3 Other Methods for Taking Notes in your PhD

Welcome to 2022! We are now roughly six weeks in and I thought I would welcome the new year by providing you with a video recording of a workshop I ran last year in April (I always seem to be a little late to the party on this blog!).

In this video I discuss:

1. Things to consider about note-taking

2. The Cornell Method

3. The Index card method/Zettelkasten

4. Literature review matrix

As always, you can read how I take notes here on my blog (Nvivo for a literature review: How and why and The way I take notes for my PhD).

Here are the main considerations you should know prior to choosing a note taking method:

– Choose a method and stick with it

– Reflect on what has worked in the past (or not worked!)

– Your notes are information about a source that you will use to write your chapters and good note taking makes this process easier

– Avoid plagiarism by writing summaries rather than direct quotes

– It doesn’t matter which method you choose, as long as you are thinking critically about the references

How do you take notes? Leave me a comment below!

Six things you should know about the final year of the PhD journey!

If you look for advice about the PhD process it largely seems to be ‘what I wished I’d know at the start’ or ‘what I wish I knew before starting my PhD’ etc. I thought I would go a little differently and list what I wish I had known about the final year.

What follows is a list of my reflections on the final year of my PhD. When reading, remember I am in Australia so we usually have a 2-4 year program and no comprehensive exams/vivas. We find a supervisor, get into the program and work on our project straight away. Our examination process does not include a viva, we await reports from two examiners unknown to us.

Before we get into the list, I will also caution that this list is more of a reflection, and offers next to no solutions. It is more of a cautionary tale.

Things I wish I had known about the final year:

  1. Editing and responding to feedback takes time. You will get frustrated as your supervisors send back your draft with more feedback. At times, it will feel as if you cannot get it right. But you will. You will get through it, you have made it this far and there is no turning back now.
  2. Close editing takes a lot of time and energy. As part of the final two weeks prior to submission, I checked the finer details of my thesis. I was surprised at how exhausted I was after checking my references and I encourage you to allocate double the time you think you will need. It will take longer than you think!
  3. You may restructure your thesis and this is okay. I submitted my thesis in June 2021, but I completely restructured my thesis three months prior (in March) and before that, I had restructured it in October 2020. Being strongly committed to one way of reporting your data or organising your front chapters may stifle your creativity. I was suprisingly upset at the thought of having to re-structure my thesis; however, once I restructured in March, I immediately saw a clearer vision for my thesis and it helped make a cohesive narrative.
  4. Any sense of organisation will probably go out the window. I am an extremely organised person. I have multiple back ups, neat file structures, I make lists, set weekly goals, follow set ways of organising my readings etc etc. But in the last year of my PhD, I felt I was increasingly losing my ability to keep things organised. At one point, I accidentally started making substantial changes in an old version of my thesis draft. Luckily I realised before I got too far.
  5. The day you submit, you will feel bone-tired and a little strange. Somebody told me that when they submitted they were too tired to enjoy themselves and that it was a strange feeling which wasn’t quite the jubilation you might expect. I smiled and commiserated, all the while thinking this wouldn’t happen to me! Spoiler alert: I was in bed at 8pm the night I submitted my thesis.
  6. When you get your results, you may be scared to open the email. I received the email with my results at 9:37am on a random Thursday in July. I remember staring at the email, knowing the results were in there waiting for me to see – but I found myself unable to open them. I spent at least a few minutes staring at the attachment and promptly burst into tears.
  7. You will feel a rollercoaster of emotions. In the last year of my PhD, I felt a range of emotions and my poor supervisors saw me cry in many meetings. Looking back, I think a lot of the emotions were about my own commitment to what I had written and being scared to change how it was written or structured (it all seemed too daunting).

Now, having written this list, I know those of you who are approaching your final year are probably thinking the same thing, ‘Yeah, but that won’t happen to me’. I sincerely hope it does not happen to you, but if it does, don’t say I didn’t warn you!

