I recently received a question from Ilesha, a PhD student asking about how to get through entire textbooks when studying for their qualifying exam (also known as candidacy exam and comprehensives). There are a lot of study methods out there, but here is a method that I used (that worked quite well) to get the best return on my investment in time spent studying. Not all topics are equally important and there is never enough time to read the whole book*.
[UPDATE 1]: Now includes some of my own mind-map examples
Before you even start studying...
My immediate advice is that you usually don't have to read an entire textbook. Something that helped me a lot: I visited with each of my committee members and asked them to tell me which chapters (in which books) they think I should know well for the exam.
Some of them might not want to tell you (but that is rare). Usually they are happy to give you suggested readings and textbook recommendations. Just make sure to ask them which chapters they recommend too. Bring the book with a pen so that they can directly circle the chapters in the table of contents.
But whether it's only a few chapters or they say "Understand the whole book," you still need a good strategy for getting through all that content. The method that I used most successfully was to build mind-maps (here is an example of how to do it: http://www.usingmindmaps.com/how-to-mind-map-a-text-book.html).
Creating study mind-maps:
I purchased a big spiral-bound drawing pad and created a mind-map for each key subject I needed to study. (Here's a link on the basics of mind-mapping.)
I would take one subject at a time, read the title headings within each chapter and then pull out the main topics as the first branches of the mind-map. Often I'd reference more than one textbook at a time when I did this due to the overlap between textbooks (e.g., more than one book might have a chapter on invasive species, herbivory, competition, etc.).
Then I'd go into each branch and expand on the main subheadings. Once the main branches and subbranches were complete, I'd start going into more detail and "foliating" the mind-map by studying each subject as I saw necessary.
A few points to keep in mind:
So, here are some of my own mind-maps from my quals studying days. I have to admit, I didn't do so well in the color arena... ??Feel free to use these if you'd like, but I can't guarantee accuracy (or spelling!). haha
Have your own mind-maps for studying ecology (or related fields)? Send me an email and I'll share and post them here.
* Check out the Pareto Principle (also known as the 80/20 Rule).
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Luka Negoita, PhD
I received my BA in Human Ecology from College of the Atlantic in 2011 and my PhD in Biology with a focus in theoretical plant ecology in May 2018 with Dr. Jason Fridley at Syracuse University. I love teaching and working with ecology students on everything from mental health to data analysis, research design, and study techniques.