READ PRIMARY LITERATURE

The best way to connect with faculty is to think about the kind of work they produce. Reading publications or looking at materials produced by interesting faculty members can give insight into their work and approach. It can also help you identify gaps in knowledge! There are many different kinds of scholarly publications, and what you have to look at is largely based on what field you’re in.

 

Reading Scholarly Literature
Before You Start Reading...

Here are some different kinds of writing you can run into:

  • Research articles: In STEM fields, a research article is a detailed description of two or three experiments, written by the researchers who did the work. In non-STEM fields, it is a more focused exploration of a single topic, and it can have one or many authors.
  • Books: Most common form for scholarship in non-STEM fields, usually consists of a sole author exploring a large topic in depth.
  • Chapters: In a chapter, a scholar will contribute a chapter to a larger work that is made up of many authors.
  • Short reports or letters: Brief description of one or two experiments, written by the researchers who did the work.
  • Meta-analysis: Researchers take the findings of multiple papers and analyze the results cumulatively as a broader, large scale study.
  • Reviews: In STEM fields, reviews are summaries of multiple papers in the field (commonly become textbook chapters), written by an expert in the field. In non-STEM fields, an expert is usually reviewing a book or performance done by someone else in the field.
  • Case Study: Detailed account of important cases and rare examples.
  • White paper: An authoritative report giving information on an issue.
  • Conference Preceding: A collection of technical papers presented to a conference or workshop.

Remember to consider the audience when reading these works! If it was published in a scholarly or peer-reviewed journal, it’s probably written for other PhDs, not an undergrad student.  In other words, don’t freak out if you struggle with it – it wasn’t written with you in mind!

Guide to Reading Research Journal Articles

If you’re in a lab-based discipline,  you’ll probably be looking for primary literature written by the labs or faculty members you’re interested in. To get started:

  • Access the full version of the paper. Use the university library website or Northwestern scholars to access these for free. Your librarians can help!
  • Read the title and abstract. Try to understand every word. Take time to look up the words you don’t know. Keep track of these words.
  • Look at the section titles. Get an idea of how the information will be presented. It may be easier to read background and results sections first to try and understand the methods.

Use the guide below to help you sort through each section!

  • Title: The hook –> Understand every word.
  • Abstract: The movie trailer –> Look up words/phrases you don’t know.
    • Make sure you understand every word in the Title and Abstract. It’s okay if you don’t know them immediately, but make sure you look up words that are unfamiliar before moving forward. Since these parts are a snapshot about what’s to come, it means all these words are critical to your understanding!
  • Introduction: What has been done in the past –> Read all as best you can.
    • This section can be a big academic flex because it’s situating the current work in what’s been done in the past. Since you are not yet in the field, a lot of the referencing and name dropping might go over your head. That’s okay!
  • Methods: What they did, and how? –> Know who the subjects are, what types of actions were performed for this research?
    • Since this section contains the actions performed, think about whether or not you’re interested in doing this things yourself! Can you picture yourself interviewing people? Creating a dataset? Reading documents for certain information in an archive?
  • Results: Long-hand explaining the Figures and other relevant findings without interpreting them in context –> If you’re feeling it, go ahead and read.
  • Conclusion/Discussion: What the results say in context and where the research goes from there –> Read as best you can.

Guided Questions for Reading Primary Literature

When you’re reading through this, ask yourself:

  • What is the main question they are interested in pursuing?
  • What background research/pattern/theoretical prediction motivates this question?
  • Why is this question interesting in light of the background they discuss?
  • What methods or approach did they use to collect the evidence presented in this?
  • What conclusions were made? What are the implications of these conclusions?
  • What interests me about this work? Why?
  • What questions do I have?

Annotate these articles and practice summarizing them in 1-2 sentences in a separate document (you’ll be thanking yourself when you schedule you’re meetings and you already have all your questions outlined!).

Interpreting Tables and Figures

Any tables, graphs, or figures presented in a paper are very intentional. Think through the meaning and interpretation of these images to help make sense of the presented argument.

To get started:

  • What kind of data is being presented? Look at the axis labels, and read the figure legends to help provide context.
  • Find where the figure is referenced in the text. What do the authors say about the figure in the text?
  • Are there controls in the data to help support the argument? If so, what pieces of the data are the controls and why?
Guide to Interpreting Creative Outputs and Journalism

If you’re in a field where research culminates in a creative project or journalism rather than peer-reviewed publication, it often makes more sense for you to first look at the creative or journalistic work created by faculty members or professionals in order to see what is being done in these fields.  Here is a guide for starting to interpret these works!

Beyond “Good” or “Bad”

A key part of the artistic process is knowing why you are making a piece of art and who the audience is that you are trying to reach; similarly, journalists always need a justification for why they’re producing a certain piece and what audience needs to see it.

When exploring and analyzing an artist’s or journalist’s work, it is important to remember to explore the purpose of the piece and think critically about the production. Don’t just think about whether you think it is “good!”

Craft and Intention

Explore what you feel the artist is attempting to do– what elements of their craft did they employ, and what was their intention? Do you feel like they were effective? How? The same goes for journalism– what kinds of methods did the author use? What was their goal? Do you think they were successful?

This approach should guide how you use creative works and journalism in the development of your own ideas. Understanding what they’ve produced and their process for how they approach their work can be helpful to ground your understanding of the field and what has already been done. It can also help you discern where a gap in knowledge exists and how you can help fill it! When you are exploring the work of faculty artists and/or journalists, this approach can help you determine questions that they could potentially help with, allowing you to have more in-depth conversations with them.

Content and Process

When exploring artistic works, sometimes we are looking at what the artist is exploring (topic), but for others we are looking at how they did what they did (process used for creation). The same goes for journalism as well- are you interested in the topic they’re focused on, or are you interested in how they collected their sources, their chosen output, etc.?

Obviously, these options aren’t mutually exclusive, but it is important to know where your interest primarily lies. This self-awareness can help you frame your conversations with faculty members as you develop your own project because you can specify how their expertise on topic and/or process would be relevant to you.

Context

To deeply examine a piece of art, it is important to take into account the circumstances that contextualize it– what are the surrounding political, social conditions, etc, and how does the work respond to those conditions or provide new insights? Was this particular work innovative or controversial for its time? What was the artist’s position in society when they created the work?  A lot of these issues ring true for journalism as well– what is the socio-political context surrounding a work? Whose voice(s) is it highlighting? Who is not included? Is the journalist coming from an insider or outsider perspective?  Thinking in this way may help you understand the purpose of the work more deeply, and it can provide important perspectives to discuss with a faculty member/artist/journalist. 

Guided Questions for Creative Output and Journalism

  • What creative methodology was used for this work? Is there a particular style employed?
  • Who is the intended audience of this work?
  • What main themes or ideas does the artist/author convey? How does the creative output influence these themes or ideas?
  • What are the implications of the artist/author’s work? How might this impact the field for future work?
  • How does this faculty member’s practice connect to what your interest? What parts of their expertise would be helpful for what you want to achieve?