The Study Strategy That Got Me Through Grad School

It’s no secret that in grad school, one needs to digest immense amounts of information in an incredibly limited amount of time between experiments. Landscape mapping, also described as mind mapping, is the outlining strategy that saved me in the academic big leagues. Originally a business analysis tool to assess market competitors, I still embrace the technique any time I need to crystallize my thoughts.

The first major task is to take inventory of what info I have. Wielding a highlighter, I identify the key players in a lecture or review article, and classify them by relevant characteristics, whether that’s drug class, signaling cascade, receptor family, etc. Next, I map the content on a single page. I prefer to divide a piece of computer paper into 8 equal segments, assigning one major concept per section, so that I condense the entire thing into one visual field.

Decluttering the info and organizing it onto one page helps me identify what areas are being served and the gaps in my comprehension. It also places each individual concept within a broader context, giving a bird’s eye view so that I can identify relationships, patterns, and trends.

So what?
Now that I am interviewing for post-doc positions, I’m still tasked with learning a vast amount of information in a limited amount of time (does this ever end?). For instance, if I want to grasp the nature of a therapeutic area, summarize a researcher’s major findings, or create a profile of a pharmaceutical company’s pipeline, I’ll map it out on a single page. Right before the exam I would pull out my map for a quick snapshot of what I would be tested on. Now, I look at it in the lobby before my interview.

Figures, tables and graphs with high data-to-ink ratios play an important role in peer-reviewed scientific manuscripts. Scientific illustrators such as Dr. Mike Natter (@mike.natter) or Dr. Sarah Clifford (@sarahjclifford), each amassing over 75K followers on Instagram, also quickly and effectively summarize their medical school lectures in a single post. If you prefer a visual-spatial learning style, I’d imagine you’re already using your own version of this technique. Do you have a secret study tip? Share it with the rest of us!

Annie Roessler Headshot

Annie Roessler is a PhD Candidate at Loyola University in Chicago, IL. Her research focuses on the neurobiology and molecular mechanisms of electrically-induced cardioprotection. She tweets @ThePilotStudy and blogs at flaskhalffull.com