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How do high level academics acquire and integrate information?

  1. Oct 17, 2005 #1

    hypnagogue

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    I recently have begun taking university classes again, and I have been reminded of the impressive breadth and depth of knowledge wielded by professors. I'm interested in getting some insight into how they do it, both because it's an interesting question in its own right and because I would like to learn how to become a better academic myself.

    For this reason I'd like if some of the high level academics here on PF could share their own techniques for how the keep on top of their field and also how they go about branching off into areas that are relatively new to them. By "high level academics" I mean to target people with advanced degrees and experience in their respective fields, i.e. professors, researchers, postdocs, etc. Input from graduate students would also be appreciated, but I would like this to be the cut-off point. So if you are below the graduate level in your field, I respectfully request that you do not offer your study techniques here.

    The general question I'm interested in is: How do high level academics acquire and integrate information? Below I ask some more specific forms and offshoots of this question. Don't feel as if you're compelled to answer any or all of them-- any response to the original question is appreciated-- but if you could address some of the more specific questions asked below, that would be helpful.

    * How do the following rank in importance and/or usefulness in acquiring and integrating information in your field and others? Journal articles/papers, books, textbooks, conferences, discussion with peers, discussion with 'mentors,' lectures, lab meetings, other

    * By what means do you typically come across informative or useful papers? Subscription to a journal, reference from other papers, reference from a book/textbook, author search in a library/internet database, keyword search in a library/internet database, suggested by peers, suggested by 'mentors,' general reputation (e.g. "everyone in the field knows this is a seminal/classic paper"), other?

    * How often do you read a paper or book because it was referenced in another paper or book?

    * How do you get information to really sink in and click into place with pre-existing knowledge and concepts? Repeated reading, note taking, pencil markup of papers/books, discussion with others, repeated application of concepts, other?

    * Do you approach learning about a field that is relatively new to you differently from how you stay on top of your area of expertise? If so, how?

    * Is there any difference to the manner in which you acquire/integrate information/concepts in terms of breadth, as opposed to depth? How do you go about branching off into info/concepts that are relatively peripheral to your focal academic interest?

    * Feel free to pose and answer any other salient questions I may have missed.

    Thanks much.
     
  2. jcsd
  3. Oct 17, 2005 #2

    hypnagogue

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    And a couple more general questions...

    * About how many hours in a typical week do you dedicate explicitly to acquiring/learning new information/concepts?

    * What inspires you? Would you say your motivation is primarily intrinsic or do you depend much on extrinsic prompts/guides/etc to help motivate you? If the latter, please specify. When you get into ruts where work becomes difficult, how do you snap out of it and regain productivity?
     
  4. Oct 17, 2005 #3
    I know you don't want undergrads posting, but I'd just like to say that this is a really good thread.
     
  5. Oct 18, 2005 #4

    Bystander

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    Journals, textbooks, the odd lecture --- by "odd," I mean something akin to the Alvarez interdisciplinary roadshow on Chicxulub.
    References, keywords, reviews, and 5- 10 hrs. a week "browsing."
    How often does the sun rise? Times 3-10.
    Repeat after me, "It's ALL physics. It's ALL physics. It's ALL physics." This mantra is to be chanted every time you run into a problem --- plus markup of texts and papers.
    "It's ALL ...."
    10-20.
    It's primarily intrinsic motivation, or in different words, oriented toward problem solving --- "It's All ...."
     
  6. Oct 18, 2005 #5

    hypnagogue

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    Thanks, I hope everyone can benefit from this. And just to be clear, anyone can post in this thread. I would like for replies to the original questions posed above to be limited to advanced academics, but otherwise anyone can post here.
     
  7. Oct 18, 2005 #6

    hypnagogue

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    Also, I mean for this to be a general set of questions that applies to advanced academics in basically any scientific field; it's not restricted to physics.
     
  8. Oct 25, 2005 #7

    Moonbear

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    Oh, here's where this thread went. I saw it the day you posted, but was half asleep at the time, so didn't reply then. I think I'm still half asleep now, but if I don't reply now, I'll never remember to come back to it.

    1) I don't think I can rank the usefulness of the different media. They're all useful in different ways, and I use all of them on a regular basis. Well, okay, lab meetings aren't as useful for me, but they are useful for the grad students and post-docs who still need more direction on their research.