Can’t afford a thesis editor/proofreader? Here are my suggestions

I cannot write this post without addressing one question: where have I been? I last wrote a post on this blog in December 2020 (it is now September 2021!). In that time, I have finished, submitted and passed my PhD! I am now Dr Smithers. In the last six months of my PhD I worked full time while trying to finish writing/editing chapters. I do not recommend this. Naturally, I couldn’t keep up with everything and this blog was left alone for a while.

Although I was working full time, I could not afford a thesis editor to review my manuscript. I was fairly confident with my writing, but scoured the internet for a list of things to ‘check’ before submission. Unfortunately, I could not find any that were comprehensive enough for me to feel confident I had achieved a sufficient level of ‘polish’. I kept a list of things I looked for in this final stage, and I am publishing it here in the hopes it can help you. I should also acknowledge I reached out to Twitter to look for advice, you can read the thread here:

When reading this list, ensure you have an appropriate style guide (such as APA) or your institution’s thesis formatting guidelines to help you.

Things to consider when proofreading your thesis

  1. Consistency of heading capitalisation. Check you have capitalised words consistently in your headings. A style guide may assist with this, or you may be allowed to choose how headings are capitalised.
  2. Use of its vs it’s. I searched my document and triple checked every usage of its vs it’s to ensure I hadn’t made an error.
  3. Consistency of ” and ‘. This check is twofold. First, ensure you have consistently used them across your document when quoting or where participant quotes have speech (I thought I had, but still managed to find one or two cases where I had used the wrong one). Second, ensure the appearance of ” and ‘ are consistent. Let me show you what I mean: and . See how one is straight and the other is curly? I had both of these in my document. Definitely something to check! (Nb: I don’t know how many examiners would care/notice this, but someone I follow on twitter had an examiner pick this up).
  4. Indentation of paragraphs. Ensure you have consistently indented/not indented the first line (depending on preference). If you are not indenting the first line, check the consistency of line breaks after each paragraph.
  5. Capitalisation in reference list. Each referencing style will dictate how you should capitalise journal titles, book titles, article titles etc. Check you have consistently capitalised according to your referencing style. In Microsoft Word the ‘change case’ button may help here:
  6. Confirm spelling of ALL names in reference list. To do this, I opened Endnote and selected the option to only see references from my thesis document. I then manually opened every PDF to check the spelling of every author. It took some time, but I did find two spelling errors so it was worth it. This is especially important in Australia, where you don’t know who your examiners will be. You really don’t want to spell their name wrong throughout the document. Once you are done, remember to update the citations in your Word document.
  7. Consistency of terms. This one will be quite unique to your thesis document, but try to check all of the terms you have used across different chapters. For example, I checked whether I used fieldnote vs field note, tourism personnel vs tourism worker etc. I also checked school pseudonym’s capitalisation (Matopo School vs Matopo school)
  8. Use of possessive apostrophes. Double check your use of apostrophes, make sure you have them were they are needed.
  9. Consistency of research questions. My research questions changed a little as I progressed through the writing process and I had them in three places in my thesis. Make sure they are the most up-to-date version.
  10. Formatting of block quotes. Did you know in APA style, for a block quote the full stop goes before the reference (as opposed to an inline quote, where it goes after)? Make sure your full stops are consistent and check your capitalisation of the first word. To ensure consistent formatting of the quote, use a style and apply it to all block quotes. If you use styles, an easy way to find your block quotes is to search by formatting:

  1. Conduct a final continuity check. Read each introduction and conclusion, do they outline the chapter clearly and correctly? Within chapters, if you refer to another Chapter (Ie. In Chapter 8…) ensure the Chapter number is correct. Do your paragraphs flow? A way to check this is to only read the first and last sentence. Is there a cohesive narrative?
  2. Ensure you meet all requirements set by your Graduate Office. Triple check the submission requirements. Some universities are very explicit in regards to font choice, title pages, page numbering etc. Ensure you meet all of the formatting requirements.
  3. Print your thesis and read it line-by-line. I printed my thesis and used a ruler to read line-by-line. This stopped me from skipping ahead or skim reading and allowed me to check more closely for mistakes.

