Tips For Studying & Reading Most of the Day, Everyday?
May 19, 2008 5:40 PM   Subscribe

Tips For Studying & Reading Most of the Day, Everyday?

To prepare for my PhD program's qualifying exams, for the next hundred and something days I will be studying & reading alone for 8+ hours a day, 7 days a week.

I live in San Francisco and another student suggested working for 2-3 hours at a coffee shop, then take a 20 minute break to walk to another coffee shop and work for another 2-3 hours, etc... etc... (Maybe read on a park bench for a while too)

The basic logic behind his idea is:
1) get out of the apartment
2) stay off the internet
3) get outside
4) have changes of scenery
5) get some mild exercise.

Anyone have other tips / techniques to help me stay motivated and productive?
posted by chrisalbon to Work & Money (11 answers total) 35 users marked this as a favorite
Make a checklist so you can see how much you have done. You could also make a schedule of how much reading you want to get done.

Have you decided if your main goal is to just study as much as possible or get X number of things read/learned?

I think you should also build in some vacation days. 100+ days is too much to work straight. Alternatively, are there any museums you could visit, movies you could watch to do some learning in a different way?
posted by aetg at 5:47 PM on May 19, 2008

Ms. Vegetable suggests meeting somebody every day, either as a workout buddy or as a study buddy. You will need that interaction.
posted by a robot made out of meat at 6:04 PM on May 19, 2008

Clock how fast you read and multiply it by the number of pages you have to finish by September. Divide by the number of days you have. Plan for days off, and if necessary, take some books off your list. (this, at least, is what the dept heads are telling us...)

Hopefully this post will pick up - I could definitely use advice on this as well.
posted by puckish at 6:06 PM on May 19, 2008

Think if you can actually get work done in a coffee shop. I know I can't. There's no room to spread out, there's people making noise, there's nonstop latte drinking. Libraries with or without wifi work better for me. And goals are really helpful to stay focused. But don't spend more time plotting out your goals than you do studying.
posted by amethysts at 6:29 PM on May 19, 2008

Response by poster: If you a mac, FlexTime ($19) is a great timer. It allows you to set a repeating time for X amount of minutes working and Y amount of minutes of break.
posted by chrisalbon at 6:30 PM on May 19, 2008

Response by poster: To be honest I have never studied in a coffee shop, but of course, I have never needed to study this much either.
posted by chrisalbon at 6:32 PM on May 19, 2008

I was lucky enough not to have to do this for my PhD, but it would seem the obvious aim here would be to set goals for yourself. Rather than seeing the task as "I have to read for 100 days", see it as "I have to finish this book by Wednesday" etc.

Also, not sure how you plan to study, but does it have to be reading. Plenty of research suggests that good studying involves not only reading, but also processing and then writing the results. Maybe you could intersperse your reading time with bouts of summarising and collating? I know that if I produced a nice "literature review" report from my study I'd feel much more productive than if I just knew that I'd read x books (or articles or whatever).

As for the study mode, I don't think I could study at a coffee shop. It's too distracting. When I need to mark (which I am supposed to be doing now, damn you metafilter!), I just have to sit down in my office, but on my headphones (to block out distractions) and knuckle down and do it quietly! Even then, I find myself distracted on occasion (as evidenced by NOW), but I guess you just have to recognise that sometimes you do need to take a break and chill for a minute (and I'm feeling better now and will probably go back to marking some more mind-numbing IS reports now!).
posted by ranglin at 6:43 PM on May 19, 2008 [1 favorite]

I took my qualifying exam in "Human-Centered Computing" last spring. YDMV.

Qualifying exams are over-hyped. They're important sure, and they cover a lot of material, sure. But really, what's the difference between studying 100 days for them and 80? I'd say not much (and many faculty have told me that students stress out unduly and drive themselves crazy over qualifying for little reason). So yes, study. A lot. Work hard. Think hard. But this is not the be-all end-all, even of your graduate career, not to mention your life.

So first, I'd recommend taking a different attitude to the big honking pile of readings and the test itself. It's a chance for you to read all that source material that you always knew you should have read (or read much more closely), but that you never quite got around to. Sure, you have read enough to be able to discuss it in a class, but this is your chance, your uninterrupted, unimpeachable chance to read and understand it. It's a fun project, not a huge mountain to trudge up. This will help quite a bit with staying motivated and also with getting a lot out of the process.