    2) The ways I come across articles are a) keyword searches through relevant databases/indexes of abstracts, which currently are PubMed and Agricola for me, b) table of contents alerts that are emailed to me from the journals most relevant to my field...you can sign up for these on their websites, c) references in other articles, d) someone else in the lab group finds something interesting and emails it to the rest of us...this really speeds up the process when everyone sends around FYI emails about the most relevant ones they find. Something I need to get back to doing, and can do now that I have a physical library to browse through again (previous university had the library under construction for the past year and a half or so, so everything had to be requested for online delivery) is to periodically go to the shelf with the most recent issues of journals on it and skim through for a few relevant to my field and flip through them for articles. Sometimes this picks up something that didn't appear on a keyword search online, or something I wouldn't have purposely looked for but is nonetheless pertinent catches my attention.

    3) How often I get a paper because it was referenced in another depends on what stage of writing I'm at. If I'm at the point where I've gotten all the articles that come up on a keyword search, then I start picking up peripheral information via citations in the papers I'm reading. I tend to work backward from most recent to oldest information. This saves me from spending a lot of time going over something that has already been greatly revised or rejected as an hypothesis.

    4) Getting information to really sink in usually works best when I either sit down and link the concepts from multiple papers via diagrams, or from discussion of the papers, and from repeated application of concepts. Once you have a strong foundation of knowledge, it becomes easier to acquire, process and integrate new knowledge into the bigger picture of the subject in your mind.

    5) Approaching a new field is a little different. I'll start out with general review articles first, and really read a lot of articles all at once to acquire a lot of information in a short time to ensure I can put it all together conceptually while it's fresh in my mind. Once knowledge is fairly solidified in my mind, going ahead and keeping up-to-date on my current areas of expertise means I can read articles more casually...sit in a cafe with a cup of coffee, or relax outside on a sunny day...distractions aren't as much of an issue, and I can read half an article now and half later if I'm interrupted in my office without losing my train of thought on it. I also have more contacts in my current area to just ask questions if I need to find out something.

    6) Breadth vs depth...or is that breadth and depth? I have a fairly broadly-based training to start with (my previous position was in a cell biology dept and affiliated with a neuroscience program, my current position is in a physiology dept, my training was in animal sciences, etc.), so breadth comes pretty easily. I also add to my breadth of knowledge by hanging out around here, hunting down answers to questions other people pose when they interest me too. It makes it more fun that way. When it comes to depth, that relates to the area of my active research, where I really delve in pretty deeply into the subject.

    6) I really don't keep track of hours. I'm always learning something new. Surely you're all aware I have no life. :tongue2: Seriously, it's sometimes a struggle to go out with friends and NOT have a discussion about science.

    7) As for inspiration/motivation, it's primarily intrinsic. If I had to keep prompting myself to be motivated, I'd have changed fields a while ago. I think when you find something that really interests you, you don't have to work so hard to motivate yourself to do it. That doesn't mean there aren't thinks that are easier to procrastinate on than others. One thing about academic research is I have a great deal of flexibility of how I use my time, so if I get stuck in a rut doing one thing (like writing), I can do another (like head into the lab). I have the added benefit that working with farm animals as my research model means I get to go outside and get dirty and physical once in a while, so when I'm sick and tired of being stuck inside an office staring at a computer screen, there's no shortage of work to do that gets me up and moving. So, I can always be productive, just on different aspects of my projects. It helps to be juggling 3 or 6 or 10 projects at a time, so there's always one at whatever stage strikes my fancy on any given day.
     
  9. Oct 26, 2005 #8
    Nice thread. Much more to the point than the similar one I started.

    A question I'd like to add: do your answers to these questions differ between your undergraduate and graduate education? For example, would you rely on textbooks in undergraduate education more-so than in your graduate education to acquire knowledge?
     
