Whether you are writing for a PhD position, or searching for a research job, an academic CV can look a little bit different to a typical resume for any other jobs you’ve had before.
Here, there is a focus on research experience, writing and often a very clear structure that is expected.
However, we want an academic CV to captivate your audience. You need to catch the eyes of potential supervisors, universities or new employers.
Here is the template that I follow for my Academic CV. I am currently a PhD candidate and have scored myself multiple tutoring roles during my time as a post-graduate student.
The general idea is to make sure it includes your academic qualifications, research experience, scholarships (or funding you’ve received), awards, conference and teaching experience and research outputs.
General Structure of an Academic CV
Scholarships and Awards
If there are any sections here that you know you have no experience in, or that you aren’t able to fill yet, keep on reading – I have included alternative ideas to provide examples of your capabilities otherwise!
Hopefully this one comes easily to you! For an academic CV, of course, you need some academic qualifications. Whether you have just started a degree, or have an undergraduate already under your belt, this is the spot for it.
I usually like to keep it simple here, but also tailored. The key is that everyone with an academic CV obviously has some kind of degree or qualification. Thus, for more, just be straightforward. Most people reading it would have gone through a similar experience, so the bells and whistles here are not needed.
Further, unless you have a very shiny GPA (almost perfect), you probably don’t need to include it. Just include the name of the degree, year completed (or expected graduation) and if you had to write a specialised thesis (as in, completed an Honours year), add the title here too. This lets the reader know a specialty area of yours.
If you have lots of professional academic experience, this is where you would include it.
For me, this is where I detail any research roles/experience I have gained.
That is, time I’ve spent as a summer scholar, in research placements, or internships. I detail my job description, tasks I underwent and any specialty knowledge I acquired, alongside the name of the laboratory/university/company this was undertaken at.
Scholarships & Awards
This one is nice and easy, just simple list of awards you’ve gathered along the way, who from and what date.
This could include awards at conferences, commendations for your grades, or monetary scholarships won.
Whatever you can think of that deserves to be put on show, can be listed here.
My examples: 3MT (3 minute thesis) commendation or Best in Session at a conference.
Teaching Experience & Supervision
This will of course depend on how long you’ve been in the academic game and what tricks you’ve got up your sleeve!
For me, this section includes which courses I have tutored for, and the titles of my honours student’s theses.
If you don’t have teaching experience directly, you could include any things where you’ve volunteered your assistance. Before formally tutoring, I helped my supervisor teach a summer short course. Perhaps you’ve volunteered your expertise in university library sessions that aim to help out students in courses you’ve already completed.
Were you able to present at any conferences during your undergraduate degree? If so, add them here. This section could also include informal presentations. For example, during your laboratory’s meetings, or perhaps during a campus tour.
You could also call this section “Talks and Presentations” to better encompass all of the aforementioned experience.
This section should include any publications that are not formally peer-reviewed. For me, this covers progress reports created for my industry partners, which involve countless hours of work, but never get published as full articles.
I was also able to write up a small article for an undergraduate research newsletter (after presenting at a conference). I also like to include this in my CV to show breadth of writing capabilities. Journal article writing is one thing, but being able to take on multiple writing styles and media is great to showcase.
This is the most typical section that you will see in any academic’s CV: the pride and joy of scientific research.
Here is where you list any papers that you have authorship.
If you are in the process of submitted to a journal, you can also be a little sneaky and cite your work as inpreparation.
Further tips for your academic CV…
For some beautiful but simple CV templates, I suggest looking at Canva.
It is December 28th, 2020. I can officially say that I have come to the end of being a first year PhD student.
Miraculously, I have survived. I have made it far past my first week as a PhD! And I can honestly say that it has been an absolutely amazing learning experience and my self-development this past year has been at an all time high.
Running experiments (emailing and interacting with participants).
Attending workshops, lectures and conferences.
Supervising Honours students.
Teaching undergraduate classes and meeting with students.
Analysing Data (learning coding languages like python and R).
2. Industry partners can be great motivation.
As I’ve said before, completing a PhD can feel lonely. Especially if you don’t have a lab environment or specified PhD space to interact with other students or academics.
When you have to be working independently, it can be incredibly difficult to keep up the dedication, set your own goals and timelines and feel motivated to show up each and every day!
Therefore, a PhD project that comes under a larger project or alongside an industry partner can be incredibly helpful in keeping you accountable on your PhD journey.
For me specifically, I was having monthly meetings with the industry partners on my project. They wanted to be kept up to date with my progress, my results, and any issues I was having.
In this sense, they kept me accountable to make sure that I was in the lab everyday, and always chipping away at the project. Having someone else relying on the work that you do can be very beneficial in making sure you continuously show up!
If you are under the wing of a larger project, there will be deadlines and things that need to be done at certain time intervals to keep with the flow of the whole project.
However, I know that not every PhD project is tied to another larger project. If this is you, then make sure you are having the discussions with your supervisor and ask questions like:
What are the big deadlines I need to meet in the next 3/6/12 months?
What should I focus on this week/month?
What does the general outline of my PhD project look like?
It is so so important to make it clear what you need to achieve each day to reach the larger goal (and be consistent!).
