By Drew Thomas |

The biggest lesson I’ve learned as a postgraduate student is that it’s impossible to read everything. Of course, no new postgrad believes this and spends the first month or so attempting to read at an impossible speed. They will quickly discover, however, that it’s not a sustainable study habit. In fact, it’s quite a relief to realize you can’t read everything. The hard part and one of the best skills you can develop is determining what not to read.

The key is to spend a little extra time before you dive into a text to see if you really need to read it. The payoff for this extra investment is the time you will save by realizing you don’t need to read a particular book. Adopt some of the following strategies to prevent setting yourself up for failure and the inevitable imposter syndrome.

“One of the best skills you can develop is determining what not to read.”

1. Literature Reviews

Perhaps one of the most undervalued scholarly genres of writing. There are always debates about the usefulness of literature reviews, the self-censorship often employed in them, and at what point in your career it is best to write them. Whenever this comes up, I always suggest for authors to write them with the student in mind who needs to determine whether it’s relevant to their research.

Search for literature reviews to read a summary, get an understanding of the research methodologies, and a general idea of the argument’s strengths and shortcomings. If you can find more than one, even better. Luckily, online resources, such as JSTOR, allow you to filter by document type, including by literature review.

Now here’s a challenge: if someone knows how to successfully incorporate literature reviews into reference managers, such as Zotero, please let me know!


2. Indexes & Google Books

Another strategy is to search the book for the material that’s relevant to you. Even if a full text is not available via Google Books, there is still often the option to search the text and see page snippets of the results. That way, you only have to read the sections directly relating to your research.

If you’re unable to search electronically, this is where the old fashioned index comes in handy. You’d be surprised how useful this can be. I study sixteenth-century printers and publishers. I’ll often search the index for the names of my relevant printers to see if they even appear in the work. And if they do, I now know exactly where. This has saved me loads of time.


3. Scanning & Skimming

If your book or article doesn’t have an index, then it might be useful to quickly scan the work for your relevant terms. Otherwise, develop the habit of skimming a text before you dive in.

First, read the abstract or table of contents. Then read the introductory and concluding paragraphs of each chapter or section. Next, analyse any tables, figures, or graphs. If you need to go more in depth, read the subheadings within a chapter or section. If you find a particular section relevant, then read the first sentence of each paragraph.


While these strategies will not give you a full understanding of an author’s work or the nuances of his or her research, it will assist you in determining whether to devote your limited time to this particular work. In an ideal setting, you would be able to read everything. Unfortunately, your looming thesis deadline does not provide such a setting. Undoubtedly you will overlook material, but that’s the nature of research. Hopefully, these strategies will free up some of your time, so you are able to focus on what’s most important.

If you have any other strategies, please let me know. Give us a shout out at @pubsandpubs.


Drew Thomas is a PhD student at the University of St Andrews. He has a Bachelor of Arts in Theology and Philosophy from Saint Louis University and a Master of Theological Studies from Harvard University. His PhD is a study of the rise of the Wittenberg print industry during Martin Luther’s Reformation. He is currently the Technical Editor for Pubs & Publications, the Communications Manager for the Universal Short Title Catalogue and the Digital Developer for the Caroline Minuscule Mapping Project. You can follow him on Twitter at @DrewBThomas or on