One thing nobody tells you when you start university is how to go about organizing all the many things that you have to (or sometimes want to) read. Yes, university requires you to read a lot and yes it is not always easy to keep up with all the things you are supposed to read. Sometimes you are left wondering whether your lecturers think that you have 40 hours per week just to prepare for their class and you ask yourself how others can do it or if they actually do it all. Many people then quickly decide that reading isn’t for them and try to get through university with the minimum amount of reading possible often surfing the web for summaries of key readings or asking friends to tell them about the book or the paper that they were supposed to have prepared for the next class.
While this may be a strategy to get you through university somehow more often than not it doesn’t get you through. For this reason I highly recommend that if you are interested in getting good results and taking something away from university that will stay with you for longer than the semester or term, develop a reading strategy early on. One key aspect of successful reading at university is to read effectively and efficiently. And by this I mean reading the right things, reading them fairly quickly and remembering, or being able to recall, the key arguments easily. There is a huge amount of information available on how to read quickly, the so called art of speed reading. There is much to be said about this and I will dedicate another blog post to this topic, but for now I want to focus on another fundamental aspect of reading effectively that I wish somebody had told me about when I started university. It is one tool that most academics heavily rely on, yet most never communicate this to their undergraduate students who are left to find out for themselves, usually in the later stages of their degree when much reading has already been done and subsequently wiped off from their memories again. What a waste of time and effort, in my opinion. This secret weapon is the so called annotated bibliography.
Annotated bibliographies are very simple yet extremely important tools for successful academic work. They do nothing more but helping you to structure and remember your work and they can take many forms. I started building such a bibliography in my final year as an undergraduate student and still profit from the continuous work I have put into it since. The simplest form it can take is a word document. Before you start building your bibliography think about what information you will need and how you want to organize it. Important details from any academic paper or book are authors, publication year and title so you can easily find the reading again if required. Additional useful information can be the journal title and issue number (of course only if it comes from a journal), for books the publisher’s name and publication location and of course page numbers. This information, however, can usually be retrieved later on as well as long as you have title, year and author. Citation software like Mendeley can also help you store these details (will be discussed in another blog post). Where the annotated bibliography comes in really handy, is when it comes to storing information about content and your comments/thoughts on the reading, and retrieving this important information again later on.
As you read a paper or a book you should always take notes on content, most importantly on key arguments, methodological approach or whatever you need/want to remember. Nobody is capable of remembering everything and you should avoid these horrible moments when a deadline is approaching and you know you have read something really important somewhere but have no clue where. Or you remember this brilliant quote you want to use but can’t locate the original source. This is what annotated bibliographies are there for!
As you read or after you have finished a reading, depending on your own preferences, you fill the bibliography with content, that is, key publication details, possibly a summary of the key arguments, including nice quotes and their respective page numbers, and you can add thoughts about the reading you have at this very moment while reading it. As you read more papers your bibliography grows and when it comes to writing an essay you can go through it all and easily identify the papers or book chapters that are relevant for your topic. Later on, when time has passed and you go through the many readings you have done, you can then also easily recall what you thought when reading the article for the first time. It will save you time, worries and effort of having to read it again.
Now, from many conversations I have had with fellow PhD students and other academics and from the many books I have read about, amongst others, annotated bibliographies, I have learned that word documents work for many people. But my personal tip for an effective and easily manageable annotated bibliography is an excel spreadsheet. The great advantage here is that you can easily organize the many (or the few) different details you want to store in cells, making a simple and effective table and this table is highly malleable and can be easily expanded. Additionally, you can filter by e.g. author, year or any other information category you may have, if need be. My excel file has the following categories (and please only see this is an indicator and not the only possible way to do it):
- Type (book/ chapter/ journal or conference paper)
- Publisher (e.g. journal)
- Content Summary
- Research Gaps
Once you are to do a literature review for e.g. an essay, you can easily go through this database and do additional coding with each entry. For example if you are working on the topic work-life balance you can create a new cell labeled work-life balance, then read through your summaries again and place an “x” or any other letter in the cells with the heading work-life balance and then filter for all “x” in that particular cell. What you end up with is a list of all readings that you have assigned to the category work-life balance. For me this works brilliantly and as I keep reading new things I keep adding to this bibliography, now counting about 400 readings and about 30 different topic codes. The key to success lies in starting this database and then maintaining it!For those who have built up a large database of readings that cover many different topics (or those who want to do so), the following tip may also be helpful:
Believe me, I wish I had done this from day one as an undergrad student. It would have saved me a lot of time of searching for articles and having to reread them and my database would count at least 100 – 200 articles more. So do the work now, it’ll save you time and effort in the end.