After a phd and a 1 year boring job in a private company, I finally found a postdoc position than looks very interesting to me. I am very excited to perform research again, but I would like to avoid the mistakes I did during my Ph.D. to be more efficient.

I would say that my main waste of time was that I was too disorganized. Often I did measurements, forgot to write all the parameters, and had to do it again. I think I will now be ok on this point, with but if you have advices here, I will happily read them.

Then, my main problem and one of the things I felt very inefficient at, was bibliography research. For example, when I wanted to get information on a very precise topic, I searched through google scholar or science direct and found several articles. I tried to picked the most interesting ones, but then I often got lost in the different references cited by the article. I always felt that I had to read every of these references to get things perfectly clear and become confident on the topic. Of course this never worked, because there are usually many references and references in those references (would take ages to read them all) ... So I often ended reading only parts of all the articles cited by the main article, barely remembering what I have read.

Does someone have an efficient method to avoid getting lost in all the articles cited in one article, and all of their references ... and so on?

  • 2
    There is a difference between articles you must be familiar with to understand the one you're reading and articles which constitute "further reading" (further reading will also have varying degrees of relevancy/interest to you). As a first step, identifying the articles you absolutely must read (as opposed to the articles you might want to read) might be a good approach to ensuring you don't get too lost in the literature.
    – Ian_Fin
    Commented Sep 28, 2016 at 11:22
  • 1
    I think its a good idea to focus on the most cited articles on the topic. After going through these, you should get a general feel for the key articles. Another way is to make a note of key authors in the field and read their articles.
    – John_dydx
    Commented Sep 28, 2016 at 12:23
  • I always thought part of the fun was getting lost in the literature, eventually to re-emerge with a bunch of new ideas. Understanding, synthesizing, and then extending into new areas takes time and effort.
    – Jon Custer
    Commented Sep 28, 2016 at 12:39
  • Your university should have a study skills center. I realize it may be primarily aimed at undergrads, but since you did not pick up these organizational skills as an undergrad, you'll be well served to do so now. Also, see a doctor and get yourself screened for ADD/ADHD. Your question raises some possible red flags to me. It couldn't hurt to see if there's anything going on with you along those lines. Commented Sep 29, 2016 at 2:29
  • Hello all, soory for my very delayed reply, but thanks for all these interesting advices and the link to the related previous asked questions that I did not found
    – calvin
    Commented Oct 6, 2016 at 10:02

2 Answers 2


I believe you are on the right track. Of course you don't need to read everything, only what is more important for your research. Hence, the most important thing would be to be focus for long periods of time and not to question the time spend. AT first, probably the best start would be to read the review articles, which discusses different approaches in the field, and then to move to a particular direction. After one have an onset of the phenomenology one can start to digest the mathematical details, and to find the most pedagogical papers which explain the basic details. Do not hurry in your research, keep in mind that there are also research projects also for long time, for 2-3 years for example, or even for decades. Looking at my senior peers, I think the best thing would be to have an continuous effort for many months, every-day(of course, you can take short vacations). Finally, getting lost in the literature makes you adapt more quickly to changes and to different ideas, it is a normal thing. Good luck!


I think one advice is (as often in research):

Regularly step to a meta level and ask yourself: "What I am doing and why?"

If you look at the list of references and think "Must read this,… will read that…" stop for second and ask yourself "Which papers look like relevant to my current research, which look like helpful background, which are likely to contain valuable ideas, which are just general background reading?" Then decide which one to read according to the "research mode" you are currently working in. To clarify the last sentence: You should also switch to a meta level when doing research and be able to deliberately switch between modes like clarifying ideas, coming up with new ideas, idling around, doing experiments, writing up,…

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