become familiar with the dominant themes in your field and continually think how your PhD fits in the scheme of knowledge.

Focus on what is relevant to your research.

  • Thank you for your answer! My goal was doing research and science I love, and having fun while I'm at it. A position as a PhD student was just the means to achieve that. I know I can't read everything, I know that I have to keep my reading focused and related to what I'm doing. I know I have to contain myself to not digress. Thank you for saying it, I know it's good advice but it's nothing new to me. I was just hoping to get an estimate of how long this phase should be / has been for people.
    – penelope
    Jan 18, 2013 at 12:46
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    I think I totally disagree with the idea that the goal should be to finish your dissertation. While it may not seem like it at the time, being a PhD student is the sweet life.
    – StrongBad
    Jan 18, 2013 at 13:36
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    @DanielE.Shub - Some Ph.D. programs (e.g. in much of Europe) have a very rigid time schedule. You either finish or you are kicked out, in approximately the same amount of time.
    – Rex Kerr
    Jan 18, 2013 at 13:51
  • @both-of-you As I said, goal is not really finishing the dissertation. I'm hoping the thesis will just be the consequence of me having phun for 3 years (science phun, of course) -- if it's not (either working phun, or thesis a consequence), I guess I'll be deserving the kicking-out.
    – penelope
    Jan 18, 2013 at 15:19

The problem with the general outline you describe is that it's top down, and doesn't reflect the bottom up nature of doing research. In other words, while it's useful to familiar with the state of the art, you shouldn't necessarily start by assimilating the state of the art in the field. That's too overwhelming !

The best approach early on is to start small, and work on something concrete. Doing a Ph.D is really like doing an apprenticeship to hone the craft of doing research. Starting with assimilating the state of the art is akin to reading lots of books on music theory before touching a piano.

So start with a small problem. Try different approaches. Talk to lots of people. Read papers that might have ideas to help you with the problem. Talk to lots of people again. Try more ideas. Solve a piece of the problem. Discover it's been solved before ! Realize that you've been able to recreate someone else's original research. Realize that this is a good thing.

There will come a time when you suddenly realize that you're familiar with most of the state of the art. And that you've been adding to it.

And then it's time to graduate :).

  • Thank you for your answer. Unfortunately, since the first thing my current adviser told me was: "familiarize yourself with all these (state-of-the-art) data structures so that you can make an informed decision about which one you want to use", so I do have to start with the state-of-the-art. And, when learning how to play the piano as a kid, I do recall doing some theory before ever touching a key ;) But, you did make a lot of interesting points in your answer, thank you
    – penelope
    Jan 18, 2013 at 12:43

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