There is no such thing as, “never been done before.” Humankind as written about every subject, and it is the job of the grad student to find out the extent to what we know, and push just a little further.
You can get so easily lost in the forests of knowledge that within a matter of minutes, you’ve compiled enough reading material to last for weeks. It’s not humanly possible to get though it all. Yet, it feels expected of us.
Today, I offer a breadcrumb trail to lead you to the cottage in the woods (we all know the story, but even though we know, we must follow, anyways, don’t we?). When looking for literature:
- If you are having trouble finding articles, look at the key words below the abstracts of papers, and in the titles of works cited in the references. Ask your advisor and fellow grad students for suggestions on a few papers to get you started.
- When you find the “magic words,” your search will change from being pithy to incredibly overwhelming. That means you’re on the right track!
- Look at number of citations, dates, and abstracts. If you know nothing about your subject:
- Pick the papers with the most citations to start on first. Usually these will be older, yet key papers in your field. Use the abstracts to help guide you to what’s relevant.
- Next, go by the recent (in the past year or two) papers. Skim abstracts. Usually they will tell you what’s hot/new/developing in the field.
- As quickly as possible, bracket your search. This can be difficult if you’re still learning about the field. However, the faster and more definitely you can define what you are looking for, the easier it will be to look for only papers that pertain to you.
- Avoid jumping down rabbit holes. This is coming from someone that spent a year in critical discourse analysis before switching to a year reading about online learning. Still, if I were talking to less experienced me, I’d tell her: STICK TO YOUR BOUNDARIES. It can be hard to do! Save interesting articles to read later, when you have time (HA! We never have enough time!)
- Prioritize what you will read first. Start with broad, theoretical papers to get a feel for the field. Then go to the narrow, empirical studies, ordered by most relevant to your topic.
By the way… it is normal to feel completely overwhelmed and lost. It is part of the cycle of being a grad student (think of a roller coaster). Get yourself “unlost” as quickly as you can, but understand that even when they are calling you DOCTOR, you’re going to have moments where you’re going to feel lost. That’s how we grow.