3. Not meeting a deadline is not the end of the world.
In saying that though, having a clear deadline/timeframe can also make you narrow-minded. Of course, hitting those deadlines is amazing! However, missing them is not the end of the world.
For example, this lesson became very clear to me during data collection.
I had a goal of collecting data from 40 participants from June – October this year, and writing up a report in December.
However, with COVID continuously messing with everyone’s plans, and people being wary to venture out, I was only able to run a total of 9 participants through the experiment protocol.
I was worried this would disappoint my supervisor, but they were incredibly understanding. No matter how many people I asked, how many classes I advertised to, I just couldn’t get people to volunteer!
When December came around, I just wasn’t able to provide a full dataset and analysis. But, I was able to write up a progress report of where I was, challenges I’d faced and subsequent alteration of experiment protocols that had been done along the way.
Doing this thorough analysis of the little data I had collected means that I have a really good idea of the trajectory of trends/patterns we are starting to see. Also, I have code scripts prepared to run through all additional data that comes our way!
My first year PhD student experience has been incredible. More so that I could have imagined. I have enjoyed delving into research, but also lending a hand to undergraduate and Honours students when they need it!
It can be difficult to ace your university assignments. What assignment hacks could help? I hear you ask.
Well, assignments are always a little different: a report, an essay, a review.
It’s hard to get generalised tips that can help to improve your writing across multiple styles of assessments.
However, getting good grades (regardless of the assignment) relates to two key things: understanding what the marker wants and making it clear to them that you’ve included it.
You can take my word for it. As a PhD student, I’ve marked assignments for undergraduate courses multiple times.
There is limited time that can be spent marking each assignment, so it’s important that you are clear, straight-to-the-point and hitting the key sections of the rubric.
Here are 3 assignment hacks (from a university marker!) that you can use for any courses and subjects, to improve your grades.
Assignment Hacks 1: Be Clear on the Content
Understanding what you need to include in your assignment is the first big hurdle to getting a good grade.
I always thought this was a simple thing: include in your assignment what your lecturer/professor wants you to include.
However, I’ve marked some reports that have introductions going completely off-topic things (discussing literature/information that’s never been talked about in the course) and losing themselves a bunch of marks.
Being mindful of exactly what the content should be is so so important.
There’s a couple of things to be aware of here.
Is there a clear format to the assignment (paper, essay, report)?
Do you need to include specific topics/information from the course/lectures?
Do you need to include certain authors/papers in your discussion?
Do you need to write from one perspective? Or is it an argument/debate?
It’s crucial to be clear on the information you have to include.
For example, if the lecturer says that your introduction needs to discuss the ‘factors that influence attraction’ and you’ve had a lecture on ‘factors that influence attraction’ then you should be writing about those!
Don’t go and find a new set of different factors of attraction, or discuss the philosophy of attraction, or why you are very attracted to the course – you were asked to introduce the ‘factors that influence attraction’ so do just that!
Often, students will make it harder than it is.
if you’ve been asked to include something, then include it.
You can of course slightly extend yourself here and there. There could be alternate perspectives to factors of attraction but this would only be a couple of sentences just highlighting how there are alternate theories too.
The assignment should include what you have been asked to include.
Make sure that you are clear on what that is.
Assignment Hack 2: Make it Flow
It is so so hard to mark an assignment when a student doesn’t know how to write a clear sentence. It’s hard to follow their train of thought and know if they’ve actually hit the points in the rubric or if they are just rambling.
I know that writing is a developed skill. You have to put in the time to understand how to be clear, concise and straight-forward in your writing.
But – you really should put in the time to hone in your writing skills, because it’s easy to lose marks when your flow can’t be followed.
When I say ‘make it flow’ what I mean is writing with straight-forward sentences.
My key tips here would be:
The longest sentence isn’t the best sentence. I believe students often think they sound smart and fancy including overly wordy sentences. This isn’t the case. It often sounds like you don’t understand punctuation, and the writing comes across like talking. Have a look here at how varying your sentence length is so important.
Follow the instructed format. For example, introduction, body graphs and conclusion. If you need to know what each should include, have a look here. Give the marker a clear structure.
Each paragraph should have an opening ‘topic’ sentence, and a concluding remark on why it’s important to the current writing. It’s important to keep each paragraph discussing only one topic, so that you can adequately cover the points you need to, critically analyse the evidence and address the reason why you’ve included the information/why it’s important to the current argument. This is something that I often don’t see in undergraduate writing.
Assignment Hacks 3: Read the Rubric
You’ve heard me mention it a couple of times now throughout this article.
Read the rubric.
I say this because it is seriously the most crucial thing you can do while writing any assignment to make sure you’re giving yourself the best chance of a high grade.
When I am marking, I will have the student’s essay open on the left of my computer screen, and the marking rubric on the right.
Marking involves comparing the student’s work with the rubric and determining if they have correctly, effectively and extensively covered what the rubric is asking of them.
When you are in the process of writing, keep the rubric in mind.
When you’ve completed the assignment, do exactly as a marker would do: put your document and the rubric side by side.
Go through the list of items, and see if you’ve ticked each box.
