Take Reading Notes!

As a soon-to-be Ph.D. student, I don’t think I can provide any insights into topics such as “how to succeed as an academic,” because I am still far away from being an academic.  But I think I can share some of my thoughts on how to be a good student. I have received lots of advice in my life, most of them are pertaining to exam taking because I have Asian parents and friends. Regarding political science, however, the most important advice I have received in my opinions is from Professor Matthew Wells, a current VAP at Wabash College. One day when I was in his office, he told me that it was great that I got into many grad schools that I applied to, but in the long term, he said, “you need to use your work, instead of your motivation, to let people know you.” I did not tell Professor Wells how important that conversation has meant to me, but it has definitely been motivating me to study/work harder so that I could possibly produce some meaningful work in the next few years.

Another important piece of advice that I received is that I should always take reading notes when I read. I receive this suggestion from one of my Chinese teachers while I was in elementary school. (For those who do not know me, let me brag about this — I went to the same elementary school that Yao Ming went to. Yeah.)  I was forced to write down notes when I read because my teacher collected our notes frequently. Such behavior later developed into a habit for me — I like to write down quotes, notes, and thoughts when I read. More often than not, these notes helped me to get A’s in college especially during seminars.

Now, I want to share my thoughts on why do I think it is not only meaningful, but also important for students (at least for undergrads, hopefully for graduate students as well) to take reading notes when they read. First, to many people including me, memory does not improve as we grow older. I was able to recite hundreds of ancient Chinese literature (for example, this one) when I was in high school, but sadly, I no longer have an awesome brain as I did while in high school. So it becomes really sweet if I have reading notes in a document so that I can refer to that document instead of the original article/book when I want to mention a point either in class or when I write. Second, I guess more relevant to grad students, having reading notes means that you have a self tailored study guide for comps, and a bibliography list for writings. My reading notes look like this. Having reading notes like this helps me (1) recall what I read months ago, and (2) cite accurately (whether a definition, a short note, or the key ideas) without spending time trying to figure out where did the author mention the point I want to cite. Last but not least, I don’t own most of the books I read, and marking on a library book is not the best thing people can do. So note taking becomes important to me because oftentimes, I will want to cite something in a book that I have already returned.

I find LaTeX useful when I take notes because (1) a lot of my readings are related to math, (2) the comment function is awesome, (3) bibliography is easy, and (4) I really don’t like the fact that Microsoft becomes a monopoly of typesetting, but I am sure that Word would work well for many people. And I think it is more important for students to take notes when they read, regardless of the software they are using.

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