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Graduate School Skill Guide: Master’s Level Reading and Research

Reading comprehension at a master’s level takes higher-level critical thinking skills. Use the resources in this guide to help you build on your skills and excel in your master’s program.

Author: Kristina Brune

Editor: Staff Editor

While graduate school requires hard work, it’s also an amazing opportunity to gain knowledge and grow both personally and professionally. Ted Nelson, philosopher and information technology pioneer once said, “In my uncertainty, I went to graduate school, and there it all happened.” Graduate school not only increases your confidence to succeed in your field, but it also readies you to make a significant impact in the world.

To get there, though, you must develop new skills and learn a vast amount of information. While you’ll no doubt have the support of your professors, mentors, and peers in your graduate school journey, you’ll also need to take it upon yourself to learn efficiently and in ways that allow you to adequately complete the required work. This guide focuses on the advanced reading and research skills you need to be successful in graduate school.

11 Reading & Research Skills for Grad School

You might think you already know how to read and research well based on your undergraduate experience, but the rigors of graduate school will likely increase your study load significantly. This means you will need to increase the speed and efficiency of these skills in order to maximize your study time. Below we give ten tips to help you improve your reading and research skills and make the most of your study time.

  1. Create an Optimal Study Environment

    When writing and studying, an optimal study environment helps you focus. Find what works best for you by first removing any distractions. Make sure you’re set up at a desk, table, or work area where you’re comfortable and have all the materials (e.g., computer, books, notes, notebook, pens, highlighters, etc.) you need. Music or ambient noise helps some people focus, but others need total silence. Have water close by, so you can stay hydrated, a key to optimal thinking.

  2. Scan the Text First

    When tackling a longer piece of reading, scanning gives you a general idea of the main points before you start reading. Look through the article or book and read headings or chapter titles, call-out boxes of main ideas, and any graphics or tables. Make notes about the content for easy reference later. Become an active reader by learning to skim material first to make it more manageable and productive.

  3. Take Notes, Highlight, and Annotate While You Read

    Notes are essential for understanding academic writing. They not only help you better retain and learn the information, but they also help you find relevant material later. As you read, note or highlight any pieces of information that relate to what you’re researching or studying. Also note how you may want to use it in your work (e.g., good statistic for introduction, supports point #1, etc.).

  4. Break Reading Into Manageable Chunks

    Graduate school requires a lot of reading, and it can feel overwhelming. When you have a large amount of reading to get through, break it into smaller pieces. Set a timer and devote that time to finishing one chunk, then take a break before working on the next chunk.

  5. Look up Unfamiliar Words

    Reading comprehension is essential not only for understanding what you’re reading but for integrating it into your work in meaningful ways. Look up words you don’t understand to make sure you know what a piece of writing conveys. Sometimes you can use the context to understand a word’s meaning, but you’ll likely need a dictionary often to parse the meaning of some words.

  6. Take Regular Breaks

    If you become too fatigued during reading and research, you won’t understand all the information properly. Take regular breaks to rest and recharge. Set timers to break the work into chunks and remind yourself to move every so often. When you complete one part, move around, stretch, and/or refresh your drink. Give your brain a break by calling a friend, playing a short game, or doing some housework.

  7. Discuss the Material with Others

    To help you better understand how your reading and research relate to your broader course of study and degree program, discuss the material with classmates or others who might be interested to gauge their understanding. Talk about main ideas and how they relate to your class or a particular project. Discussing material with others can help you see the information from a new angle and potentially identify further research you need to complete.

  8. Focus on Understanding, Not Memorizing, Material

    It’s easy to become overwhelmed by the volume of information you’re studying, and most of it likely seems essential. You don’t have to memorize or learn every concept, statistic, or conclusion you read, though. Instead, get a thorough understanding of the reading as a whole by learning the main points. You can always return to the material to retrieve details for use later, especially if you’ve thoroughly taken notes.

  9. Think Critically and Jot Down Thoughts on What You Read

    Graduate students must take in large amounts of information, relate it to their area of study and research, and draw their own conclusions. To do so, you must think critically. Do this by asking if what you’re reading is reliable and if the statistics are relevant to your work. In other words, does it support your ideas and thesis? Then, write about any connections you’ve discovered. Critical reading is essential for graduate students, especially if they want to produce original work that extends their field.

  10. Be Thorough in Your Research

    Completing your graduate degree requires that you thoroughly research your ideas and make logical conclusions backed up with facts. Thorough research involves using many reliable sources both from within and outside your field. If you state a fact, support it with quality research.

  11. Make Connections

    To decide if the material you’ve read is relevant to your project, look for connections among the different works you read as well as among your thoughts and ideas. Do your resources support one another, or is there some dissent? Look for evidence that both supports and disproves your own ideas, too, to ensure your research is well-rounded and comprehensive.