It’s also important here to be mindful of how many points each section is worth. For example, you don’t want to have one sentence to conclude your essay (albeit a great sentence) if the conclusion is worth 35% of the essay. It’s likely that you need to go into more depth, make more connections to the external world and re-highlight the importance of your work.
Writing a PhD proposal will be one of the first things you do as a hopeful PhD candidate.
Depending on the university you are aiming to attend, this may occur in one of two ways.
Your research proposal could be due before securing your spot as a PhD student. To make sure you’re the right person for the job, universities can ask for a proposal showing your ‘proposed’ PhD research (and what you plan to do with your time as a student) before they even allow you to take on the role.
At other universities (and in my personal experience), the PhD proposal is the first to-do item when you begin your life as a post-graduate student. The university lets you take on the title of PhD student and then you need to prove that you have a solid plan of action!
Regardless of when your university wants your proposal, this guide will help you make sure you include everything that is required to secure your spot in a doctor of philosophy program.
How to write a PhD Proposal
A typical research proposal includes the following sections…
Here, you introduce the reader to your topic focus. The introduction is an overview of the current state of literature in the area – so it is important that you’ve done lots of research before you even get to this point! See how to read a journal article here.
Typically, the introduction should start very general and open, and slowly become more focused in on your exact research. But what does this mean exactly?
Say that your research aims to look at differences in resting electrical brain activity in healthy people vs. those with chronic pain.
It would be good to first explain what chronic pain is (to give your reader a general idea) along with how many people it affects and how much of a burden to the health care system is it. Basically, you need to highlight how important it is to study it, while being very broad.
Next, it might be good to explain some typical differences that you might see in thinking styles, cognition and sensation that you might find in those with chronic pain vs. those without. This is before even mentioning electrical brain activity.
From here, you want to start getting more specific. It’s time to introduce electrical brain activity (and EEG) and what resting state measurements might tell us about the brain.
Then, discuss the similar research in this area (what other populations show differences in resting brain activity?). It would be good to highlight some strengths and limitations of this literature, to start shedding light on some gaps that your research might help to fill.
After that, be really specific (time to introduce your study). If this is all the information that’s been found before, what are you going to do about it? What things are you planning to research, and how will it give us more (important) understanding about the topic?
It is super important throughout the whole of your introduction to ensure there is a smooth ‘flow’ to your story. Be sure to have opening sentences in your paragraphs (to let the reader know whats coming) and concluding sentences that highlight why that information is important, and what’s coming up next.
I usually like to make a flowchart of the paragraph’s topics to make sure I have a clear outline of where I’m going and which information is needed in each paragraph.
While the next bits of information can also be within the concluding paragraphs of your introduction, my proposal requirements stated that the significance of the research (why its important and its practical benefits) and general research aims should come under their own headings. This is individualised for every discipline though, so make sure that you are including the right subheadings and correct information!
Key points: Think big picture -> my tiny study using one paragraph at a time. Use linking sentences and always highlight how each bit of new information is vital to the current research.
Significance of the research
While you’ve likely introduced briefly in the first paragraph why your research is important from a broad standpoint, it is crucial to highlight its direct benefits and future directions.
For example, you should explain how your research will further understanding in the research world (and help to guide future research in the area) but also illuminate how your results might directly benefit people in other contexts. This might be in clinical practices, environmental standpoints, government aid or even just how the knowledge could improve everyday situations.
Key points: Who/where will your research benefit? (i.e. What’s the point?)
The research aims is a clear, concise paragraph that sums up the information from the introduction into the foundation for your PhD. So, you’ve explained everything you need to, it’s time to tell the reader what you’re actually going to do with it.
In a paragraph (or sometimes a few dot points) demonstrate the aims of your research. With your research, what questions do you aim to have answered?
There is a really careful balance of broad and specific to your study here. You want to list questions/aims that are relevant to the idea introduced in the introduction, while leaving room for exploration at every step of the way!
Key points: What questions am I trying to answer in my PhD?
It’s time to tell the reader what you’re actually planning to do. You’ve figured out your questions, now it’s time to show how you’ll answer them.
For psychology, the typical structure for a research design section includes subheadings of: participants/recruitment, materials/measures, protocol.
Depending on the style of your project, it might be good to break this section up into the number of experiments that you’ll be running. If you’ll be using just one larger experiment (that collects loads of data to analyse in one chunk!) then you can just follow the structure once. Otherwise, it might be good to have multiple participants -> materials -> protocol for each individual experiment.
Each section here is pretty self explanatory. For participants, who are you planning to research and why (include references for why certain inclusion/exclusion criteria exists).
Materials include anything that will be used for the experiment. For psychology, this is typically some psychological assessment batteries (how they work, how they are scored, and their reliability/validity). For cognitive sciences, certain programs, stimuli and tests should be explained.
The protocol is exactly what is sounds like. This is the step-by-step of everything you plan to happen during your experiment, from recruitment of participants to their final honorarium.
Key points: participants, materials and procedure (i.e. who, what, and when).
Within your research design, you should also be letting the reader know how you intend to analyse your data. Once the experiments are complete, and the data is collected, what are you planning to do with it?
