When I read research papers I often come across many things that I'm unclear about and would like to talk over with someone. My advisor is not available to do this with me as she does not have time. I'm not sure with whom should I discuss these research papers with, in order to help me understand the papers better. I am the only student who is currently being advised by my advisor. How should I go about finding people to talk through these things with, so I can better understand the research papers I'm reading?

  • 3
    What do you mean by doubts? Do you mean that suspect that there are problems with the papers or do you just mean that there are things that you are unclear about and want to talk over? I suspect it's the latter, but it's worth being clear because the answers may be different.
    – mako
    Feb 9, 2013 at 19:49
  • @BenjaminMakoHill Yes its the latter. Feb 9, 2013 at 20:03
  • 11
    "Doubt" used this way is standard in Indian English, but not ordinarily used by English speakers outside India. It's good for non-Indians to learn to understand this usage, but also for Indians to learn that it's likely to be misunderstood by non-Indians. See english.stackexchange.com/questions/2429 for more. Feb 10, 2013 at 0:32
  • This distinction has caused many problems for my colleagues :)
    – Suresh
    Feb 10, 2013 at 1:04
  • 2
    Why not to use an appropriate StackExchange site?
    – user3905
    Feb 10, 2013 at 21:20

3 Answers 3


Your advisor is not the only person to go to, to get answers to the questions that research papers are raising for you. Talk to other researchers, in your department, or online with peers at other universities.

But it does sound like you are getting insufficient advisory support. Do you really just have the one advisor? Time to build up your supervisory team.

Talk to your advisor about what's expected of you, and what's expected of them. It sounds like you've got a mismatch between your need and their resource, and it's important to get that fixed as soon as possible.

You'll also find a lot of good, relevant advice on these questions: skimming a paper and running a reading group.

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    How do I talk to peers at other universities. I dont know them personally. Also I dont know whether they have read that paper or not. Feb 9, 2013 at 12:49

I'd suggest that you form a reading group! (As also suggested in passing by EnergyNumbers.)

What helped me out early during my PhD was to create a series of reading groups around literatures I wanted to learn. A model I often followed was to organize a weekly meeting to read 1 book or 3-5 papers with 2-5 other students. We'd usually meet for 2 hours or so. I found other students in my cohort/program and others in the university who had similar interests. Ask around! If the papers you are reading are the kinds of things that are likely to be on your general or qualifying exams, chances are pretty good that others around you will have to be reading them as well!

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    Does the person who downvoted this want to explain?
    – mako
    Jul 18, 2014 at 13:04

There are many things not clear in your question. For example, is the paper something that your advisor has asked you to read ? Or is it just something that you're browsing for your own edification ? Did the advisor say that she cannot or will not help, or that she's busy ?

I can understand an advisor finding it difficult to spare the time to explain papers that maybe even she hasn't read. But if it's something related to your work with her, then I'd expect her to help a little more. You have to realize though that just because someone is your advisor, it doesn't mean that they know more than you about every single topic :) - in fact, part of your evolution as a student will be to get to the point where your advisor asks you for help !

But I think the general answer is as EnergyNumbers indicates: find other students in your department to discuss these papers with. That's really the best way. Also, realize that working through a difficult paper, on your own or with others, is the best way to learn new material. It's a normal part of the training process.

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