Questions for the doctors

At the beginning of the year, I started my doctorate. This massive thing that’s going to consume my life for the next (hopefully) three years. But I feel like my organisation process is, well, ratshit.

So, some questions for my readers, whether you have a doctorate, or you’re just super organised:

1. What was your topic?
2. What was your filing system for studies and books?
3. How did you keep track of your new knowledge? I’ve got loads of notebooks, studies with notes in the margins, underlined bits, word docs, and at the moment it all relies on me remembering what I’ve read. If we built a city on my short-term memory, it would be structurally unsound.
4. Any other advice?

21 responses to “Questions for the doctors

  1. I’m not sure this will be much help to you, but when I did my doctorate (on Victorian publishing practices), I was dealing with a raft of tiny snippets of information drawn from a wide variety of sources. I also deeply mistrusted my computer (and was proven right when it exploded a fortnight out from submission).

    So I chose an old-school route: I used notebooks for my note-taking (which was extensive, because it helps me remember material better than simply reading it does). I numbered each notebook (both the notebook itself and the pages within). Then I wrote out an index card for each source that I read.

    On the index card, I’d put the source’s bibliographical details, the number of the notebook in which the notes were written, the page numbers for the notes, and a few key terms.

    It took a little while to set up, since I didn’t start it until some six months or so through the project, but was very very easy to maintain (just had to remember to write out a new index card for every new source I read).

    And it was convenient at the end of the project: if I needed to plump up the section on theatricality, for example, I’d just pull out all the cards with “theatricality” as a keyword, and flip through until I found the ones I needed.

    I suspect this would work better for a thesis such as mine, where the material was fairly homogenous (i.e., nearly all journal articles and books, nothing visual or multimedia, etc.), so I’m not sure whether it would be advantageous for you.

    • Hi Dr Catriona, welcome to the Nipples. That all sounds very useful. And organised. There’s a program I can download that does that (Endnote) but I’m an old-school notebook person, so maybe your system would work better?

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  3. I’m not a fan of Endnote, personally (though there are a variety of others, such as Zotero, that will do the same sort of thing as Endnote). There are also some lovely word processors out there (like Mellel) that allow you to do things like track references to key words across the document.

    Electronic tools don’t give me the same degree of comfort as physical index cards, though–I worry too much about back-ups and computer failures.

    The other advantage I found with index cards was that they allowed me to actually see the argument: I could lay the cards out on the floor in the pattern I wanted to follow. Very very useful for the Literature Review (if you have one of those).

    • I thought it was just me not getting Endnote. I used it during my Masters and found it deeply unsatisfying. I am pretty low-tech (started this blog a year ago, got on twitter a few weeks ago, and I don’t own iThings), so your index card system is ticking my boxes. (You can always count on me to make it sound rude…)

  4. godardsletterboxes

    (1) My topic was the representation of the 1960s in films made during the 1980s and what this showed us about how the present impacts on representations of the past.
    (2) My main system was small post-it notes which I would write key themes from pages and then would leave stuck to the page in the book. When I needed to take them out to return a book for example, I would make sure the page number was on them, then stick them into a notebook wih the name of the book and so forth.
    (3) a lot of it was memory, and writing stuff up as I went. I also did a massive spreadsheet/table tthing which detailed all the key points from tstuff on particular topics eg I had a “collective memory” table which was about 20 pages but which kept key quotes and page references and ideas.
    (4) DON’T PANIC. You will get there. And you will also change your mind, your topic and your ideas in lesser or greater ways along the way, but nothing is completely wasted or lost.

    • Hi godardsletterboxes, welcome to the News with Nipples. I reckon I’m a few years off the panic stage, but heading steadily for the Giant Paper Room of Doom.

      Spreadsheets, eh? That’ll make ManFriend happy. He loves them. He wants to marry them.

      So, how does the present affect how we represent the past?

  5. Heya Kim,

    Here’s what worked for me. I was NOT into hard copies of things, partly because I did most of my work at the kitchen table or in cafes as I didn’t have a dedicated study for a lot of it and also because I was worried that Maxie (who was 6 months old when I started) would drool on/eat/shred whatever I had – in fact, one time I had to hand a report back to my supervisor confessing Mia had indeed eaten a page of the references!

    1. What was your topic?

    Suspended sentences in Tasmania

    2. What was your filing system for studies and books?

    I put everything in Endnote, ideally with key terms (on a good day!). I had about 2000 references at the end. I typed out the relevant sections of the books I used. By the end, I had only one folder of hard copy stuff, but a whole lot of PDFs on my computer. Extra handy, given I moved house 4 times (and cities twice) during the process.