So now you're down to 80 days of work, spread over 100 days. And I know you can't work "8+" hours per day each day. With no breaks? Not getting sick once? Not going to beach for one weekend? Without a wedding, or family visit, or just some time with your friends / significant other / metafilter friends? So.... I'd aim for 5-6 quality hours of reading and note-taking each day. Each work day. And I'd work at most 6 days per week. But I'd definitely plan to have some "off days" where you're not going to be able to work, either because you stayed out until 3 AM, or because you're at the beach, or because you're sick, or even because "you just can't do it anymore." If you're honest with yourself now, you can bounce back from these days. You can recover and get back to work the next day with a clear conscience. You need not to get beaten down / depressed / overwhelmed. And that means planning for it now.

Second, I like the idea of moving around. Sometimes you'll find a louder place like a coffee shop great. Other times you need some place quiet like a library. And sometimes you'll want the easy going outside reading on the grass...

Third, the qualifying exam is not monolithic. I divide it into three sections (though you'll loop back and through them, especially toward the end): reading, integrating (drawing connections between the readings), and preparing to write (beyond note-taking). Qualifying exams are not about summarizing, or at least not just about summarizing. The best student at reading and understanding (and then regurgitating) the material on the exam won't do the best. The best grades come from those who see the whole picture -- they know what to cite (and, just as important, what NOT to cite) that helps them answer a question, they know how to draw connections that make sense for your field, they know how to critically take apart issues in in the field, not just talking about the method papers, but actually using those tools in the right ways and with the right "touch" (right context, for the right reasons).

Best of luck!
posted by zpousman at 6:47 PM on May 19, 2008 [9 favorites]

Working seven days a week, eight-plus hours a day is not the way to get the desired results out of this experience. I finished my qualifying exams for my PhD this year. It isn't about checking everything off the list, nor is it about regurgitating what those books say at the end of the study period. It's about going through a process of having a mountain of material to get through in a short time and staying sane. What you are talking about doing? Probably not the best way. It is far more likely to lead to burning out.

Seriously, first of all, plan on taking at least one day off a week.

Second of all, odds are, you won't need to intimately know everything on your reading list. In my fields (Literature) it was more about seeing the connections between things rather than the things themselves. You're supposed to get a sense of breadth as much as depth. Focus in on the things that are REALLY important. Know those things well. Figure out what matters to YOU. Know those really well. If you try to read and master everything on your list, you'll likely end up missing a lot anyway because you will be filling your head so fast and so constantly that retention will be a real problem.
posted by synecdoche at 7:34 PM on May 19, 2008 [1 favorite]

Work with a friend. Work with a friend. Work with a friend.

And if you can (are there other folks in your program taking quals at the same time as you?) really work together. Don't just cram at opposite ends of the same table. Ask each other questions when you're confused. Go over possible test scenarios together. Practice explaining things to each other.

You'll push each other to try harder. You'll have more tolerance for studying if you're getting social strokes mixed in with the reading and thinking. And you'll learn the material better anyway if you're using and discussing it rather than just seeing it on a page.
posted by nebulawindphone at 8:15 PM on May 19, 2008 [1 favorite]

I don't know what you're program is like, so YMMV. The head of my graduate department says that if students do any better than a simple pass on their exams, they've wasted time that could have been doing something more important, like working on their own research or just resting. Is it essential that you do extremely well, or do you just have to pass? Because if you just have to pass, your schedule sounds crazy. How much do your advisers think you should study? Do they have any recommendations for how to study more efficiently?

Even if you have to get a top grade, you cannot work for more than three months straight in the way you're talking about. You're likely to spend at least a third of that time staring at the wall or watching TV while not actually getting any rejuvenating rest because you're stressing about the fact that you're not studying. Be realistic about what you can do - it's more likely to be about 4-5 hours a day of brain-intensive work (I read this in "The Now Habit" and have come to realize that especially in the long-term, it's absolutely true). Acknowledge that and give the rest of your time to other, guilt-free activities. Lots of guilt-free breaks. Do not abandon your social life. Go away for at least a few weekends. Otherwise you risk burnout and crippling anxiety come test-time - not a recipe for success.
posted by walla at 6:13 AM on May 20, 2008

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