This is a chance for you to show off your data skills. Let the reader know what programs you intend to use, the variables you intend to measure, and the statistical models you will implement to analyse what you’ve found.
This is normally the shortest section of the report (although sometimes EEG analysis pipelines can use lots of your word count!).
However, it is important to showcase the methods your are using, reference other literature that has used them before, and highlight why these are the correct analysis tools for your dataset.
Always be explaining why why why throughout your proposal. Every idea, every test, every plan should have a reason why it’s there.
If you introduce an analysis technique, mention why its better than others or reasons why other people have used it before.
Key points: explain you’re working out (and why its the best idea to do it that way).
Research Timeline & Thesis Outline
Toward the end of your proposal document, you need to give the readers an idea of how you plan to separate your time as a PhD student. It should include when you plan to be preparing experiments (ethics approval, method design, piloting), collecting data, analysing, and writing up your findings (either into chapters or publications). It should also include any conferences you plan to attend or overseas travel.You can be ambitious here (its likely that every plan you make will change anyway, so don’t stress about it being final).
After this, it’s also important to give an outline of the chapters you expect to include within your thesis. It’s ages away – so again, doesn’t need to be perfect. It’s just something to base your ideas off of as you go along.
If there’s one thing that I’ve learnt in the first six months of my PhD, its that your research/thesis will not end up looking like your PhD proposal one bit.
Key points: Make a (very) loose plan.
Review your PhD Proposal
Before you submit anything, give it a thorough review and read over. Make sure that you use a critical eye.
It is likely that your discipline will have specific requirements that are necessary in your proposal. Ensure that you are aware of these (even before you start writing!) Some disciplines may have alternate heading structures or some certain pieces of information that must be added. Some disciplines also have specialised formatting rules (for example, APA for psychology) so its important you are adhering to the requirements of this format. This can included being mindful of font, size, title pages, contents page and reference style. See how to make referencing quick and easy here!
Also, think ahead! Think about your supervisors/reviewers and try to anticipate questions/comments your readers may have. Read through your proposal as if you are an outsider and see what questions pop up.
Sometimes, its nice (but sneaky) to leave some tiny loopholes that encourage a specific question (and then you can prepare your answer to it!). This doesn’t mean leaving out huge chunks of information just for the sake of it, but sometimes you can aim to guide your reader to a specific question.
And that’s it! Good luck with your proposal writing!
It’s been exactly one week since I started my PhD.
If you’re thinking about doing a PhD, you might be wondering what your first weeks might actually look like. What kind of skills do you need to make it?
Here is what I have learnt in the first week of a PhD.
What have I learned in the first week of my PhD?
1. You’re on your own.
You’ve got to be ready to tackle this PhD on your own accord.
On my first day as a new PhD student, I didn’t even see my supervisors!
But, I got in to the lab, set up my bluetooth keyboard, computer, and settled my pot-plant into its spot near the window – and then that was it. It was up to me to sort out what the heck I was doing, what my to-do list was, and what I would occupy my office hours with.
You have got to be motivated to get what you need to get done, by yourself.
There was no one there to tell me to complete my research induction, finish the workplace safety module or start reading hundreds of papers on my topic.
I am lucky enough to be in a lab environment, so I was super welcomed and congratulated on my first day by the other PhD students, Honours students and post docs floating around.
However, not a single person cares what I am doing at my desk.
There is no one telling you to get things done.
You have got to be 100% self motivated (which, I think mostly comes from starting your PhD for the right reasons, not just because you’re not ready to leave university!).
On the flip side, no one is telling you to get tasks done, which means you can focus on exactly what you want.
If one day you want to watch 10 videos about vaguely-connected-to-your-project physics concepts, you can. If you want to watch last year’s data science conference talks, you can.
Want to make three coffees? Sure!
It’s an incredible independence you would never have experienced during undergrad.
2. You’ve got to treat it like a full-time job.
Following on from being in charge of your own PhD, you’ve got to treat it seriously.
Treat it like a full-time job.
After the first week, I told my partner that, “I can see how people just never get anything done.”
There’s no one to tell you to get stuff done every second of every day.
But in six months, you’re going to have to check-in with the university and prove that you’ve actually achieved something towards your PhD.
It’s easy to want to head home a little earlier, or skip a day of work (which you totally have the freedom to do, if you really need it!) but you’ve got to be careful to actually put in the hours you need to truly knuckle down on your PhD.
Don’t laze about and then be stressed in 1.5 years when you’re no where near where you should be.
One of my Honour’s supervisors said that the easiest way to get your PhD done, is to just rock up everyday.
Show up and you’re halfway there.
3. You need your workspace to work for you!
Part of your reason for showing up – should be how your workspace / desk make you feel!
You should want to wake up everyday, snuggle into your office chair, and knuckle down on some reading, writing, and analysis.
I know that some people aren’t lucky enough to receive their own dedicated space in a lab or university, but never-the-less, you should always strive to make your environment work for you.
I’ve brought in a calendar, a small wooden shelf, arrowhead pot-plant, snacks and coordinated my folders and customised my iMac.