How to Conduct Research for Graduate School Papers

In graduate school, professors expect a higher standard when it comes to research papers. Meeting this standard requires a structured research process that takes time to plan out and execute. You must formalize your ideas, locate the appropriate source materials to support them, then write in a way that takes them beyond the expectations you met in your undergraduate work. The research tips below can help you with this daunting task.

Keep a Log of Ideas

Keep an ongoing log or journal of research topics you are interested in pursuing. Include references, quotes, or any readings that inspire you. Record the reference information and source materials, too, so you can find and them later. Peruse your ideas regularly and look for commonalities that might lead to a thesis topic.

Find Key Resources

Once you have a topic or a thesis, you probably also have some main sources (e.g., books, journals, etc.). Add to what you have by identifying your core resources. Keep a bibliography of all your sources for later reference. Don’t just stick to online resources, either, since older texts found at the library can be helpful, too.

Stay Organized

Use citation managers, a spreadsheet, or a notebook to keep your sources organized. Organize your notes by main themes or based on which reference material they came from. Also, jot down common threads and findings and use those notes to inform your content. Staying organized looks different for everyone, but it’s important to find out what works best for you.

Create a Timeline

Create a timeline for doing your research and for developing your paper. Set deadlines (e.g., resource materials collected by this date, rough draft written by this date, etc.). A timeline helps ensure you stay on track and have plenty of time for editing and refining your paper.

Seek Feedback

Having professors, advisors, and colleagues to assist you and provide feedback is vital to your success. Find a trusted advisor who can help when you get stuck and stay motivated while researching. They can identify places where your research may be lacking, give suggestions for refining your ideas, and provide feedback about your conclusions and structure. Study groups with other students to discuss research and get feedback are also terrific ways to receive feedback.

Be Flexible

If you find yourself getting stuck and having trouble with structure, supporting your ideas, or some other area, don’t be afraid to pivot. Adjust your topic or thesis if needed. Sometimes, your original thesis ends up leading to a different angle for your paper as you learn and read more about the topic. Talk through your options with your advisor or peers, as they may be able to provide a fresh perspective you haven’t yet considered.

Consider Collaboration

Some of your fellow students are likely researching topics similar to yours. Discuss findings with your peers and collaborate when possible. Talk about the research you’re using to determine if there are sources that work for someone else, too. Collaboration in this way may also lead to new resource material or angles for your own topic. Remember, though, your research, writing, and ideas should be original to you and everything you’ve learned and studied. Use caution when collaborating with peers to make sure original ideas stay with their creator.

Why a Master’s Degree Requires a Higher Level of Skills

The research and reading required at the graduate level are probably unlike anything you’ve ever experienced. Not only do your professors assign a lot of reading, but it’s likely much more than you can actually read. So, how can you complete your reading assignments? Further, how can you adequately assimilate what you read in meaningful ways? Here are some of the reasons why honing these skills is a must for your master’s and beyond.

So Much Reading

We said it above, and we will say it again, you will likely be reading more in your master’s program than ever before. This is why you need to implement strategies to tackle your homework and increase efficiency. You will need to skim articles and journals for main points and take notes that assist with retention and comprehension. Start by homing in on the areas where conclusions are drawn, specific data is shared, etc. When reading for research, look for information that supports your thesis and helps you form ideas and that allows you to fully understand the topic.

More Responsibility

If you are in grad school you might also find that you have more responsibility than in your undergrad. Maybe you are juggling family, a full-time job, and school. Maybe you are a research assistant to a professor. Whatever your circumstances, you likely have more on your plate and that is why mastering the art of reading and research early on can help you get more efficient in your studies.

There is More at Stake

Sure, an undergraduate degree is an important step to getting to grad school which means you also need to perform well there, but what you learn in graduate school and the outcomes of your time there can make or break your career and future. That’s why it’s important to streamline as much as you can in order to optimize your success and save you valuable time.

Research Skills Translate to the Professional World

Your ability to find information you need, make sense of it, and break it down in a way that benefits your future employer is a valuable skill for any employee to have.

At the end of the day, mastering your reading and research skills will make your life in graduate school that much easier. Keep reading to discover some resources that will help you get started in refining these skills.

Reading and Research Resources for Grad Students

There are a vast number of resources online to help graduate students improve their reading comprehension and research skills. Resources range from how-to guides, apps, and courses, to books, articles, databases, and more. Below are 15 resources for graduate students to help you improve general skills and ensure you find reliable research, cite it properly, and produce a well-written paper.

academicinfo: This resource covers general graduate school topics like applying to grad school, admission tests, and thriving and surviving higher ed. It also has study guides and helpful links on hundreds of topics related to graduate school.

