PhD Tips: How I Get Organized

This is a blogpost I published on Medium during my PhD, as an individual-level response to struggles amongst my cohort to keep up with the workload: https://medium.com/@GenShanahan/phd-tips-how-i-get-organized-219edbe159b3


Note: I’ve tweaked my system since publishing this article — you can read about the update here.

One great thing about working in academia is that (ideally, most of the time) you get to be your own boss. On the other hand… you have to be your own boss. Unless you have a micro-managing supervisor, one key aspect of pursuing a PhD is learning how to become an autonomous researcher. What this looks like day-to-day is different for everyone but, as in research itself, it’s not necessary to start from scratch. When I started my PhD, I drew tips from other academics who had taken the time to document their processes and reasoning, including Cal NewportPat Thompson and Raul Pacheco-Vega. I also went down a bunch of dead ends and lost valuable data, writing and time. Now that I have *something* of a working system, I want to contribute my torch to guiding anyone unsure of the way.

Research is primarily about writing, and writing is a way of extending your brain, putting your thoughts into an external container so you and others can work on them. Not all external containers are created equal, though — some are better instruments for manipulating thoughts than others. Personally, I need my containers to be easily accessible and modifiable (so no stacks of printed articles), to help me make connections between disparate data points and literatures (favouring hyperlinking and convertible presentation forms), and to help me manage anxiety (so I need the big picture visible at all times).

Part 1: Time and Tasks

The first year of the PhD hit me hard with the number of classes and projects I had to juggle simultaneously. Up until then, I had been happily tending a Bullet Journal, but migrating unread articles each night obviously ate into valuable “actually read the damn articles” time, so I had to find a more efficient system.

A portion of my Trello board — I always have this open

I moved all of my lists into the to-do list app, Trello, and while I’ve experimented with other platforms since, I haven’t found an option to beat the flexibility of its free package (I’ve never had to upgrade to paid). While others keep separate boards for different purposes, I keep work and personal tasks on one board so I can see everything I have to do on one (albeit extended) screen. I use lists and labels to organize tasks, represented by cards, according to categories that work for me (various research projects, teaching, admin…) and give each task a due date. These cards can also include checklists of sub-tasks and notes to remind my forgetful future self of important details. I use the Trello extension for Outlook and Gmail, so when my supervisor emails me a task, I can add it directly to the relevant to-do list.

  1. Every day I keep the following key lists in frame: This WeekTodayDelegated and, for motivation, Done. I try to move all the tasks in This Week through this little pipe by Friday, though I don’t think I’ve ever quite succeeded.
  2. Whether the pipe is clear or not, each Friday I take a few minutes to check my project lists to see what needs to be added to This Week for the following Monday. I have a separate project list for ClassesJob Search, each of my research projects, Assistantship Work and Admin/Life. I use the Trello calendar power-up to quickly see upcoming deadlines when deciding what needs to be tackled in the coming week.
  3. The Never Pile is an amnesty list I added recently, for those tasks I once had every intention of completing but have since accepted I never will. I’ve become convinced part of learning how to be an academic (/adult) is learning how to not do some of the things that you “should” do. For sanity. 

I’m not convinced this is *the best way* of organising tasks, but it’s the best I’ve come across so far.

A typical weekly plan, in a term without classes. More of a guideline than a strict schedule, I don’t bother to pre-schedule meals (arguably setting myself up for failure).

In pursuit of the impossible empty This Week list, I do time blocking on my calendar app. This is the second app I have open at all times, as it tells me what I should be doing every day, and allows me to readjust when tasks inevitably outgrow their block. I use iCal, which pulls data from both my work calendar (Outlook) and my personal calendar (Google), so I can be sure I’m not forgetting some appointment. Once a week I review the blocking I have set out for the coming month to make sure I’m on track for essential deadlines.

The analogue version for high-level planning.

To keep my eyes on the bigger picture, I also have an academic year calendar printed out over my desk. I use this for broader blocks, using little home-made stickers to indicate when I’ll be focusing on different research projects. At the beginning of each term, I verify journal/conference deadlines, estimate how many weeks each paper probably needs, and fit these more general blocks in.

I then use Calendly to avoid inefficient back-and-forth emailing when booking appointments with others. I just send colleagues and research participants a link to my Calendly page from which they can book available slots directly in my calendar.

