View Full Version : People of academia, how do you stay organized?
02-21-2009, 12:48 AM
If you've seen other posts by me, you might see a theme building here. I want to know, exactly, how academics--doctoral students in particular--are able to crank out so much research while taking classes, teaching students, and trying to live a life. I just can't seem to figure out a good system. And I mean, I need some basic advice here.
So, walk me through a day of research work for you. You come into your office, plop down in the chair and...what? Do you open up journal databases and start finding articles to cite for a lit review? How do you keep this organized? Do you print out all the articles and sit there with a highlighter going through each one? How can you keep what they're saying all straight in your mind? How do you cope with searching for a topic and getting 8500 hits? When do you stop and just start writing the darn thing?
Tips for better organization are greatly appreciated.:)
Capt. Ridley's Shooting Party
02-21-2009, 05:22 AM
I'm a second year PhD in the UK. This advice may not be relevant to you (for instance, it isn't normal in the UK to take the courseload at PhD level that Americans have, we do research from the start, and have things like reading groups, rather than postgraduate courses).
I use Referencer (http://icculus.org/referencer/) to keep track of papers that I've read. I also have a big BiBTeX file with details of all the papers I need to cite, whether read or not. The ones that have been read have a comment above their BiBTeX entry, describing the work (this was from before Reference had the ability to add notes to entries, so you don't need to do that now).
I learned very quickly to skim journal articles. There's nothing more boring than reading papers all day. Mostly reading the introduction and conclusion will suffice, unless the work is very relevant, and you should know about it in some detail.
It's impossible to read everything written about a particular subject. My second supervisor once gave me some good advice. Put the main topic of your thesis (if you know it), in the centre of a piece of paper, draw a circle around it. Then put the topic most closely related to it, and draw a circle around that (concentric circles). Keep going until you think you have enough. Every circle should have a decreasing number of papers that you read about that subject. Stop when you reach the outside. (Or just wait for your supervisor to instruct you to get on with some work, you lazy student!)
All my reading was done in the first year, as well. Now I just get on with work all day. My supervisor has the idea that all research should be done through writing papers. If you have a deadline to stick to, then it's a lot easier to motivate yourself (seeing your name in print, and traveling to the conferences, are also good motivators).
Try to keep teaching to a minimum. It's boring, hard work and invariably you figure something out just as you have to go and teach.
Also, it really helps to have some distractions, not related to your study!
02-21-2009, 06:30 AM
It sadly gets worse after you graduate and you're doing a pile of new classes while trying to publish/conference/look bright and shiny/get a real job.
Various unorganized suggestions/responses: I use Endnote and stick abstracts and notes in that field. When I get an article I skim it, stick an annotation/abstract in Endnote, tag it with a topic label, head straight to mining its footnotes, then stick it in a topical hanging file folder. At some point, stop fucking reading and start writing--'this one more article' is procrastination. Research labor is nothing until it's digested and back out on paper. Don't ritualize the starting-writing. Open a doc right now and stick in a crap title and save; now you've started writing that paper.
I use a calendar program heavily (I have it e-mail /growl notify me reminders of deadlines or unusual meetings), and a separate to-do checkoff list program which I use to manage the subtasks of bigger projects (by breaking things down into tiny finite bits it's less overwhelming/paralyzing).
Work out a thesis for each paper as soon as you have a clue of where you can take it, and let that drive the research. Let the thesis be your mental border collie. Does this article serve my thesis? No? Skip it. Don't fall into the trap of trying to see how you can work that interesting article into your work--cart before the ox.
Since the week is eaten by classes, I reserve weekend days for my own research. Get my coffee, head to my desk, set firefox extension 'leechblock' to prevent me from heading to the SDMB and FB, put on headphones with music with no English lyrics, and go.
If you can figure out approximately what you want your Big Thesis to be centered on, you can try to make the other coursework/studying for quals serve that and save some time. Start the prep work now.
(And if you plan to head into teaching, when you're TAing that boring intro class, write down every goddamned thing, save every assignment and handout, every syllabus for every class you're taking (even ones you think are far from what you'd ever end up teaching) because someday you will have to do that class on a week's notice)
02-21-2009, 09:57 AM
The short answer: Not very well. Fortunately, I'm at a small teaching school where the powers that be just want to see some evidence of research activity for the tenure file; a few conference presentations and an article or two are sufficient, more than that doesn't necessarily get you any extra brownie points. I like my job; it's a much saner and more sensible world than a big research university.
Personally, I've found that I need deadlines. (It took me a couple of years of floundering around with the dissertation before I figured this out; I don't do well with large amounts of unstructured time. I like reading obscure Renaissance plays and having Thinky Thoughts about them, but I won't get much farther than the Thinky Thoughts stage if I'm left to my own devices.) So I browse the calls for papers for conferences that look appropriate for the paper I'd like to write, send in an abstract, and -- bam, instant deadline. The second half of my dissertation was written more or less as a series of thematically related conference papers; of course, I had to go back and stitch them all together in ways that made sense, but much of the substantive analysis was already done.
