PhD Survival Guide; How to critically read an article

So you have just spent what feels like an eternity trolling through google scholar to find an article that appears to be relevant to your research or assignment topic (at least the title looks relevant), and now you have to read it. How hard can that be? Here are my tips;


Step 1) Read the abstract first – The abstract is basically a cheat sheet, it reveals the important aspects of the paper and allows you to see if the article is actually relevant to you. Look for keywords, look at the methodology, and the results. Be brutal here, if the abstract is not relevant do not waste your time and read it.

Step 2) Read the discussion- Read the start of the discussion, as this part shows you the results without all the confusing statistics and graphs, and allows you to understand if the results are relevant.

Step 3) If by this point it is clear that the article is relevant and you need to read it (even after your best attempts to find a reason to dismiss it… we’ve all been there!) you need to go back to the start and read from the introduction all the way to the conclusion. But how do you do this effectively….

Tip 1) Do not overuse your highlighter- It may look pretty, but having an article completely covered in colour is not at all helpful. You only want to highlight the important things so you can go back to these parts when you are summarising.

Tip 2) Use a dictionary (or google). When you are needing to understand what the article is saying, it is really important that you stop and google any words that you do not understand. Not only will this help you understand the sentence, it will also expand your vocabulary.

Tip 3) Scribble notes- Do not assume a thought that you have when you read a concept will appear in your brain the next time you read it. Your mind has a funny way of forgetting your genius ideas- scribble down or add a comment (if using a computer) any important thoughts you have.

Tip 4) Look beyond the content- The content of the article is obviously important to your research or assignments (otherwise you wouldn’t be reading it), but you should also look at how the article is structured and the type of language/style used. The best way to improve your own writing is to keep any article you believe to be good and use these as templates.

Tip 5) Do not just take the content as truth- As the name ‘critically reading’ suggests you need to put your critical hat on. This does not mean that you criticise the authors just because, it means that you identify limitations in the article and note these down. All research has limitations, most even have limitations beyond what the authors acknowledge- identify these.

Tip 6) Stop if you aren’t concentrating- Critically reading an article takes concentration. If you are not comprehending the words, stop! Put a star to show future you where you are up to and have a break!

Click here for the Article Cheat Sheet that I made.

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