  10. Oct 27, 2005 #9

    hypnagogue

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    Thanks for the responses, Bystander and Moonbear. I think you've helped me triangulate on a deeper question that perhaps is the one I wanted to ask all along, which is: By what means do you actually select what information to seek out? I mean, we are completely awash in masses of papers and books and so on and so many academic fields, and it can be overwhelming and disorienting just considering where to start and where to go next. What heuristics or guides do you use to hone in and say, this is where I'm going to go next? For instance, for any given paper, there are going to be references to copious amounts of other papers, and there is only so much time and other resources to devote to it all. So how do you go about saying, e.g., "I don't need to look at most of these, but ref 5 and ref 17 are definitely papers I want to track down?"
     
  11. Oct 27, 2005 #10

    Tom Mattson

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    Once I finished my core graduate courses, I selected a research advisor. In the beginning he told me which papers to look at. Once I started reading some of them, I learned the names of the people who were doing work that was close to what we were doing, and I took notice when they published something. Also, most papers that were of interest to our group went to the arXiv first. That website allows you to search by "refers to" and "cited by" queries. It made it easy to find out who responded to papers that we found useful. People who share similar research interests also rely on conferences and private communications to keep track of interesting papers.

    So in a way you are already getting practice for this right here at PF. How did you decide which of the tens of thousands of threads not to post in? You initially selected a small number of threads in which to participate. During that time, you learned the names of people whose posts you found interesting. In subsequent visits to PF you kept track of threads in which you previously participated and threads started by people whose names you previously noted. As time went on the list of threads and the list of names both grew, and they continue to grow.
     
    Last edited: Oct 27, 2005
  12. Oct 27, 2005 #11

    Moonbear

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    Well, I think when I started out in grad school, I read ALL of them. When I couldn't stay awake any longer and was buried behind the mound of papers, it was time to stop. Of course, my wise-guy advisor also plunked down the two-volume, approximately 3000-page book containing the most recent reviews (revised about every 4 years) covering everything there is to study related to reproduction, and told me to read that (this happened because when I entered the program, the course sequence was screwy, so I had to take a more advanced reproduction course before taking the one intended for first-year grad students, so asked him what I should review to be prepared for the more advanced class). When he realized I had dutifully taken the book home and really was attempting to read it cover to cover, he finally told me he was only joking and if I read that whole thing, I'd know more than everyone else in the department. :rofl: But, there were about 5 or 7 chapters that were most pertinent to my work, so starting with those, each with about 100 references, was as good of a place as any to delve in.

    Nowadays, it's easier to figure out which to read. As I'm reading, I'll highlight references that pertain to statements I want to either verify, or that refer to something that sounds relevant to my needs. In the papers most relevant to my field, there often are only one or two new papers that I haven't read listed in the references. In the ones that are relevant, but not directly so, then I just pick and choose what sounds interesting. If I'm doing something fairly new, I start with as many review articles as I can find to get my bearings of what are the fairly well-established facts, what areas are open questions, and what is controversial to help me decide what to read.

    Of course, I've also on occassion made the really dumb mistake of choosing an article for a class I'm teaching because it highlights a method or finding that I think is important for students to know, but then to present it to the class and lead the discussion means I wind up reading 30 other articles trying to figure it out for myself, and of course this is usually a result of me hastily picking the article because I was busy with something else that kept me from choosing more carefully in the first place, and I'm reading those articles the night before teaching the class because sometimes things just don't work out timed as we hope. :rolleyes:

    You also learn through experience which articles you really need to read thoroughly from beginning to end, and which you can skim for some methods and figures. I have a tendency to just skip over the introductions, because they're generally just justifying why the work is important, and if I'm already reading the article, I have my own reasons to believe it's important. I also tend to just skim through the discussions too. I only read thoroughly if I hit a section that contradicts what my own interpretation of the results was.

    I've also just handed grad students the grant proposal that their initial project is based upon, and let them use the reference list from that to start their reading. This is the best way to make sure they see the most relevant literature.
     
  13. Oct 27, 2005 #12

    Moonbear

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    Yes, undergraduate education is largely textbook-based and lecture-oriented. Graduate education, at least the philosophy I hold for it, is that it is based on journal articles and discussion with only brief lectures intended to highlight key points of a subject. Graduate education is about introducing the student to the seminal papers in the field, or the hottest topics, giving them a taste of what's available in the literature, and teaching them how to read articles critically, then setting them loose to work independently at gathering more information of interest to them.

