10 Tips on Managing Research Notes and Increasing Productivity

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This post doesn’t discuss lab notebooks, though every scientist should keep one (for research and for legal reasons). Here, we give tips on keeping your research organized for paper and dissertation writing, when the end goal is a published thesis or manuscript. 

This list was inspired by Alexis Bahl’s (@BahlAlexis) question, posted to Twitter: “Academics/PhD-ers: did you create your own management system to keep your research, papers, notes, etc. organized long-term? I’m looking to draft some “rules” that I intend to follow for the duration of my PhD but I could use some tips.” 

  1. Organize your references and notes from the beginning. Enter everything you read into a reference manager and connect it to your notes about the text. Do this so that when you pick up the book or article again days, months, or even years later you won’t have to waste time paging through and trying to find what you remember was there . . . somewhere.
  1. Take your own ideas seriously. Don’t just take notes on sources; take detailed notes on your thoughts about those sources. Tracking the evolution of your thinking is just as important as tracking others’ thoughts.
  1. Categorize your source material and your ideas into concept categories. Your first categorizations will be wrong and rough because you won’t yet know what’s important. At first, categories will proliferate and sprawl, but if you keep categorizing and conceptualizing, the main themes will emerge. Everything now has a place, and you can class the many sub-themes into the correct parent categories. When you hit this point, you’re ready to write!
  1. Adopt a clear methodology you can defend. Whether you work inductively or deductively will depend on your discipline and topic, but make sure that at each point you can explain what you are doing and why. Always have a plan, even if it changes.
  1. Create a plan and break it into the smallest possible tasks. Check each task when done. A manuscript is what you have when you complete that list. We all have good and bad days. So, if your tasks are small enough, you can still move forward even if you have only 15 productive minutes in a day. If you need rest, take the whole day off..
  1. Share your work (and your passion) as you go. Feedback from colleagues and friends will strengthen your arguments and repeatedly telling the “story” of your work helps you clarify and distill it. If you work in isolation, you won’t see your own errors, so use your colleagues as your mirrors.
  1. Plan for delays when you calculate deadlines and funding. Everything takes at least twice as long as you think it will. If you think you’ll finish your dissertation in 1 year, it’s probably going to take 2.  In 6 months? It’ll be 1 year. This doubling holds true down to the minute. 
  1. Remember that good is good enough. What you publish today will not be as good as what you will write tomorrow (or the next day or the next week or the next year). The difference between a grad student and a PhD is a period on the last sentence of the dissertation. Don’t let your perfectionism hold up the process. Good and timely is far better than perfect but too late.
  1. Outline your papers and books. In Europe, few PhD students have ever pressed the Outline button in MS Word’s View pane, but when introduced to this Outline function, students agree that it’s a lifesaver. Outlines are essential for English-language nonfiction writing. And, when you get stuck, you can refer back to your outline to propel you to the next sentence or section. 
  1. Find time to rest, love, and just be. Writing is thinking and generating ideas or forming those ideas into digestible information for others while we write is a hefty cognitive load. Factor in time to replenish yourself, to love and be loved, and just exist. Take a walk, run, or nap; read something unrelated to your research; or cook a nourishing meal for you and your friends and family. 

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