Last week, I talked about the tools for time management that I used throughout my undergraduate thesis and am using again for my PhD. This week, I’m going to talk about how I keep everything organized. Of course, time management helps with organization so those tools are still relevant. However, in this article I’m mostly focusing on my literature review and how I’m keeping on top of what I’ve read, with a touch of keeping on top of those “other” PhD requirements like professional development courses and such.
One thing I’m actually not bad at is organization. I’ve always been a little bit obsessive with keeping on top of tasks. I also have always hated handing things in “on-time” – if I’m given a due date, I tend to aim for submission a week in advance just in case anything goes wrong. That being said, I did make some mistakes with organization when I was doing my undergraduate thesis literature review. My organization system involved sorting articles into themed piles and highlighting important sections… which lead me to a lot of re-reading when I was writing. I learnt from those mistakes during the second half of that project, and I know I’m doing much better with my literature review for my PhD as a result.
Tool 1 – My Trusty PhD Notebook
I bought myself a colourful-covered A4 notebook with a couple of hundred pages. I decorated the front cover (I’m far more likely to use things if I make them look pretty), and then I got to work. Each page of my notebook contains a title, like “Literature Notes” or “Brainstorming”. I note down the name of interesting articles and what specific aspects were relevant to my project, making it easier to find those important papers later. I also note down any ideas I have, I write down search terms I want to try, I sketch pictures of systems as I think them up. It’s full of everything that’s ever crossed my mind with relation to my project, and it’s excellent for jogging my own memory when I sit down to write a new section of my articles/dissertation.
Bonus tip: buy a nice pen (I bought a Parker) so that you actually enjoy writing thousands upon thousands of notes.
Tool 2 – Evernote (Free Version)
I prefer handwriting notes to typing them (odd for a computer systems engineer, I know), but Evernote is a great way to take the notes I have handwritten in no particular order in my PhD book and file them away in an indexed manner. After a few hours of reading papers and noting them down in my notebook, I transfer them to tables in Evernote. These tables have three categories – “Article Name”, “General Summary”, and “Potential Improvements & Areas for Further Investigation”. I have about 12 different tables for different topics of my project, and the system works really well. If I want to write the section on topic 5, it doesn’t matter whether I’ve written topics 1-4; because it’s all systematically filed in Evernote.
I also use Evernote to store important planning documents, brainstorm ideas, and take notes from the compulsory professional development workshops at uni. I back up any particularly important handwritten segments digitally by taking a photo and storing it in Evernote.
Tool 3 – Rating & Filing System
So, what do I do with the actual papers I read once I’m done reading them? Well, I bought myself an expanding file carry case. A little filing cabinet or organized cardboard boxes would work too if you’re not moving around as much as I am. When I’ve finished reading an article, I give it a rating out of 5. The rating is somewhat based on quality, but is mostly based on relevance. I’ve given really well written articles 0/5 because they’re not relevant to me, and not-so-well written articles 4/5 because they have high relevance to my project or present good overviews of things I need to research further. I also write a little comment next to my rating explaining what it did to earn the rating I gave it.
I then file it. Summer jobs with lawyers and accountants obviously rubbed off at me, because I actually love filing. It keeps things so well ordered. My expanding file carry case is divided into sections that represent topics of my project, and those sections are subdivided into sub-topics. Then, my files are placed in the relevant section – ordered first by rating and second by date (most recent comes first because it’s the most cutting-edge).
Tool 4 – Endnote
Storing references is super important. Every time I open an article to read, I save the reference to Endnote. It doesn’t matter if I never use it; it’s better to have it there and not use it, rather than to not have it there and have to go looking for it later on. Endnote allows you to sort your references into groups, topics, whatever you want really. A lot of people I know prefer Mendeley, but I’ve personally always been happy with Endnote and never felt the need to change. But it’s another option.
Another perk of Endnote is that you can insert references directly into Word as you write, with whichever style you’re required to use by your institute. It has every referencing style imaginable, so I’d be surprised if anyone struggled to find theirs.
Tool 5 – Diaries, Calendars, Checklists
This tool is more like “all the other little tools” that I use. I have a bullet journal, which I’ve mentioned in almost every post so far. Probably because I use it for everything from to-do lists to time management to calendars to weekly planning. You don’t have to get creative and make a bullet journal, but I would recommend having a diary or a calendar where you can write important dates – it would be rather bad to miss compulsory events for your PhD or miss work because you’re caught up in your PhD.
Checklists are also important. Checklists are different to to-do lists for me. In my to-do lists, I outline specific tasks that need to be completed on a given day. Checklists are where I check off requirements for my degree. For example, I have to do some professional development as part of my uni’s PhD course structure. A to-do list would contain things like “watch this video”, “complete this quiz”, and “enrol in this course”. Whereas the checklist contains all the compulsory courses I have to do, as well as the non-compulsory courses I’m interested in. Yes, they have some overlap, but to-do lists are task-oriented while checklists are more big-picture requirement oriented.
And that’s all I’ve got for you today! Next week I’ll write about the “other” tools I use that don’t really fit into time management or organizational categories, but that I’m finding helpful for my studies nonetheless.
Let me know if you’ve got any more organizational tools that you use! I love trying new things to keep improving how I do things.