Surviving Grad School: How to Read and Take Notes Efficiently

When I googled how to survive a graduate seminar, I found a zillion different websites with a zillion different opinions. I realized that I could spend my entire graduate career reading tips on how to survive graduate seminars and graduate school more broadly. And there would still be more to read out there!

But here’s the best piece of advice I ever received on how to survive in a graduate seminar: learn how you learn. Try out a strategy, assess if and how it might work for you, and then keep what’s useful and discard what’s not. Learning how you learn is actually how you survive in a graduate seminar (and graduate school and academia)!

Learning is a conscious, deliberate, and engaged process, and while it’s not the same for any two people, foresight and organization can help just about everyone get ready for a graduate seminar each week. So here is my strategy for being intentional, expedient, and effective when you read for seminar (or for reading historical monographs more generally).

You don’t have to read every word. Your instinct may be to read every word of every book. Each author took the time to write each and every word so they must all be important, right? The answer to that question is the historian’s favorite answer: “yes and no” and “it’s complicated.”

Yes, the author’s words are important. But no, each word and sentence in a book is not equally important. And, importantly, you do not need to give each word an equal amount of attention and mental energy. There is not enough time in a week – and it is simply not necessary – to store every sentence, example, or argument in a historical monograph in your long-term memory (or even in your notes).

One strategy to sift through all the information and pull out what’s important is to write abbreviations while you read. I write in the margin of books when I am reading, but using post-its or keeping a piece of paper with corresponding page numbers works just as well. These abbreviations correspond to information that I know I will need for seminar. (These criteria can change depending on your sub-field or your faculty member’s expectations).

  • “T” = Thesis (author’s overarching argument in the book or article)
  • “Arg” = argument to support the thesis (usually 1-2 in each chapter or section of a journal article)
  • “S” = primary sources (archival or otherwise)
  • “HI” = historiographical intervention (what the author is doing that other scholars have not done before, what is new or innovative about this book—for instance, a new source base, methodological approach, geography, timespan, etc.)
  • “M” = methodology (what theoretical framework or lens the author is using to analyze their sources)
  • “RQ” = research question (the question the author is trying to answer and the parameters of answering that question)
  • “CR” = criticism (this indicates places where I think the author is falling short. For instance, if the author seems to be stretching their evidence or has left something out that should have been included to answer their RQ. Remember that good criticisms don’t ask the author to do something they didn’t intend to do; they assess the work within the bounds of its intentions and offer clear, specific examples to support the criticism.)
  • “FRQ” = Future Research Question (places where new ideas come to my mind, such as different research subjects or questions that scholars could pursue as a follow up to this author’s work).

Create a reward system that motivates you. I place a post-it at the end of each chapter so I know approximately how many pages I have left to read. I use these post-its as benchmarks – as mini-motivators to get through my reading. Sometimes I add other motivators, such as a timer to challenge myself to read more expediently—I rarely get the work done within the time limit I set but just having the timer forces me to read more quickly. And, finally, I almost always plan a reward for myself for when I get to a post-it (a small victory!). For example, I’ll tell myself: “when I finish this chapter, I’ll go get a cup of tea” or “when I get through this section, I can eat a cookie” or “when I finish the book, I will take a walk with my dog.” 

Add Post-It Notes to the ends of chapters to motivate yourself and track your progress.

Use the author’s language to hone in on important sections. As you read, look for important passages where you should place an abbreviation (and where you’ll need to focus on what the author is staying so that the information gets stored in your long-term memory). You might find that the language that precedes these passages is predictable. For example, “scholars have studied x, y, or z from a, b, or c perspectives” is likely where you’re going to find a historiographical intervention.

The historiographical intervention usually appears in the introduction.

The location of the important information in a book is somewhat predictable. You’re likely to find most of the key information in the introduction and conclusion or epilogue. And, the sub-arguments that support an author’s overarching thesis are usually found in the first few and last few paragraphs of each chapter. You’ll want to read more than just these sections to fully understand the author’s points, but at the very least (if you are pressed for time) make sure you carefully read and focus on these important parts of every book.

Summarize as you go. At the end of each chapter, I hand write between two and five sentences that summarize the chapter’s argument and how that chapter supports the book’s overarching thesis (which I write out at the end of the introduction). I only give myself about five minutes to do this because time is scarce in grad school and it’s more important to have a decent summary of each book than one perfectly eloquent summary of a single chapter. They usually look something like the image to the left (complete with partial thoughts, fragmented sentences, and almost unreadable penmanship!).

Make the process your own. When I’ve finished an entire book and made hand-written notes throughout, I go through these final steps:

  1. I sit down and type out the end-of-chapter summaries that I previously hand wrote in my book. Check out my book notes template here. If you do this step, it gives you a chance to correct any incomplete sentences or misspellings, and jot down page numbers with important passages, including each chapter’s argument.
  2. I type out the overarching argument of the book. (I look back at what I scribbled after reading the intro and compare it to what I noted when I finished the conclusion and typed my chapter summaries.)
  3. I go back through the book, looking for my other symbols (ex. “S,” “HI,” “RQ,” etc.) and type these into my notes with corresponding page numbers.
  4. I then type, as bullet points, my ideas about the book’s weaknesses (“CR”), strengths, and future research questions (“FRQ”), including page numbers where I’ve found examples to support my analysis.  
A quick glance at the endnote associated with the paragraph where I wrote “FRQ” can let me know if a topic has already been explored.

