PhD Tips Update: Project and Knowledge Management

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.

As a fresh batch of students get started on their PhD journeys this month, it seems a good time to share workflows for anyone unsure how to keep on top of all their obligations. Last year I wrote a blog post, which travelled farther than I’d anticipated, describing the system I’d cobbled together through trial-and-a-lot-of-error. Since then, I’ve made two major improvements. First, I’ve moved all of my project and knowledge management into Notion.* Having all of my tasks and notes in one system has really simplified my workflows, and allows me to connect information together in a way I find really elegant. Second, I’ve implemented a Zettelkasten system within Notion, which has significantly increased my ability to make use of my reading notes when writing papers.

If you want to try out this system, see if it works for you, and tweak it for your own needs, you can use the template I’ve created.** If you have an educational institution email address, you can get a free Notion account here. (Not sponsored, I just like the tool). Once you have an account, duplicate the following page: The PhD Template — Duplicate me!

A Notion template I’ve created for PhD students

This template contains three project management databases and three knowledge management databases, which are interrelated and presented in a bunch of useful ways. I’ll introduce each in turn.

Project management

The Tasks database is my trusted container for everything I have to do in every area of my life. I assign two dates to each task: a due-date (the task’s deadline) and a do-date (the date I intend to actually do the task). I assign some other properties to each task to help me plan my days: e.g. expected time to complete, effort, task type, etc.

I can then use the calendar view of the database to see the same tasks laid out by due- or do-date, and edit these properties using drag-and-drop.

The calendar view of my Tasks database

Every task is related to an area, and also often a specific project. In the PARA system, areas are spheres of responsibility in which you have to maintain a certain standard indefinitely. For me, these include general learning, general work duties, household upkeep, health, finances, etc. Projects, by contrast, are time-bounded, with a definite goal outcome. They include things like classes, papers, and planning a holiday.

How to access entry templates in the PhD Notion Template

I have one dedicated database for projects, and one for areas, and I link these to the other databases in Notion system. The relations between databases become really useful, however, through the templates I’ve created for each database entry. Whenever I start a new project, for instance, I click the “Project template” button shown in the screenshot to the left. This automatically adds a linked view of all of the relevant databases, each filtered to show only those entries related to the project in question. This is really helpful for focus: when I’m working on Class X, for instance, I can open the Class X project page to see in one place all and only the Tasks, Resources, References and Zettels associated with this class.

Since I use this system for my personal life, too, I can open an Area page that shows me all of the information and tasks related to, for example, my cat — super handy in the vet’s office!

On a day-to-day basis, I spend most of my time on the Dashboard page. Here I have space for jotting down quick notes, plus a few custom views of some of the databases reviewed above. For example, tasks scheduled to be done today, tasks for which I’m waiting on input from someone else, etc. I also have a view of my Habit tracking database to record today and yesterday’s entries.

Knowledge management

Earlier this year, a colleague lent me a copy of Sönke Ahrens’ How To Take Smart Notes, which details Niklas Luhmann’s Zettelkasten note-taking system, and outlines how it can be implemented digitally. After a few frustrating right-before-the-deadline experiences of knowing I had a relevant reference or idea somewhere, but not knowing how to find it, I decided that it was worth investing time during Confinement to set this system up for myself.

The Zettelkasten approach, which involves creating atomic and autonomous notes that can be tagged and linked together in evolving trains of thought, is explicitly designed to uncover novel, unexpected connections between ideas. The aim is to create a digital “writing partner” that remembers everything you’ve read, thought and forgotten, so that it can respond to your current research questions in surprising ways. In the short term, the Zettelkasten encourages a disciplined approach to reading and learning, geared towards developing and communicating insightful, novel ideas.

Following Ahrens’ guidelines, my system involves two databases: one Reference database for recording information specific to each source I review, and one Zettelkasten database for the atomic, autonomous “zettels”.

These databases are systematically related to one another. The “Reference template”, shown in the screenshot to the left, adds a connected view of the Zettelkasten database to each Reference database entry, filtered so that every zettel added is automatically related to the reference in question.

When writing zettels, citation hyperlinks can be entered easily by typing @ followed by the reference tag. In this way a single zettel can be related to and draw from various sources. In fact, the @ function can be used to refer to any page throughout your Notion account, and this is an excellent way to connect ideas that may not ever meet in more traditional systems of organizing notes.

In terms of my actual workflow, then, I generally take rough notes in Mendeley as I read (using the colour-coded system I mentioned last time), or jot down spontaneous ideas in the Dashboard page from the Notion mobile app. I then take time to work these up into more developed zettels and connect them to relevant references, projects and other zettels to ensure they come back to me when I need them.

Of course, academic references and theoretical musings are not all you need to keep track of during the PhD. For storing and organising the more mundane but necessary documentation that otherwise clogs desktops and email folders, I have a separate General Resources database. This is the home for meeting notes, class syllabi, administrative memos, videos, webpages I save using the web clipper, etc. Tags and relations to projects and areas keep everything easily retrievable here, using the search or filter functions.

Page templates can be really useful here too. As one example, I’ve created a template for supervision meetings in the General resources database, which automatically populates the “supervision” tag, my active work projects, and a filtered view of the tasks I’ve completed since our last meeting.

An example of a Supervision meeting template

It’s a cliché that productivity systems sap time and attention from the work they’re meant to enable. The above could be read as confirmatory evidence, given the amount of time I’ve spent setting up this system, and creating this guide and template for others to follow. In my defense, two points: first, I’ve already done most of the setting-up work here, so you’d be wasting very little extra time by piggybacking on my efforts. And second, I really don’t think it is wasted time, when you consider not only the time otherwise spent searching for misplaced information, worrying about forgotten tasks, context switching, etc., but also the insights lost when your past thoughts are boxed away rather than fed into a system that speaks them back to you at the appropriate moment. The “productivity” label comes with a lot of (often well-earned) neoliberal, human capital-optimization baggage. But these tools can also be used in more human ways to enhance our ability to think clearly and imaginatively, and converse meaningfully.

*As mentioned before, it’s always risky to rely on proprietary software (here’s a nice discussion of the pros and cons regarding implementing a Zettelkasten in Notion specifically). For me, the key features of Notion — relational databasesinternal hyperlinks, etc. — make it worth the initial learning curve and risk that I’ll need to migrate to another platform in future. To prepare for that eventuality, I export and backup all of my Notion data once every month or so.

** Inspired by GTD for academics, the PARA knowledge management system, the Bulletproof Notion Workspace, August Bradley’s Life Operating System, and Marie Poulin’s Notion Templates.

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