I've also got a huge file of notes and random thoughts on my computer. If I'm reading an article that I think will be useful somewhere down the road, I type up a quick summary with some useful quotations and the citation information, and leave it in the notes file. Then I can go back a year or two later and use my word processing program's search function to find everything I've typed up about, say, The Merry Wives of Windsor. (This was nice when I first started writing my dissertation and wasn't sure how all the pieces would fit together; it's even nicer now that I no longer have access to all the library resources I took for granted in grad school.) Having a random-thoughts file also gives me a space to write without having to feel like it needs to be polished, academic writing; the most important thing, as capybara says, is to start getting your own ideas down on paper and give yourself permission for them to be imperfect.
02-21-2009, 12:06 PM
Since this is seeking advice, it is better suited for IMHO than GQ.
General Questions Moderator
02-22-2009, 06:53 AM
No more thoughts here from seasoned pros? I was hoping to pick up a magic bullet. Help us greenhorns out, you tenured geezers of the 'dope!
Sophistry and Illusion
02-22-2009, 07:13 AM
At some point, stop fucking reading and start writing--'this one more article' is procrastination. Research labor is nothing until it's digested and back out on paper. Don't ritualize the starting-writing. Open a doc right now and stick in a crap title and save; now you've started writing that paper.
This is good advice. I have known researchers who were too slow because they were too scrupulous. They would want to read every scrap ever written that was relevant to their subject, and never get around to writing. I gather my source articles and then create a schedule: I am going to do background reading for (say) two weeks, and then start writing. Of course, while writing, I will find other things I should read but the point is that at some point you have to start. As others have mentioned, one of the hardest parts of academia is the lack of externally-imposed deadlines; so you have to create your own structure. While reading, I open a file called "notes" and write down significant points (if any) from an article that I may want to refer back to while writing the paper.
Also, this works for me (but probably not for everyone): I schedule all my classes for the same day, so I teach 2 or 3 days per week. I work best if I have large uninterrupted stretches of time, and if my day is broken up it cuts my productivity significantly. So I give myself as many non-teaching days as I can.
BTW, if you are really getting 8500 citations, then you need to work on your search-fu.
02-22-2009, 10:40 AM
So, walk me through a day of research work for you.Arrive at work.
Play with chemicals for 12-14 hours.
lather rinse repeat.
No teaching (1st year only)
No classes (1st year only, and only 6 of them)
During the 12-14 hours, as time permits:
Have 1 meal (lunch is nice)
Read papers that have been accepted for publication the previous day (they're put online well before they're even assigned page numbers for the print edition). If something is interesting, make an endnote file for it. If it's worth talking about w/others, print it.
Keep lab notebook updated
Plan tomorrow's experiments
When it's paper-writing time:
Make an outline and send to the boss
Perform more experiments as needed to complete outline
Put paper together (we mostly just write short communications, so with a detailed outline this takes <2 hours)
Bounce drafts back and forth with boss.
At some point write supporting information (procedures, spectra, etc.--it takes forever)
Submit, revise as needed, and work on a different project
When it's thesis time (after ~4.5 years and ~6 weeks before leaving grad school, after boss has asked "were you planning on leaving at some point?"):
Piece together published papers; closely-related papers go into the same chapter.
Write an introduction
Make sure everything fits ok.
Bounce drafts with committee (they don't even look at it)
Skip defending thesis because committee doesn't want to bother going to a defense :D
02-22-2009, 06:18 PM
Tips for organisation? Many would disagree with me but I say going digital is the best thing you can do. Programmes like Endnote, Bibtex and Papers (my favourite, mac only) are invaluable, research is a lot faster when you know where everything is :-)
02-22-2009, 06:30 PM
I've found this thread quite useful this weekend, if only in reminding me to get to work. I found capybara's first post to be extremely helpful and motivating.
I have no organizational tips, though. I'm the most disorganized person I know.
Key Lime Guy
02-22-2009, 06:33 PM
I have a pretty visual memory, so I tend to remember articles by 'how they look' to some extent, and I often remember where on the page I saw a particular quote or bit of information. So I print/photocopy everything and put them in manila folders or 3 ring binders. It makes it easier (for me) to find what I'm looking for.
Also I agree with some of the sentiments above (procrastination can masquerade as research; artificial deadlines are good).
Key Lime Guy
02-22-2009, 06:36 PM
... firefox extension 'leechblock' ...
Wow, this may actually change my life.
02-22-2009, 07:50 PM
Wow, this may actually change my life.
I know! Testify! My 'password' to change the preferences/override it is "I'm procrastinating." With all the correct grammar and punctuation-- at at least have to acknowledge the fact. Otherwise it re-routes me to the hypnotoad page.
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