5. I also look back at the Research Question (RQ) and Historiographical Intervention (HI) and make sure the Criticisms (CRs) and/or Future Research Questions (FRQs) that I’ve included in my notes are well evidenced. For instance, that I’m not criticizing the author unduly by enlarging their scope beyond the parameters they set or coming up with an FRQ that someone else has probably already studied. In short, I check the parameters of my CR and reassess the merits of my FRQs.

6. If I have time, I re-read what I’ve typed, ensuring that my notes are as precise and concise as possible. (I aim to keep them no more than 2 pages long.) As I do this, I remind myself to trust my own memory. I’ll remember the small details if they’re relevant to the discussion, which means I can limit what I’m putting in my notes to the big, really important takeaways from the book. In short, I try to write down only what is new to me so that I’m not overwhelmed by the length or organization of my notes later on.

7. Finally, I print my notes and go to seminar. There, I participate in the discussion and make any necessary corrections or additions to my typed book notes — and there are always both because I’m a fallible human and I’ve pushed myself to be expedient! This revision is crucial so that when I go back to my book notes weeks, months, or even years later, I’m sure to find the author’s argument and other key details as precisely as possible.

Just remember, consistency and intentions are key! Preparing for graduate seminars can be overwhelming—you usually have 1-2 books to read in addition to scholarly articles, supplemental readings, and/or any written assignments that are due. But seminars are not meant to be impossible. Take time to learn how you learn and make it your intention to keep improving your strategy to read efficiently and take notes effectively. Paying attention to how you (and not just the historical events you’re studying) change-over-time is an important part of graduate school, as is continuity in your commitment to read and take meaningful notes so stick with it. You’ve got this!  

8 thoughts on “Surviving Grad School: How to Read and Take Notes Efficiently

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  1. This is so good–I do something similar but this system is way better! Have you cracked the code on a good system with audible books or with kindle books? I know the hack on cut and pasting your kindle highlights on line but haven’t come up with an usable system for Audible books.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Jack, thanks for reading my post! I’m pretty low tech so I have not created a system for audible or kindle books but I’d love to hear your ideas. Have you found a way to parse out the workload and take notes on either platform?

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Thanks for a very helpful piece. Right now I’m struggling with the massive number of journal articles I need to digest each week. Any tips specific to retaining and organizing information from these beyond what you discuss for book reading? I’m struggling with a system for storing what I learn from each article for better retention.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Kelly, thanks for your comment. I totally understand–journal articles always sneak up on your because they always take longer to read than you expect and are often so engaging it is easy to get lost in the details and stories. But the good news is that most have a formula to how they’re written and here is the order with which it will go–articles typically start with an engaging anecdote; introduce the authors argument, historiographical intervention, research questions and methodology; then present their primary source evidence to support their argument; and finally wrap up with a conclusion that relates it all back to the larger topic and/or some contemporary issue. I would suggest targeting your reading and note taking to make sure you touch on the same categories of information (the author’s argument or thesis, historiographical intervention or what they are doing that is new, sources, methodology, and then come up with some criticisms). Your notes will likely be more concise than the book notes template I provided because each history monograph is really made up of multiple journal articles that follow this general formula so it may help to think of these notes as mini book notes. I generally follow the same annotation style for reading journal articles (T, HI, S, FRQ, etc.). Please feel free to let me know if you have any additional questions. I hope my method is helpful–it has worked to me but I’d love to also hear other ideas of what is working for everyone so please feel free to leave some more comments and let me know what you’ve found helpful!


      1. Thanks! I do have one question- is there a particular note storage system you find that helps make it easy to access information in a given note later on? As the number of book and article notes multiply, it gets hard to keep them organized and usable.


      2. Hi Kelly, that is something I’m still working on. I experimented with OneNote and found it cumbersome so I used just plain old Microsoft Word and file folders on Dropbox but now that I’m reading a lot more books on my iPad (I got an apple pencil, I’m a huge fan!), I’m starting to use GoodNotes. I like that the organization system in it and how it mimics file folders and paper notebooks while allowing me to add tags and search for things. I’m not sure if this is helpful because I’m super new to this new platform but my main tip is keep to start organizing early and keep trying things until you find what works for you. What systems you tried?


      3. Hi. Not really. I’ve been using Evernote for a long time for all my ideas and interests, but it’s become a virtual black hole and I don’t really use it properly. My current approach is just creating a 1-page summary google doc for each book or article I read. But this is time consuming and doesn’t really help me with accessing and cross-referencing. I think I’m going to give GoodNotes a try!


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