    Basically, in undergraduate education, you're a baby bird in the nest, and the professor is the mother bird, bringing all the worms (knowledge) to you. As you get a little older, you start to test your wings and flap them a little, but mostly, you still rely on the professor and your textbooks for information. As you enter graduate school, you're a young fledgling. You've been nurtured and given the basic knowledge, and now start hopping around a bit, trying to peck around for your own food, but your mentor is still there to help out and offer knowledge when you get stuck and to keep nudging you out to stretch your wings more and more, until, hopefully, you'll take flight on your own and then you're ready to get your degree. When a student is able to suggest new experiments on their own that make sense and show deep thought about the subject, that's when I'm satisfied they've gotten what they need out of grad school.
     
  14. Oct 27, 2005 #13

    Tom Mattson

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    I don't know if it's the difference between biology and physics, or the difference between my school and yours, but my experience was very different. We were required to spend two full years taking courses (1 year of core courses, and another year taking specialty courses and one breadth course). By the end of that time we were required to take a Qualifying Exam and we were expected to find a research advisor. But reading papers was definitely not the priority until the 3rd year when students became full-time reasearchers.
     
  15. Oct 27, 2005 #14

    Moonbear

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    It must be a difference between physics and biology programs. Every department I've been in, the students do have some general courses to take, but they're usually just in the first year (biochemistry, which I personally feel is a waste of time because it just repeats what is learned in undergrad biochemistry, statistics, that sort of stuff...the program I was in last had some evil coursework for the grad students, and when I left, the faculty were in the process of cutting it back because it was making it impossible for the students to have enough time to get into the labs and too much of it wasn't anything they couldn't learn on their own anyway), then the second year courses are more aimed at their specialties, and often are in more of a journal club format, with only 6 to 10 students in a class.

    In the graduate program I was in, we didn't have required lab rotations (you could if you wanted to, but nobody forced it), so in your first year could already be in a lab starting up your thesis work (I happened to have joined the lab I worked in as a technician prior to starting grad school, so actually began my own project the summer before I was technically a student). Most other programs I've been a member of require lab rotations during the first two years, where you're getting an idea of which lab you want to stay in after the second year when you have to choose a mentor, and you get to pick up a variety of techniques (rotations usually focus more on learning lab techniques and methods rather than much in depth about a project just because you only have a limited time to get work done). I like the lab rotations, because I think it helps students make a more informed decision about the lab they will choose, whether they can get along with the faculty mentor, and they also get some breadth of knowledge from the labs they rotate through and don't choose.

    At the end of the second year, they take the qualifiers and present a dissertation proposal to their committee (in my grad program, there was a formal proposal defense, sort of like a dry run for the real defense a few more years down the road, but in others, it's just a laid-back committee meeting meant to help refine the proposal). You're then set loose to do your research and nothing but until it's time to write the dissertation.

    Edit: Oops, I misread your post before. :redface: I think the basic set-up is similar, though what counts as first-year core courses varies a lot from program to program. The difference seems to be the second-year specialization courses. In my field, there just aren't any good books for that (other than that 3000 page monstrosity that no grad student could afford to buy), and I don't think anyone has any incentive to write any because we have all trained using journal articles for those second-year classes rather than texts. A textbook just wouldn't be up-to-date enough to be useful. Some people teach from research articles, others choose review articles. I also don't know how your qualifying exams are set up, but we don't write ours based only on the course material. Questions can be about anything related to the student's intended area of specialization. You do have to read a lot of journal articles prior to taking qualifiers if you want to have any hope of passing. (Though, when I took mine, we had a wacky new professor in the department, so my qualifying exam even included a question about teaching that she wrote...I don't think she ever got tenure because that sort of off-base thing was par for the course with her.)
     
