I just started my Ph.D. and am trying to participate in a couple reading groups. Often, these groups will cover 2–4 papers a week. Upperclassmen seem to have no issue staying up-to-date and informed, but it typically takes me 2 hours minimum to digest a paper and probably something like 3–4 hours to really start grokking the equations. How can I read papers more efficiently?

I assume part of the answer is just practice. After a while, I will get faster. But are there any habits I can form now that will help?

  • 1
    Are you moving in to a new area? It may take a while to get immersed in a new field.
    – Jon Custer
    Sep 29, 2016 at 18:09
  • 1
    Yeah. I was a software developer before starting my Ph.D. and the readings are typically in computer networks and machine learning.
    – jds
    Sep 29, 2016 at 18:30
  • So, you have some catching up to do. If in another month things aren't going a lot quicker as you recognize the basics instantly, then you might have an issue.
    – Jon Custer
    Sep 29, 2016 at 20:09
  • 4
    2 hours minimum to digest a paper — Wow. That's one or two orders of magnitude less time than it takes me to digest a paper. What's your secret?!
    – JeffE
    Oct 1, 2016 at 2:00

1 Answer 1


Simply continue reading papers and going to your reading groups. When you first start graduate works (which includes reading papers), it feels overwhelming. When you first start, 2 hours isn't uncommon.

A couple of things I learned about reading papers

1) Quickly read through each paper first (to get an idea of what is presented), then read it more carefully.

2) Print it and write questions in the margins.

3) Give yourself a set amount of time to study each paper. Once that time is up finish noting down things you do not understand and move on. Bring your questions to the reading group.

4) By "upperclassman" I assume you mean students that have been studying for their PhD for a while. If possible, arrange to read the paper with one of these more knowledgeable students. They will be able to guide the inevitable self study you'll need.

  • I've been following your suggestions this week, and have been better at keeping up with the suggested readings. I think the key for me is actually step 3. It is easy to always want to understand a problem more fully, but just timeboxing really forces me to get a high-level understanding. I can always read it again in detail if it is directly applicable to my research.
    – jds
    Oct 5, 2016 at 0:42
  • I would also add to step 2: go to a quiet place and read with your cellphone and laptop turned off (or on quiet mode/closed).
    – jds
    Oct 5, 2016 at 0:43
  • Yeah - I should have mentioned making sure your study time isn't interrupted. This can be a pair of head-phones or simply waiting until most people in the department have gone home for the day. Oct 5, 2016 at 15:26

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