And on top of just aesthetics, your environment is super important in habit forming and maintenance.
You’ve got to employ stimulus control techniques to ensure that you’re teaching your brain that sitting at your desk means ‘work.’
If you’re going out for lunch, go out for lunch and step away from your workspace.
Teach your brain that desk time is PhD research time.
And chatting, eating and socialising should occur outside of its bounds.
From the very first week of a PhD, make those rules for yourself.
4. You’ve got to sort out a meal routine.
Let’s be real: food is the most important part of any day.
If you’re going to start treating your PhD like a full time job, this means you’re going to have to start preparing food for it too.
The number one trap at any full time position is falling into buying lunch every single day.
Every bit of money you earn is just going straight to the lunch lady!
Don’t get sucked into the ‘buying lunch’ culture in the first week of a PhD.
Find something quick, easy and super yummy to eat everyday. It should be easy to prepare and something that you can prep for days in advance.
My favourite is hummus, tomato and cucumber on bread. I bring in a loaf of rye bread, large container of home made hummus, a whole cucumber and a couple of tomatoes. Chuck it in the lab fridge and it will last me the entire week!
5. Your first week of a Phd is flipping exciting.
I’m starting a full-time position, am completely in control of my everyday happenings and one step closer to receiving that ‘Dr.’ title.
Starting your PhD is an exciting time.
The first 6 months often include in depth exploration of your topic, organising methods and materials, and writing up your first proper research proposal. Here is exactly what I did in the first month of my PhD.
But on your first week, relinquish in your new duty. You earned your spot.
If you are still highlighting your notes, you need to put that bright yellow texta away. I’m about to hit you with some way better study techniques.
And if don’t know what active recall is yet, you are digging yourself an even bigger hole!
Active recall is a method of studying that allows you to get the most out of your study sessions and teaches your brain to be better at recalling information – exactly what you need to do when your exam comes around.
If you haven’t heard about it yet, check out my blog post here that looks at exactly what active recall is, the neuroscience behind it and some tips on how to implement it correctly.
Today, we’re going to look at three physical study techniques you can use to study with active recall methods. Let’s raise that GPA!
3 Study Techniques to Add to Your Routine
No surprises here! This is the most common way that people implement active recall methods in their study techniques.
It captures the essence of active recall – put something on one side of the card and ask your brain to conjure up the answer (that’s hidden on the other side!)
You can do this in a magnitude of ways – buy a set of empty flashcards from the local store and handwrite out the things you need to study.
Alternatively, you can use apps like Anki or what I use, Quizlet to create digital flashcards that you can study at anytime (like on the bus, or during your work break!)
It’s really easy and simple to get set up. Typically, my flashcards involve a word or phrase to define, or a phrase that encourages the recall of a list of information, like: “Checklist of Data Cleaning.”
With Quizlet especially, you have a few different ways you can interact and use your flashcards.
You can simply study them (see one side, and recall what’s on the other before flipping it over) but you can also use other functions like ‘match’, ‘test’ or ‘write’.
Match is exactly how it sounds – match the definition/phrase to its’ content. For Write, you write out the complementary side, and for test, you get to engage in a multiple choice quiz.
Flashcards aren’t anything new or revolutionary but a study technique that may be new news to you is writing out your own short answer or multiple choice questions!
For me, I like to do the first reading of a chapter or lecture, and make my own summary notes.
Using summary notes (or on your initial reading of the topic), you can create a list of questions relating to the content.
This is a really simply way to practice active recall, but requires slightly different preparation to get set up.
Then, whenever you need to do a study session, you can open up your document of questions and practice recalling that information.
Remember that even getting the answer wrong and then checking your answer allows for improvement in your later ability to recall the necessary information.
And, when exam time comes around, you won’t need to pester your lecturer for a bunch of sample questions. You’ve got a whole lot prepared.
You can even share them around with your friends to get a taste of different types of questions – as you all may have prepared slightly different versions.
Here’s an example of how I have prepared questions for a particular topic (on Notion, of course!).
3. Cheat Sheet & Look, Cover, “Write”, Check
Something that I particularly enjoy doing for exams, is making sure that have instant access to a magnitude of content from the topic at once.
In this case, I like to write out ‘cheat sheets’ containing all information covered across the semester for each of my courses.
It’s nice and tiny to easily fit across two double-sided pages (usually, depending on how much content you are forced to memorise during your semester!)
For this course, I highlighted key words to know the definition of (pink), used green to highlight therapeutic techniques used, separated by weekly topics (purple). Anything that is news to me when I write it on the sheet (something I hadn’t remembered from previous classes) I highlight in yellow, to signify to myself that it is something I need to remember.
Then, I use these cheat sheets to practice active recall of a whole heap of information!
I use these two pieces of A4 paper for a ‘Look, Cover, “Write”, Check’ procedure. Just like in primary school spelling, where you look at a word, cover it up, write it again, and then check it.
I locate a random highlighted section, cover it with my hand, then repeat aloud anything I can remember about that definition/phrase/topic.
This works for content heavy courses, where you need to rote learn a whole heap of things. However, I have also used it for courses where students need to write essays, creating a mind map of the topics/things I need to know, before using the Look, Cover, “Write”, Check procedure.
