I will be a grad student in condensed matter theory starting this fall. As an undergrad, I did the basic physics and math courses as well as a few grad classes (qft, analysis, solid state physics etc.)

When I start reading research papers, I often feel overwhelmed because there is so much that I don't know and I find it hard to decide which points to gloss over and which points to spend time on and understand more thoroughly (which in my case, would probably require supplementary reading of textbooks or related papers)

What are some things to keep in mind while reading a paper so that:

  1. I get a general overview of the paper and I more useful insights into parts

  2. I can do the above reasonably fast (say, finish reading at least 1 paper a week for a start)

You don't have to be specific to condensed matter theory papers when you answer.

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    $\begingroup$ possible duplicate of How to learn physics effectively and efficiently $\endgroup$
    – Danu
    Mar 8 '14 at 14:07
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    $\begingroup$ I don't see any duplication. Reading textbooks is very different from reading a research paper. Generally, textbooks start reasonably from scratch, while papers don't. And if you've ready my question, that's one of the reasons I and many other people at my level find it hard to read papers, but not textbooks. $\endgroup$
    – user34801
    Mar 8 '14 at 14:12
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    $\begingroup$ Hi there. I have read your question. To me, the only proper way of understanding a paper is outlined in the highest voted answer to the question I linked. There is no substitute for going through derivations yourself IMO, and when you can't derive something immediately you have to 'dig backwards' until you find either a textbook discussing it or the original paper, which you will then have to go through. $\endgroup$
    – Danu
    Mar 8 '14 at 15:18
  • $\begingroup$ Hi @user34801, this question fits poorly on Phys.SE for various reasons e.g. it is primarily opinion-based. I'm closing this as a duplicate, not because it is an exact duplicate, but to guide you in the right direction. $\endgroup$
    – Qmechanic
    Mar 8 '14 at 16:22
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    $\begingroup$ I answered this at physicsoverflow.org/6258 $\endgroup$ Jul 12 '15 at 13:26


A Prof once said to me you should read the abstract, look at the pictures, then read the conclusion at the end, and then start reading the paper. It's only an overhead of minutes and you're slightly less lost and get an idea what the author thinks the value of the paper is.

What I also like to do when taking notes is keeping in mind the search for what are appropriate lists for data. I.e. make it a task to find out what sort of collections of factoids would useful w.r.t. the task you set out to do. It helps forming an appropriate hierarchy of things on your head, which is different for every subject.


I would read abstract and conclusions, formulate some questions to the conclusions and than look it over to see where my questions could be answered. Than read those parts first. Include the figures in your first lookover.


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