Toggl’s monthly summaries are useful for reviewing how I spend my time.

Retrospectively, I use Toggl and RescueTime to record what I actually spend my time on. Whenever I’m working, I set a timer on the Toggl app to say what I’m doing and what broad category it fits into (dissertation writing, research assistantship, teaching, etc.). An Integromat integration adds these time blocks to my calendar every night. This is useful for supervision meetings (why is it I haven’t yet read that book you recommended? Oh yeah, I was doing X all month). Ideally, I would also use this information to get better at estimating how long a given task will take but… I haven’t managed that yet. However, this time tracking is important in my PhD programme, as students are employees with hours to fill in a number of categories — at the end of each month I just take five minutes to copy this information from my Toggl account into my timesheet for my manager. Finally, RescueTime operates in the background on my laptop and phone to keep tabs on the apps and websites I spend my time using. I have minimum and maximum goals set for productive and distracting time, respectively, and RescueTime sends me an email once a week to let me know if I’m meeting these or not.

Part 2: Reading and Writing

Probably the most frustrating aspect of the early days of the PhD, for me, was keeping track of what I’d read, what I thought of it, and what I was going to read next. A colleague would ask if I’d read some paper and I would respond with an unconvincing “maybe?” while wracking my brain and local folders. After a bunch of experimentation, I’ve landed on a two platform solution — Zotero for the annotated PDF and Notion (referral link) for my more detailed notes.

Post-grad colouring-in

I read almost exclusively in Zotero. Even if I have a physical copy of a book, I’ll do what I can to get my hands on a PDF copy as well so it can submit to Zotero’s search function and my hierarchical folder system (Zotero lets you add the same file to as many folders as you like). I also have a dumb little colour-coding scheme for highlighting — red for research question/thesis, blue for methods, green for findings, etc. This is especially useful in early morning classes when you can’t remember off the top of your head what research question paper 4 was addressing.

A references database I’ve set up in Notion

For more extensive notes, I’ve created a references database in Notion. The database function makes Notion the best note-taking software for my needs*, as it allows me to sort and filter my records according to project, field, author, year, etc. Of course, you can use these columns for any purpose you like. In the image above you can see I use columns to categorise each work according to, for instance, tags (great for when I want to quickly review articles my supervisor recommended) and journal (if I’m submitting to a journal, I want to be sure I’m engaging with the existing conversation in that journal). I also include columns for systematising my records of key elements of each work (RQ, thesis, method, findings — a good abstract includes these, so they can be filled in even for papers that you haven’t yet read in-depth but are potentially relevant sources to record). Importantly, and distinguishing this platform from a simple Excel spreadsheet, each row in the database opens up into a full page. That means I can format notes and quotations as I like, and don’t need to squeeze them into spreadsheet cells. This blending of concision and expansion means I can really rely on these reading notes when it comes to writing. For the same reason, I also use this function for my data collection — by filtering, I can quickly see how many interviews I’ve completed, how many hours of recording, etc., while each record remains connected to my longer qualitative field notes.

For writing, while I’ve tried alternatives like Scrivener, I collaborate a lot and so Microsoft Word is fairly unavoidable. I save everything in Dropbox and share relevant folders with my supervisors/coauthors. I use the same top-level folder structure in Dropbox, Zotero, Notion and Trello, so when it comes time to work on a paper, I’ll have this folder open in each platform for easy access to all the resources I need.

The same references database filtered for a specific project

In Notion, these folders each include a filtered copy of my master references database, so I have a clear list of all works relevant to the paper I’m writing, and can easily access my own notes on these sources. In Zotero, these folders have subfolders for the various literatures that I might mobilise in the given paper. In Dropbox, these folders include subfolders of my data and writing I’ve already done. In Trello, these “folders” are the project lists discussed above, with cards corresponding to tasks and containing sub-tasks.

Of course, this is all just set up for the actual work of researching and writing, but it has helped me to streamline the shallow work that inevitably comes with this profession, and minimise the internal distractions (“wait, am I forgetting something?”) that derail deep work sessions.

*The downside of Notion is that you don’t have your own data stored locally. They say your data’s safe, and you can manually back up your data, but if Notion goes out of business the all-important database format is lost. Proceed at your own risk.

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