And that’s it!
Hopefully this gives you a few new study techniques that aren’t just re-reading your notes.
If you need a reminder again: here are the reasons why you should study with active recall. You are wasting your time if you think highlighting will get you the grades you want.
So you’re ready to learn how to read a scientific journal article? You’re ready to tackle the big bad world of science? You might want to read the latest research and get your head around rapidly evolving scientific developments.
Or, you might also just be here to get on top of your university assignments.
As I mentioned in my essay writing tips, it can be super daunting jumping into your first year at university and being told you can no longer use any old websites as references in your essays.
You have to use scientific journal articles (or scientific literature) to back up statements that you make.
You need to learn – very quickly! – how to navigate and understand a scientific journal article.
For some reason though, this is never taught in undergraduate courses – you are instead just thrown in the deep end.
And on top of this, you will probably have to start writing up your research reports in a similar format (if you’re in a scientific discipline).
So today, let’s talk about how to read a scientific journal article, section by section.
What is a Journal Article?
A scientific journal article is a piece of writing by a group of scientists, which tells you about specific experiments or research they have completed.
These articles can be found in Google Scholar, or any other scientific database that your discipline likes most (like PubMed or ScienceDirect).
Journal articles undergo a rigorous (and very lengthy!) submission process before being published. Articles are only accepted into a journal when they met specific standards and pass a peer-review process (where other scientists critique the work and make comments/suggestions).
Because of this process, they are one of the most highly regarded sources of information.
Journal Articles can take a few forms.
A typical research article will explain and document a particular experiment (or series of experiments), in a way that any scientist can replicate it. There is usually an introduction to the experiment (with all background information), a very detailed procedure, results of the experiment, and what it means for outside in the real world.
A review article is a recap of previously completed research, and doesn’t include a new experiment in itself. These articles collate and organise old research in the aim of answering a specific research question. They often include an introduction to the problem, and multiple paragraphs with subheadings to explore different aspects of the problem.
Case Studies look over one particular instance of an event, disease, or person in order to better understand and document one specific phenomenon.
Typically, you will be most likely met with experiment or review articles.
As a Psychology and Cognitive Neuroscience major, I am most familiar with the format of articles in these fields, but there is typically a standard structure in which most articles follows: abstract, introduction, method, results and discussion.
I will take you through each section so that next time, you know exactly how to read a scientific journal article.
So what’s included in each section?
How to read a scientific journal article: section-by-section.
Research articles can sometimes be very long – so it’s important to know what you’re looking for and what you need when you are researching.
Each section of the research article will tell you something specific about the work, and sometimes you won’t need to read all of it, so it’s important that you know where to look.
The abstract sits at the top of the article and will give you a run down of the entire paper in less than 300 words.
It is basically a very condensed version of the entire research article, with a sentence summarising each sub-section of the report. It will give you a super speedy overview of the background of the project, the method and all of the results.
If you are searching on Google Scholar or other databases, this is the part of the research article that you will be able to read before downloading the whole thing.
It gives you an insight into the rest of the article.
Reading the abstract will let you know whether the research article has what you are looking for, and whether a full-length read will be worth your time.
If you are unfamiliar with the topic of the research article, the introduction is where you need to be.
These first few paragraphs will give you background information about the experiment.
Here, the researchers tell you why they decided to create their experiment.
The introduction often explains other research work, in order to create a basis for the current experiment. They talk about what has previously been found, and what is missing from knowledge.
This section will also likely explain why the research is important to society – how would the world benefit from this experiment?
It also often gives the rationale for the way in which the experiment was conducted.
The introduction should be written in a way that seems almost like the first chapter of a novel, setting up the scenes and the context for what is to come.
After reading this section, you will have a better understanding of the larger field in which this research is based, but you can also use other work that the researcher has referenced here to expand your knowledge.
This (often short) paragraph let’s you know who was involved in the study, how many, where they were recruited, their ages, gender, and any other criteria that was important for the study.
How participants are included/excluded is very important to the results, and heavily influences what conclusions and generalisations can be drawn from the research.
Participant numbers are also very important in making sure that you can make larger, over-arching conclusions from research.
Materials and Design
This section is the recipe for the experiment!
It lets you know what materials were used (questionnaires, EEG, computer paradigms) and what you might need to replicate the experiment.
It is important that scientists document exactly every little detail of their experiments, in order for others to critically evaluate their work.
While scientific journal articles are rigorously reviewed before publication, some methods or ways of working may be more ‘correct’ than others.
It is important for this information to be shared, so that people can make informed decisions about the results.
It also makes it easier for other scientists to build on past experiments, or tweak certain aspects to answer new questions.
Here is the exact step-by-step for the experiment.
This is what the researchers did, and when, and how far apart, and on what day, and with which piece of equipment.
This part will be important for you if you’re looking to replicate the experiment for yourself.
It’ll also be the place to be if you need to critically evlauate the experiment (say, for an assignment) as you’ll need to pick apart exactly what was done.
If you’re reading an article for the results, this isn’t the section you need.
Finally, something new and exciting!
The results section gives you the numbers.
