Grasp that topic! Getting started with a new area of research

When I started my PhD – about three months ago – I found myself having to learn the ins and outs of a whole new topic. Really fun, as I love learning new things, but also kind of like being shipwrecked and floating in the middle of the ocean with no idea which way to swim or where the nearest land might be. Help!

Introductory books or guides are often a good way to get started with a new topic, but there’s one small issue with that: it requires actually having that introductory book or guide (or at least knowing what and where it is). So how to find your way in the vast sea of information? Here’s 5 things that worked for me:

1. Good old Wikipedia
Even though academia did a thorough job at training me to trust only peer-reviewed literature (and even then be skeptic), I don’t find reading peer-reviewed articles particularly helpful when I am new to a field. It always kind of feels like trying to read the blueprint for a coffee machine, when all I really want is the quick start guide. Just show me where the on-button is so I can make my coffee! Wikipedia is like that quick start guide. Just type in your general area of research and poof, there you go.

#sciencetwitter is a thing and used by scientists all over the world. It’s a great resource to find out about things that are happening right now in your field.

3. YouTube
You can read as much as you want, a picture tells a thousand words and a video even more. I found YouTube a great resource to understand the new ecosystem I am studying. The videos of the different aspects of the mangrove forest were illustrative in a way that a scientific paper could never be. I am not sure if YouTube can work as well for non-ecology topics, but in any case, give it a try. You might stumble upon some useful lectures.

4. Google Scholar: download all the things!
I’m the kind of person who prefers to have a broad overview before I dive in, and I love collecting bits and pieces of new information. Two days in to my first literature search (with basic search terms like mangrove ecology and coastal protection) I had downloaded over 200 papers, books and book chapters. This may seem a little excessive, but I was quite happy with my fresh stack of pdf’s. Here’s what I did with them:

  • I loaded all the papers into my reference manager (Mendeley), which automatically renamed and sorted them for me. Then, I had a look at the their title, journal and, if really curious, the abstract. This helped me to paint a mental image of the various topics in my research area, and also helped me identify materials that I wanted to started reading more thoroughly.
  • Sorting the papers by author gave me some idea of the key players in the field, and sorting by journal pointed me to the journals where I should keep an eye out for new publications (tip: sign up to their mailing list).
  • Finally, I sorted the papers by year so I had rough idea of the way the field has changed over the past decades and when the current hot topics starting emerging. I continue to repeat these steps as I collect more articles to refine my data on major players, big journals and important years in the field.

5. Mindmap it
This tool is not as useful on day 1 as the tips above, because you kind of need to know your area of research a tiny, tiny bit (I did this three weeks in) but I think it is still worth mentioning. I love mind mapping, because it forces me to think about the stuff I read and I often end up making connections (not always sensible ones, but still, it’s good to get creative) I wouldn’t have thought of if I just left all the info floating around in my brain.

What I did: based on all the stuff I had read, I came up with a new list of keywords (about 40 words or so). I fired up PowerPoint and wrote each of the words in a text box and then starting drawing and redrawing arrows all over the place. Quite fun, and a nice way to take a break from the endless early-PhD reading sessions for a while.

I’d love to hear what works for you. What do you do when starting out with a new topic? What do you think of these tools?

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