If you are at the stage where you need this sort of list, I wish you all the best with your thesis examination. Although some of these items may seem silly, I believe that a more polished thesis will help your examiner focus on the content of your thesis rather than the spelling errors. Research supports this with Holbrook et al. stating, “compared to high-quality theses, low-quality theses attracted substantially more comment regarding editorial errors (1% and 8%, respectively)” and Goulding et al. identifying “once examiners notice sloppy presentation and have become suspicious of the quality of the thesis, they tend to read more critically, searching for faults”.

Did you use a proof reader? Do you have any other tips to add to this list? Leave a comment and let me know!

Why it is important to have an identity outside of your PhD: Work-life balance is important!

Often there is a myth perpetuated about doing a PhD, and that myth is that you must eat, sleep and breathe your thesis. This usually means working long hours and on weekends. But is this productive? I argue it isn’t.

As I have moved through my PhD journey I have reflected many times on the value of my PhD and how at times, this PhD became linked to my identity.  Throughout my PhD I have tried to create a seperate and productive life outside of my PhD. This has meant taking on teaching work, ensuring I have a work-life balance and time away from my PhD.

I have tried to create a work-life balance by not working on weekends, something I haven’t always achieved. I also endeavour to do all my work in my university office space (something unravelled by COVID-19).

Subscribing to the eat-sleep-breathe-your-thesis discourse can lead to burnout and increased frustration in yourself and your PhD. See, if you put all of your self-worth and value as a person into your PhD, when you receive criticism or something goes wrong it can be catastrophic for your sense of self.

There are also some other factors why I believe your PhD should not become part of your identity and why work-life balance is important:

  1. You are more than your research. You are not the sum of your achievements and publications. You are a person, who has value beyond what reviewer 2 says.
  2. You will move on from this project. Some people will probably continue on their research trajectory in a very similar vein to their PhD. But with the job market, the reality is you will end up working on somebody else’s project, or in whatever project could provide you with funding. If you tie your identity solely to your PhD project, without developing a love for the research process, you will find yourself with a level of unease when you need to work on someone else’s project.
  3. You will finish your PhD. It is very common to hear of students who complete their PhD and take months to physically and emotionally recover from the process. If you invest so much time and energy into your PhD (and no other elements of your life), when you submit you will feel empty and lost. This is just inevitable – you will have to grieve the loss of this part of yourself.

Working all of the time can lead to burnout and it isn’t sustainable. Further, if your sense of identity is linked to your 24/7 work-life, once that work-life is gone you will have nothing left.

I think that the old adage of a 24/7 PhD is unsustainable. You can’t work non-stop on deep intellectual work for 3-5 years without a break, it is impossible. You need to have time away from your thesis to see the mistakes in your own work and the value in your work.

The current culture of academia is toxic. It encourages hyper-productivity and unsustainable workloads. There have been movements recently, such as the Slow Professor movement,  which aim to slow the process of academia down by meaningfully engaging with research and research outputs. Many rightly argue that the slow professor movement is a movement which few have the privilege to take up. There are opportunities for resistance against the toxic work culture of academia.

I think the next generation of scholars can work against the culture of toxic academia by undertaking small resistances. One of these resistances could be not working on the weekends. The other resistances could be undertaking hobbies and activities outside of your PhD, activities which enable you to forge an identity which is not linked to academia. If the next generation work together to say no to a toxic culture, we can begin to make changes.

PS. Sorry for the long break in between posts! Leave a comment below telling me what you think of this post, or what you would like to see in future posts!

Resources you can use as a PhD student

I have recently come into two new roles that focus on student support (NUPSA Vice President and Student Peer Advisor). In both these roles, I have realised that many students do not know the wealth of knowledge which is available to them on both the university campus and online.