After the scientists ran all of their experiments, and crunched the numbers, this is what they got. It might also show you some pretty pictures (figures and tables).
It does little to explain why, and simply presents all the statistics and calculations that were done. If you like maths, it’s where you want to be.
If you are unfamiliar with statistics, this section can be very overwhelming.
It contains the results of t-tests, ANOVAs, means, standard deviations, effect sizes and p-values.
If you want to learn more about statistics in science, have a look at my blog post here.
Otherwise for now, just know that all the heavy numbers are here. While you might need them to break down the experiment and truly assess it’s validity, often times you can be safe just skimming this area, if you are simply looking for the meaning behind it all!
If you are just starting your psychology degree, rest assured that as you continue through, you will become more familiar with these terms.
The results section often includes figures.
Figures are diagrams, graphs or schematics of the results or are sometimes also included in the methods section to better explain how to run a procedure.
A figure should convey a maximal amount of information using the smallest amount of ink, and give readers an opportunity to see the data in a different way.
Figures are often referred to in the paragraphs, but allow researchers to show their results in a more straight-forward way.
Tables may also appear here!
These allow researchers to present a large array of numbers, percentages or measurements in as few lines as possible.
They are often included as additional information as they show means, observations or values from a larger number of individuals or show all results when only a few are meaningful or important.
In many cases, these are ‘read more’ options, and not compulsory to forming a basic understanding the research article as a whole.
Ahhh, finally the good stuff!
The discussion is where it’s at.
Time to learn what the results actually were (aside from the maths), and get a deeper understanding of what they mean for the world outside.
The discussion section usually starts with an overview of the results (in normal non-number talk).
“The study showed that this was higher than that… these people scored better than this… this chemical was better at doing that….”
The researchers will explain whether their findings are similar or in opposition to previous research that has been conducted.
If their findings are contrasting, they can often try to explain why this might be the case.
Whether consistent or contrasting results are encountered, researchers will explain what these mean for the wider community.
Do the results have negative or positive impacts… and what should be done because of the findings?
For example this might include: how do the results change any of our previous beliefs about the world? How should they change treatment choices? How should they direct government funding? How do they change health recommendations?
Each study may have numerous effects on the world outside the lab.
In this section, researchers will also explain any short-comings in their experiment. Nothing is ever perfect. Things can always be improved.
Researchers may also give recommendations for future research and questions still unanswered. They could also suggest ways in which their study could be built upon.
The discussion will also conclude with a sweet little paragraph summarising the whole article. This last paragraph will sum up exactly what the researchers want you to take away from their work.
As I previously mentioned, scientists may reference other scientists when introducing you to their project, or when attempting to explain their results.
An experiment may also have used questionnaires, paradigms or equipment created by other people (that requires referencing!).
That is why all scientific articles will conclude with a reference list. This gives readers easy access to other sources of information, which they can fall down the rabbit hole with!
The scientific world is a constant state of iteration.
Developing new ideas and building upon old work involves the constant sharing of information, and by allowing people to explore every old idea and building block themselves, it is hoped that articles can spark new ideas in budding researchers.
If you haven’t, make sure to look at my referencing guide to learn the best way to create your own reference list for essays. It will make your assignment writing a breeze!
And that’s it! You’ve made it.
Now you know how to read a scientific journal article.
It can be at first be a tricky maze to tackle.
But as you continue on, you will find yourself becoming a more experienced explorer. You will very quickly develop a better understanding of which sections are important for you and your own research.
If I told you that the best thing you could do for your upcoming exams was to take a nap – you probably wouldn’t believe me, right?
You’ve heard it all before: the Cornell method, active recall, spaced repetition.
But sleep may be one of the most important things you need to add into your study schedule.
I can see you rolling your eyes – but seriously, you want to read this.
Anyone can tell you that you are likely to perform better if you are awake, alert and feeling great after a good night’s sleep.
But that’s not all.
Sleeping may actually be the difference between you remembering an answer or being lost for words on exam day.
Read more to learn why sleep is the best study technique.
How Sleep Improves Learning
Studies have shown that sleeping after periods of learning improves later test performance later on.
One of the earliest studies in this area, run in 1924, taught people a list of nonsense words (words that look and sound like English words but aren’t actually).
People were better at remembering the nonsense words when tested after sleeping, compared to those that stayed awake for the same length of time.
Even with just one hour of sleep, people could recall 7 nonsense words compared to 4.5 if they spent the same time awake.
This effect is increased as the time of sleep lengthens.
With an eight hour sleep opportunity after initial learning, an average of 5.6 words were correctly remembered.
However, if staying awake for eight hours after learning, it was rare that even one was recalled correctly.
That’s a big difference!
These first results have been replicated again and again in sleep research.
This study taught native English speakers a list of 24 German words and found that those who slept immediately after learning could remember more words 48 hours later when compared to those who were sleep-deprived.
At university, it is very unlikely that a semester will pass by without you writing an essay!
A lot of students can feel like they are either good at writing essays or exams. But there shouldn’t be such a split!
If you feel like you need a little improvement in this area, these essay writing tips will help to tailor your essays to the question at hand, and make sure that you are ticking all the right boxes.
