Tag Archives: research paper

Effective, Easy, and Enjoyable: The Best Way I Know to Improve Your Academic Critical Skills

I’m sure you have heard this before!

If you want to write a good literature review you need to develop your critical skills.

‘But how?!’ – you may ask.


Physics Journal Club Presentation, R. T. Birge Lecturing seated at left: Lawrence and Oppenheimer [UARC PIC 04:268]

Simple: Join a Journal Club!

(and if you don’t have one to join, create your own – keep reading and I’ll tell you how)

A journal club is a group of people who meet regularly to critically evaluate recent articles in the academic literature and to discuss in detail a specific research paper.

The members of the club can range from PhD students and post-docs, to more experienced researchers and highly accomplished professors. A mix of people at different stages in their careers is a blessing to further stimulate discussion (even though it may feel slightly intimidating to the inexperienced student).

Regardless of its composition, a journal club will help you to:

  • Keep up-to-date with the latest literature in your field
  • Become a more careful reader (and therefore a better writer!)
  • Learn and practice your critical skills
  • Improve your presentation skills
  • Build your confidence and ability to evaluate the work of others
  • Promote your sense of belonging (to your research group or department)
  • Turn a social occasion into an enjoyable educational treat.

Of course, you may be in the unfortunate position of not having a journal club to join.

If so, just start one yourself!

Ideally, you should aim for a group of four or five members, but again don’t let this stop you dead in your tracks. All you need to make a start is just one more person. So, ask a fellow PhD student or an early-career post-doctoral fellow from your own discipline.

And if you are still complaining that you can’t (I know… you are the only student in your group!), then consider creating a virtual Journal Club that meets online.

Once you have found and assembled your buddies, here is what you need to do:

  • Schedule your meetings to take place regularly (ideally once a week, for about one hour)
  • Design a facilitator before each meeting (make sure this role is taken in turn by all members of the group)
  • The facilitator chooses a paper for discussion and distributes it to all members a few days before the meeting
  • The facilitator circulates a few questions about the paper (this is optional, but may prove useful to focus people’s minds to specific issues, especially if the paper is very long)
  • Each member commits to reading the paper before the meeting and to think about the questions posed
  • At the meeting, the facilitator presents a brief overview of the paper. Keep this informal: no need to prepare slides or anything. A piece of chalk and a blackboard is all you need to write down key points if necessary
  • The facilitator initiates the discussion and encourages everyone to take part (see below for suggestions of possible topics)
  • Before the meeting ends, agree on the date, time and facilitator for the following meeting
  • Make sure you start and finish at the agreed times. 

If you are in doubt as to what to discuss about, here some pointers to get you started (feel free to add your own)

Description of the study:

  • What was the purpose of the research?
  • Why is the research important in the wider context?
  • Were the key objectives clearly stated?
  • What was the nature of the study (experimental, theoretical, computational)?

Literature evaluation

  • Was the literature review well presented and sufficiently up to date?
  • Was any major recent study left out? If so try to figure out why
  • Is the paper clear and well written?

Approach and Analysis

  • What was the method used in the study? Can you clearly identify it?
  • How were data obtained and analysed?
  • Is/was there any fault in the approach used?
  • Is the statistical analysis of the data appropriate and sound?

Results and Conclusions

  • What were the key findings of the study?
  • Were results clearly presented and properly discussed?
  • Did the author(s) offer an interpretation of their results?
  • Did the study suffer from any potential limitations? Were these discussed?
  • Could the study be replicated?
  • Was the study successful in solving the research gap(s) identified?
  • What additional questions does the study raise?

I hope this post serves you well.

A final secret for success?

Just take action now. Go talk to one of your colleagues or friends, share this post and arrange your first meeting.

I’ll wait to hear from you 🙂

Do You Recognise Yourself Here?


  1. Making a start;
  2. Sticking to a productive routine;
  3. Lacking confidence;
  4. Getting the right structure;
  5. Using the appropriate academic style;
  6. Managing distractions…

These are just some of the most common struggles amongst PhD students according to the survey (over 100 participants) I carried out while preparing for my webinar ‘My Top 3 Tips to Help You Write Your Thesis or Research Paper’.

To be honest, none of it came as a surprise.

That’s because as a student I faced exactly the same problems. And as a supervisor I see my (and other) students struggling with the same issues all the time.

For most of us, academic writing does not come easily. In fact, writing up a PhD thesis or a research paper can be such a daunting task that almost stops you in your tracks.

The good news, though, is that academic writing is a craft that can be learned. All you need is someone to show you how.

As a student, I have been incredibly lucky to have a supervisor who would spend tons of time reading my drafts, providing feedback and telling me exactly what I was doing wrong and how to fix it.

Has it been easy? No.

I struggled and worried and fretted, up to the point I honestly thought I would not make it to submission. But then, little by little, revision after revision, I got there in the end.

And I learned a lot.

This is what I now try to teach my own students and all those who have got in touch asking for help and support.

So, if you see yourself in the figure above, I have good news for you.

I have created an online course for people like you who want to improve their academic writing skills but don’t quite know how.

It’s called Hands on Writing: How to Master Academic Writing in the Sciences

Yet, you do not need to be a scientist to benefit from lots of powerful strategies and tips that can make a difference in your writing and help you become a more productive, confident and successful writer in your discipline.

Registrations for the course are now open. And if you sign up by January 14th (midnight UK time) you get 50% discount.

Several people have already enrolled. Here is how you can join us.

PS If this is not for you but you know someone who might be interested, please pass this on! They’ll be grateful to you 🙂