APA Style: The American Psychological Association (APA) is the preferred writing style used in academic writing and research, so graduate students need a firm understanding of how to use it to cite sources. This site has instructional guides, a blog, and tutorials.

Connected Papers: This site allows users to find connections among different journal articles. Once you put in the journal article you’re using, it creates a map linking similar papers in the field to help you find new research that supports your ideas and research.

Course Hero: Course Hero offers materials (e.g., lecture notes, study guides, and resources) that provide homework help, textbooks, and study resources and guides. The material is presented through videos, written materials, infographics, and more.

Dartmouth Academic Skills Center: This repository of information and resources for students to improve their reading skills is just one example of resources available on many university websites. Most schools have resource centers like this, so be sure to check with your own school.

edex: A joining effort between Harvard University and MIT, edex has over 2,500 courses and programs from more than 140 partner universities. Courses cover a wide range of topics (e.g., research, grammar, writing, and more) and quizzes are available to test your knowledge and skills.

Educational Resources Information Center (ERIC): Part of the Institute of Education Sciences of the Department of Education through a partnership with organizations and publications around the world, ERIC has more than 1.5 million journal and non-journal materials, including scholastic work, reports, books, and policy documents.

Grammarly: Grammarly is a free platform that checks writing for correct grammar, plagiarism, and tone. It can be used as a browser plugin or keyboard add-on. The Grammarly blog also has tips and tricks for improving your writing and grammar.

Google Scholar: This huge databank of academic literature provides reliable resources in various types of publications. It also lists related literature and provides correct citations.

MIT Open Learning Library: This collection of free information and educational content from MIT OpenCourseWare and MITx provides reliable information about topics in science, language, history, media, and writing. Materials can be downloaded and shared.

MLA Style Center: MLA is often used in the humanities, and this style guide helps students ensure they’re using the proper citation format. There are also tips and tricks for general writing and research skills and FAQs for general information.

Paradigm Online Writing Assistant: This free online tool is also a community for writers and teachers. Information is organized by writing skills – revising, editing, explaining, convincing, etc. – to help students better structure their writing.

Plagiarism.org: This resource includes articles and videos for students and writers to learn about plagiarism in educational writing and research and how to avoid it.

Purdue Online Writing Lab (OWL): The Purdue Online Writing Lab is a free resource that provides resources and information about writing and research. Information ranges from how to properly cite resources using all the major styles (i.e., CPS, MLA, and APA) to resources specifically for graduate writing, subject-specific writing, research and citation, and avoiding plagiarism. There are also several resources to help improve reading comprehension.

Semantic Scholar: Semantic Scholar houses scientific papers and publications for graduate students in STEM programs. You can sort through thousands of scientific papers and use Semantic Scholar’s AI to make the reading more accessible and easier to understand.

Interview with a Research Expert

Jamie Smith

Jamie Smith is an attorney and writer who has been teaching college students for over 15 years. She lives in Washington, DC.

Q. What writing, research, and reading comprehension mistakes do you frequently see graduate students make?

Too often I see graduate students making basic writing mistakes, such as using passive voice or using overly complex or “flowery” language because they think it makes them sound more authoritative when it does the opposite. I also cringe when I see graduate students misusing terms of art, especially in their chosen field. Graduate students too often do not proofread and submit work with grammatical and spelling errors. This detracts from the substance of their writing and calls into question how careful they were when performing research.

Q. How do you assist them in improving and correcting their writing/research?

I usually review the drafting process with my students and emphasize two things: 1) Shorter, simpler and more concise is always better and 2) good writing usually involves multiple revisions. When available, I also encourage students to visit the writing center at their university at least once per term to get feedback on how they can improve from writing experts who are not concerned with the substance of their work.

Q. How can grad students improve their reading comprehension skills?

No rushing through reading, ensuring they understand complex terms and terms of art is essential. To give one example, a student of mine recently had a big misunderstanding of the course material when he assumed “public domain” equated with “public,” which it does not. Learning to highlight and annotate important information in text is an essential skill for graduate school, although I do not teach this skill in my classes.

Q. Are there any resources you recommend that students can use in their writing and research?

I really like the PURDUE OWL (online writing lab) as a great resource for citation. I am also a big Grammar Girl fan! As I mentioned before, almost all graduate students have access to their school’s writing center. I believe this is an underutilized resource. Students shouldn’t go only when they are struggling.

Q. What are some skills in this area that all graduate students should have?

Drafting and revision! Some students who wind up in graduate school are used to skating by in undergrad, but the expectations in graduate school are higher. I expect that my students will have mastered skills like proofreading, understanding what a credible source is (and isn’t), and know how to craft a good thesis statement. However, this isn’t always the case.