Not only will these essay writing tips help to (hopefully!) get you the grades you want – your essay writing ability may be one of the most important skills you can gain from your degree! Knowing how to succinctly and successfully argue your opinion can help you perfect future job applications and get you where you want to be.
Here are my essay writing tips to get you on track in your written assignments!
Essay writing tips to write your best academic essay yet.
Understand the question.
The number one thing you will get wrong when writing your essay is not answering the question.
Imagine writing your entire essay and missing the whole point of the assignment.
Don’t do it. Read your essay question again and again.
Make sure that you know exactly what each part of the question means. Are there multiple questions within it?
Keep the question handy at every point of the writing process.
While you are researching, planning and writing – keep that essay question handy.
Do your research
A heads up for any first-year university student: don’t use random websites for your research.
In high-school, you probably referenced the first google website listing that supported your opinion.
Before you start any reading, make sure that you download a reference manager (like Zotero!) to keep track of all the articles you’ve skimmed.
These programs will collect information about your resources with just one click. If you’ve never used one before, have a look at my How to Use Zotero for Students guide here. It will save you sooo much time later on in the writing stage.
You’re not using your time to your best potential if you are not using a reference manager.
When you’ve got your reference manager and articles all ready to go – open up an empty Word document (or Notion or OneNote page) and start noting some material.
Be both thorough and speedy here. If an article has points that are relevant for your essay (remember to keep looking at your question!), take the time to write fleshed out notes.
If you’re not getting anything important, just move on.
Students can often think this is a waste of time – why put in the hours to research and not write anything?
Trust me. Those are two entirely separate steps. If you write and do your research at the same time – it’ll be obvious. You need to understand all the available information before you can clearly spell it out in an essay.
Lecturers and tutors at university will tell you again and again to plan your essay. You probably still don’t do it, hey?
Just do it.
Do you want your essay to sound like a jumbled mess of thoughts, with each bit of your research randomly here and there? Or do you want it to sound like a thoroughly planned, well thought out, piece of academic writing?
I know what your answer is – so make it happen!
Your essay plan should look something like this, with each section dot pointed and containing important pivotal points in your story.
Introduce your topic. Follow this very simply framework:
What is it? Why is it important? Explain it’s prevalence, common issues, or consequences. This will all depend on the exact topic.
Say your essay was about dementia treatment funding. You should explain what dementia is and why it is such a health burden: how many people it affects, how much money it’s management costs, quality of life consequences and outcomes.
Then, explain your stance on the essay question. Should dementia funding be increased or decreased?
Clearly state your stance, along with three or more arguments to support your stance (that you found when researching).
This statement of your position should also neatly outline your body paragraphs. These three (or more) reasons will be each paragraph of your essay.
You can also add a statement of your solution to the research question. For example, if you plan to argue that dementia funding should be decreased – where should the money go instead?
These are three or more paragraphs giving the reader your arguments and supporting statements from scientific journal articles.
Each body paragraph should start with an opening sentence. What are you going to start talking about? Introduce the paragraph.
Add in your supporting research points. What three dot points support your opinion here?
Anytime you reference something, don’t just re-summarise their work.
Write a sentence that explains the information from the source directly, then a follow-up sentence about what that means for your essay question.
What bit of new knowledge does a statement bring to answering your essay question?
Then you finish up your paragraph with an overall concluding sentence.
You just spent an entire paragraph telling your reader some new information, so what does it mean for your essay question?
This part is nice and easy. No new thinking here.
Rehash your introduction.
Summarise again why your topic/question is important, summarise your supporting arguments from the body paragraphs (basically this should be a re-phrasing of your three final concluding sentences from each of the three body paragraphs).
If you’d like, you can finish it all off with a statement of a solution to the question or problem. Let society know what they should do with this new knowledge from your essay.
Thanks to your plan – this part is so much smoother.
Write up your dot points in prose. It will be coherent and straight-forward thanks to your planning. You can sit down and know that you already know where your heading with your essay!
It’s all dot-pointed right there for you.
There is no doubt that a thorough plan will save you time in the writing stage.
To save yourself more time, you can simply add in in-text references using the Zotero extension. If you want to learn how to do this, check out my How to Use Zotero for Students to be a more efficient essay writer.
Reference managers can also add a reference list with one click!
You want to aim to have your essay completed 4-6 days before it is due. Give yourself adequate time to review.
Make sure that you check these final things before submitting:
Did you answer the question? Did you really answer the question?
Check the marking proforma (this should have been given to you by your lecturer – it will outline what they are looking for when marking your essay). Have you met the criteria outlined?
Read it out loud. You’ll be able to more easily identify grammar and spelling mistakes this way.
Is your essay formatted correctly? Are you using APA, Harvard? Do you need a title page? Don’t lose easy marks by not following formatting conventions.
Review your in-text references and list. Reference managers aren’t foolproof.
You’ve put in the work, now it’s time to submit.
Once you’ve reviewed your work, feel the weight lift off your shoulders as you press that submit button!
These essay writing tips were the foundation of all of my university essays. With one last one coming up this semester, you can be sure that this is the structure I will be following!