    3. How did you keep track of your new knowledge? I’ve got loads of notebooks,
    studies with notes in the margins, underlined bits, word docs, and at the moment it
    all relies on me remembering what I’ve read. If we built a city on my short-term
    memory, it would be structurally unsound.

    As I started writing, I added everything to the footnotes as I was building the document and kept updating Endnote. I didn’t have any fab system and also relied on short term knowledge a lot…

    4. Any other advice?
    I kept a journal/log of things I was working on/wanted to work on/needed to do, which also served as a bit of a diary about my personal life and its impact on my studies. Looking back served to show me how far I had come.

    The most important thing for me was that I uploaded everything onto a memory stick on my keyring every time I logged off and took it with me everywhere, just in case my laptop got stolen/the house burnt down etc.

    Good luck! It will all make sense in the end (but probably not before).

    • Hi Dr Lorana! This is all very good advice. I hadn’t thought of footnotes – how very David Foster Wallace of you.

      At the moment I’ve got word docs of key quotes and ideas from each book so far, and I’ve been emailing it all to myself in case my computer and flash drive fail (or get lost, which is more likely).

      So, one vote for Endnote and one vote against it.

  6. Hi Nips

    1.) My doctorate is on Living Long After The Thrill Is Gone (aka Raising Children)

    2.) The best filing system for anything is by date. Keep an excel spreadsheet by date and a quick list of headlines and keywords for topics under the date and then file the lot under the date in a acordion folder. The you can search by the key words, the date will pop up on your spreadsheet and then your hand can zip into the accordian folder and presto. You can file anything this way. Works for me, and my thrill has gone.

    3.) The keywords above will assist you with this.

    4.) Never wear patent leather shoes and no knickers.

    • Dr Maxabella, those are very wise words. I’d like to add my own piece of advice, learned, eventually, the hard way: when you pull the doona closer to your face, make sure you have a good grasp on it first. Otherwise, your hand will slip off and you’ll punch yourself in the face.

      Sorry to hear about your thrill.

  7. My topic was “Republicanism and Multiculturalism” and it’s a philosophy PhD, ‘though it could also have been done as a political theory / political science PhD. It involved a lot of thinking, rather than chasing down sources, so I footnoted as I went, and wrote up my bibliography as I went i.e. every time I referenced something, into the bibliography it went straight away. I used EndNote a bit, but not very effectively.

    I took notes by hand. For me, there’s something about the process of handwriting that helps something to sink into my mind. Somewhere, I’ve got a pile of handwritten notes, all with a proper Harvard reference at the top of each page.

    Other advice… towards the end, I had to make myself write. So each day, I would turn the computer on, pull up the latest chapter, and make myself write 500 words without deleting anything. Usually by the time I got to 500 I would be on a roll, and I would carry on to 1000 or more. Once I had exhausted my writing frenzy for the day, I would take a break, make a nice cup of tea or coffee, print it out double spaced, and sit down and edit it.

    Good luck!

  8. Congratulations.

    I don’t have a doctorate yet, but hell, I’m working on it, and everyone on here is a huge inspiration to keep at my studies 🙂

  9. No PhD in my neck of the woods, but back in the day I conducted a study on the relationship between advanced expressive language development in preschoolers, familial socioeconomic status and the quality of the home environment (fyi, unlike the lower end of the language development scale, there was no significant relationship)…

    I just used Endnote to store my bibliographical info, but I have seen it used much more effectively – my supervisor cross referenced all he entries and kept key quotes in the notes section with page references – she absolutely swore by it. You could also include a file location for where the paper is stored on your computer if you wanted to get really snazzy.

    I had a folder kept separate for each different major aspect of the topic I was investigating – so (1) Language development in preschoolers (2) SES and (3) Quality of the home environment. Papers were filed in the folders according to topic and organised by authors, and if they came under two topics, then a separate copy was placed in each folder, etc (Bit of a waste of paper, but it really helped when working on fleshing out a topic area). Then, I devised a coded system of post-its for sub-topics, which I used within the papers. I only hand ~200 papers, mind. I think this system could get a bit out of hand with anything more.

    If I was to do it again , I would also start the process of writing a 100 word or so critical summary of each paper, including details of where I think it would fit in to my argument, etc. and attach to the front of the paper. If you were going all computer based, you could pdf that and add to the electronic copy of the paper.

    • Pants, for someone who likes photographing her boobs so much, you really are a nerd. I like it.

      I started the semester stapling a small summary of each article to the front page, but then stopped for no particular reason.

      • The summaries are useful, but with your own critical appraisal of the pieces and who they could support/negate your arguments they become indispensable.

        boobs and filing. Shit, I should totally be on Mad Men or something *shudders*.

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