This post was written as a result of the Student Hackathon Day in August 2017, and was originally posted on the Graduate School Network, here. Thanks to Lindsey for allowing us to reproduce it here!
The problem with organising my workspace and notes when I started my PhD was that it wasn’t always easy to know how what I read might best be used, or whether I would use it at all. I quickly ended up with loads of books, articles, scraps of paper which I thought might turn out to be useful but I just wasn’t sure when. This is a common problem – see workspaces pictured on Life as a PhD student – in pictures | Higher Education Network | The Guardian. While some people prefer to put everything on EndNote, Mendeley or other bibliographic software, I wasn’t convinced this was the best use of my time until I knew the material in question would become an actual reference.
My other problem was that I had to read some massive, door-stopper Victorian novels at speed (e.g. Anthony Trollope, He Knew He Was Right, 930 pages; Herman Melville, Moby-Dick, 624 pages). I knew I’d have to be disciplined about getting through them and making productive notes.
These are my absolute basic personal tips – with apologies to those who are innately tidy.
1. List. By day, I arranged my time by hour, and I also had a weekly task list. Lists are good because crossing things off is satisfying. I used paper lists but I have a friend who swears by the app ‘Swipes’ because you can distinguish between work and domestic tasks, and you can set up reminders. I’m told that swiping on completion digitally replicates the satisfaction of crossing out.
2. Transparent box files. I had one for each of my PhD chapters labelled accordingly, including an introduction file which contained articles and pieces that I thought might be an intriguing hook into my topic. I preferred transparent boxes so that I could see the last thing I’d read on that chapter without getting it out (see photo).
3. Use post-it tags. I used one next to every reference in a book that was interesting, deploying a different colour when it was important and definitely going in my thesis. I cross referenced these with a page number in a separate notebook for each primary source (see photo).
4. Important sources. Buy these. If you don’t own a copy of your source (e.g. archival material) photograph everything on your phone and organise it in a separate album for each item.
5. Buy a good laser printer. They are speedier and more efficient. I recommend brother HL-1110. Inkjet printers are a nuisance. Invariably I preferred printing off an article in order to give myself a break from screens.
6. Use apps. To help me read I used audio books. These are free from LibriVox and you can walk/run while listening to them. To focus when writing I occasionally resorted to an app called Focus Keeper which gives you 25 minutes to write, followed by a 5 minute break.