This will be a common mantra from those who assess your performance, but it’s not without basis. I’ve been trying to write these posts (see Parts One and Two) in a subject-neutral fashion, and I hope it’s clear that this is true regardless of your PhD title.
Picture the scene: You’re at the coal-seam of fresh new science. You’re building on the work of your predecessors, trying out new ideas and research avenues. Exciting? It’s usually more exciting to be doing something more active than simply reading other people’s work (if you’re a scientist, you’d probably rather spend some more time in the lab, etc). But you can’t escape the fact that you have to keep up with the literature.
There is a phenomenal amount of stuff to read. Mankind currently stores about 295 exabytes of information – that’s about a quarter of a million external hard drives. We’re adding to this information all the time – NASA indexes around 9 million scientific papers in its ADS service. In your chosen field, it will be basically impossible to read every word that comes out of the community. You’ll have to be selective about what you read, but not too selective. You might not see why cosmic microwave background research has anything to do with planet formation, but sometimes a research technique can be applied across fields. Keep an open mind!
When you do start reading, keep track of it. In particular, keep track of potential references for when it comes to writing. People who use LaTeX and BibTeX will know the struggle to get their citation lists in order, and the earlier you do this, the easier it gets. I use Mendeley to organise my papers. Billed as “an iTunes for papers”, it’s a free service that stores your papers and PDFs to the cloud, making them easy to track. If you use BibTeX, it can automatically generate files for you – if you use Word, it can automatically insert citations into your documents, and produce a References list as well.
This brings us neatly onto writing. The more stuff you write, the better. As I said, we’re producing a lot of content as a species – to make your drop in the ocean a significant one, you better get used to writing stuff, with quality and quantity. Your institute will probably offer writing courses, etc – use them whenever you can. Writing papers can be an arduous process, which gets exponentially more time-consuming as you add more authors and more complexity. Why make it any harder on yourself by holding on to spelling/grammar issues, or the more subtle issues of writing style? Take the chance to improve that part of yourself – after all, if you do decide to leave academia, then those skills will be very useful later.
While courses are helpful to improve, the best solution is practice. Write as much as you can about relevant stuff. Whether it’s a description of your latest labwork or a critique of a paper you read, jotting it down in a notebook or typing it up will help you hone your writing style, and allow you to sit down and just write, uninhibited.
Also, the more you write, the more might end up in that 50,000 word book you’ll have to write at the end of your PhD. When you create that first document file for your thesis, and start writing that monster, if the first action you take is to copy and paste 10,000 words of stuff into it, then a real weight is going to come off your shoulders. Trust me – even if you have to then hack that text to pieces, having something substantial like that to start with is really, really helpful.