    Last edited: Oct 27, 2005
  16. Oct 28, 2005 #15

    Bystander

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    Biologists, chemists, physicists wandering off into archaeology, paleo, history, and other such diversions? Without the advantage of formal courses to get them up to speed on field specific jargon?
    It's pretty much a matter of "follow my nose." What questions remain unanswered, and which citations look apt to contain answers is my main criterion. Any given question or problem statement begets many small questions, and there are the Socratic tests plus "Sagan baloney detector" tests which constitute another set of questions to be applied to any source that is consulted. Reasoning by analogy, appeals to authority or intuition, "the second law applies only to closed systems" type misstatements of basic principles, polysyllabic obfuscation (prezygapophysis is jargon, NOT obfuscation), and obvious misunderstanding or misapplication of principles, or misinterpretation of results are "weeding" criteria. I'll see if I can't put together my all time best writing list --- dunno whether "the weed file" is still in the basement, or has been pitched. Be a week or so for "bests" --- maybe never for "worsts."
    I will offer the comment that the "bests" are understandable to anyone; the "worsts" are painful reading, but excerpted, might illustrate at what point it becomes advantageous to seek enlightenment elsewhere in the literature.
     
  17. Oct 28, 2005 #16

    Moonbear

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    I didn't think he meant anything that drastic. I was thinking more like the path I've taken where I started out in Animal Sciences, then did my post-doc in a physiology department with a focus on endocrinology, and then branched more into neuroendocrinology, and eventually neuroanatomy. It's all related and the progression is logical for what I do, but each switch to a new project involved learning a new body of literature (and the help of collaborators to provide guidance, especially in the beginning when I still had to learn new methods and approaches).
     
  18. Oct 29, 2005 #17

    Bystander

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    The tighter focus was my first impression, also, but having stretched p-chem both directions (from gruesome math to history), there appears to be a general template for approaching math, physical, earth, life, and social sciences --- haven't tried art or music yet --- no interest. "Goedel, Escher, Bach," and Bill Mauldin's comments on art suggest the approach works for those fields as well.

    Vocabulary: "gavage" rhymes with "garage" or with "savage" or with neither?
     
  19. Nov 3, 2005 #18

    mathwonk

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    I am not necessarily a high level academic, but I am a full professor and published researcher. I am a typical professor at a state school. my experience may still be useful.

    I have trouble learning much when I am at work at my usual university teaching job as there is too much time spent teaching low level material, administrating, etc...

    I also admit I am not succeeding at staying abreast of my field, much less on top of it, as the years go by.

    The best way is to get a research appointment with full time research duties, where there are strong high level people to talk to, and work as hard as possible at mastering what they tell you, and come talk to them as often as they will permit. I did this as a young person at great financial sacrifice, selling my car, living very frugally, working literally all the time except when sleeping, and rising early in the morning.

    A piece of advice, even if you are poor, always carry some money, as once I had to turn down an invitation to have lunch with a Fields medalist, because I couldn't afford to buy my own lunch and was too embarrassed to borrow any.

    At other times, go to meetings, listen to good talks, then hang out with the people informally and hear what they say and ask questions.

    When unable to avoid teaching duties, make time for a learning seminar, where you take turns (or handle it all yourself), talking on material you prepare and want to learn.

    Basically you work at it all the time, until other duties, responsibilities, or poor health, make it impossible. But try to make some time to work every day.

    If you find a really good paper by an outstanding person, give a seminar on it. Invite visitors to your university and talk to them.

    Alternate between travel and listening to the best people, and going home to be quiet and work out your own ideas.

    If all your time is used in teaching, try to learn something through teaching, by rethinking the material, trying to understand it better, even if it is elementary stuff.

    This semester, instead of sticking to our classroom textbook on elementary number theory, I have begun reading Gauss disquisitiones, and presenting from it, passing out copies of some pages, as it is much more intelligently written than our book, and explains everything beautifully and more insightfully.

    the best papers to read are those written by the best scientists. once in grad school i spent a few hours in the library reading a few pages of a paper by the most famous "father of my subject", finding it far slower and harder than my textbooks. the next day in class I blew the discussion out of the water as I already knew everything the rpofessor wanted to explain, and he even asked me to stop answering questions to give others a chance. i realized that a few pages by the father of the subject was worth more than many more pages by a routine author.

    It is more enjoyable to teach at a school with strong motivated students as well, as you get a chance to teach better material and to someone who wants to listen. A graduate program helps too as you get a chance to teach higher level stuff. So take these things into account in choosing your job.

    But you can always do something. I once taught at a small school with no mathematical stimulation, and commuted 3 days a week over 220 miles RT to hear a good speaker on algebraic topology, for an entire semester.

    Hang in there.
     
    Last edited: Nov 3, 2005
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