Helpful Organization Tips from a Stressed Out Grad Student.

It’s that time again, Fall.  Some of you are heading back to class, continuing with research, beginning a new TA gig or working full-time while earning a degree at night and on weekends.  Either way, summer is dead and never coming back. It is a natural time to start again for students.  We make plans and schedules and promise that we will figure out how to put in 10 hour days at the lab and still make it to the gym.

In that spirit I would like to start a discussion about how we get organized.  I am going to share things that either work for me or that I hope will work for me.  Please, share your tips and tricks in the comments.  I am always looking for a way to make my life more organized.

The Most Important Tip

First (and this is perhaps the most import thing I have to say) keep a “To-Do” list.  This could be in the form of a digital tasks list, a post it note, or your email inbox but it is critical that if you have something you have to do you record it somewhere and when it is done (and only when it is done) you discard it.  This is very serious,  if you do not a have a system in place for keeping track of what you need to do, you will forget something, and if you do it enough people will think you are a flake.

I am going to use a parable to explain why this is so important.  Once upon a time there was a grad student name Rapunzel.  Rapunzel was nice, smart and outgoing.  Rapunzel would come to meetings and would always volunteer to take up tasks.  Unfortunately, Rapunzel did not have a to-do list and instead chose to “just remember it”. She never did remember and eventually everyone got so fed up with her failing to complete the things she said she would do that they locked her in a tower. The end.

I keep my general to-do list on my phone.  This list has top level tasks whereas smaller subtasks go in my research journal [more about that later].  Does everyone have a to-do list?  If you don’t, how do you get by?  Do you have more than one?

Where Did All the Time Go?

Over the summer I began experimenting with tracking my time.  I am a teaching assistant, a research assistant, taking classes, and I have another part-time job outside of school.  When things get hectic I find myself focusing on the things that are the most demanding not necessarily the things that are the most important.  For example I might have 5 students wanting help with their simulation code while research just sits there patiently waiting to be done.   I find that by having a clear idea of how much time things take I can plan better.  When I get frantic emails from students, but I know that I have maxed out on time,  I can pass them off to one of the other TAs or even the professor.  This also prevents procrastination on research.  Do you track time?  Do you have to or choose to?  What have you learned from tracking your time?

Write It Down

If you can’t tell by now I am big on “metrics”.  In that same vein, I am a big believer in research notebooks or research journals.  I try to, at the very least, record what I got done today and what needs to get done.  I also use the journal to record important breakthroughs and critical questions that still need to be addressed.  The journal is not just a “to-do” list or a draft of a paper, it is correspondence between the past, present, and future me.  I use Evernote because I hate carrying around actual notebooks and my handwriting is awful.  Evernote also allows me to easily integrate pictures I take of dry erase boards and I can copy links.  Do you have another way of tracking research that works particularly well?

Drowning in PDFs?

The last thing I want to talk about is PDFs.  This is something that I struggled with at the beginning of my graduate studies.  I always ended up with tons of PDFs with many different naming schemes.  A friend of mine introduced me to Mendeley (this a FREE product).  This handy piece of software automatically imports a title and author from a PDF; then it will search online to fill in the rest of the bibliography info.  You can also add notes and tags.  It works really well 9 times out of 10 and somewhat well the tenth time.  You can also set it to copy files into a specific folder with a naming convention you define.  Mendeley provides you with an easily searchable database of all your references and it automatically generates .bib and endnote files.  I love this thing.  I know there are other tools like this out there, do you have anything else that you would like to recommend?

Hopefully a little organization will reduce the number of times I wake up at 4:00 AM thinking about something to do with work.  I can have more time to wake up at 4:00 AM thinking about important things like, global warming, colony collapse,  or sharknado.

Finally, how do you stay organized?  How do you catch up when things start to fall apart?

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2 thoughts on “Helpful Organization Tips from a Stressed Out Grad Student.

  1. Great post! I second the importance of keeping a well-organized lab notebook whether electronic or paper based. Having a notebook that is well documented saves time and more importantly reduces stress when dealing with simultaneous projects or returning to a project that was put on hiatus. I recommend checking out the book “At the Bench” by Kathy Barker to get great advice on keeping an organized lab notebook and many other essential skills when conducting research.

  2. I agree with those great tips! My advisor also suggested that I keep a running PowerPoint presentation of my current status. I have found this to be incredibly helpful. I just had a committee meeting (yesterday) and I wasn’t stressed at all about putting together a presentation, because I already had one made up! Plus, it’s nice to have a break from technical work to create the summary slides or graphics. It’s also helped me to gather my thoughts in terms of how I should really explain my research to others in simple terms and graphics.

    For the “drowning in PDFs” section above: I keep all the papers I’ve read and cited in papers in a spreadsheet (GoogleDocs, at that). And I just keep track of the citation, a brief summary of the paper, whether it was helpful for me or not, and when I last read it. The citation I’ve found to be extremely helpful, because then you just have to copy/paste it into whatever format your publication calls for!

    As far as the “to do list” goes — I’m a huge list maker! But it can sometimes be daunting when you realize how much you need to accomplish in the coming X days or weeks. I suggest creating a semester, monthly, and weekly to-do list. By breaking down the tasks into manageable chunks, you’ll actually accomplish more. When you try to overload yourself, you’ll just get too downhearted to get anything done — at least that’s what I noticed in myself! However, by setting manageable goals for each week, you’ll reach your monthly and semesterly goals no problem!

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