This list is compiled with my own specific university experience in mind. If you are in another country (not Australia) you may not have these resources. But I encourage you to reach out to your university and see if they have these available. I have used every single one of them at some point in my PhD.

Here are some places you might want to look for support:

  • Twitter: Twitter can be useful to follow people in your discipline or the hashtag #phd #phdlife. You could also search via hashtags such as #litreview for whatever stage you are up to!
  • Raul Pacheco-Vega website: An immensely helpful resource about note-taking, writing and everything in between (link here)
  • Books: See if your library has how-to guides for PhDs. These are so useful, despite being written usually for a multi-discipline audience (check this list out for some titles)
  • Library services: My university has a Senior Librarian for each Faculty. They can help with searching databases and show you anything you may have missed (such as using Boolean terms!!) and also run handy workshops on referencing.
  • Graduate studies services: This is the place to find out the rules and regulations of your degree. For example, do you know the process for submitting your PhD? The required length? Any specific formatting styles required? Any regular reporting you need to do? These are all good things to know prior to your submission date. My university also offer workshops which are run through our Graduate Research Office.
  • Supervisors: Draw on your supervisors. They are usually a wealth of knowledge and are there to support you. Don’t be afraid to ask questions, even if it is about support services at your institution. They will (hopefully) know the available resources for students at your university. Also, remember that you can set the agenda for your meetings with your supervisors. This is your PhD, let your supervisors know how they can help you make the most of it!
  • Form your own support group: This is a suggestion which is in most PhD “how-to” books. Find 3 like-minded friends and meet once a week (or less frequently if needed). My friends and I met once a week for two hours. During this time we would work in 25-minute sessions, with 5-minute breaks. Each week we shared our goals for the week, and if we had achieved our goals for the previous week. This kept us all on track, and we weren’t judgemental if someone didn’t reach their goals.
  • Learning Support resources: does your university have a service for English-language support? My university has a service which runs grammar workshops, presentation workshops, literature review workshops etc. They also run a one-on-one consultation service. Pretty cool!
  • International office resources: If you are an international student I suggest you find out if your university has a department dedicated to supporting you. It may be the office you applied for your degree through. Either way, they can usually help you with settling in, paperwork and access to resources.
  • Blogs: If you are reading this, you probably already have this one sorted. But the most useful blog I have found in my PhD is run by Associate Professor Inger Mewburn, called the Thesis whisperer
  • Other students: through formal mentorships or informal chats, just be careful not to rely too much on them as they are students too. At my university, we have a formal Student Peer Advisor role in which students can book 30-minute slots (FOR FREE!) to get one-on-one guidance from a student in their last year.
  • Youtube: I don’t use this one too much. But I have found it very valuable for learning how to use NVIVO. Watching a video on how to use a program is very handy, as you can watch every mouse click and pause the video if needed. A good channel for general PhD advice is Tara Brabazon.
  • Workshops offered by your Faculty/School/University: Watch your university inbox for information about workshops run by different people within your institution. These are usually very relevant, particularly in the first year of your degree. Remember a workshop will help you with networking, learning new skills and thinking of new ideas. I don’t think a workshop is ever a waste of time as usually, I leave with new skills and a fresh outlook on my project.
  • Counselling: Don’t under-estimate the need to ensure you have good mental health. If you are struggling, make use of your university counselling service.
  • Student clubs: A great way to meet people!
  • Careers service: As you approach the end of your degree you may be beginning to become concerned about what you will do after your degree. The careers service at your university can usually help you with job searches, CV writing and how to write applications. If your university has this, I strongly suggest you see how they can help you!
  • Your School/Faculty Office: At my university, we have an administrative team who are dedicated to just the School of Education. They are the people who arranged access to my desk, showed me what forms I needed for my fieldwork, and are generally just super helpful for anything I need assistance with. Find out who these people are in your School/Faculty and how they may be able to help you!

This is just a simple list to give you some idea of what may be available at your university. Please share anything in the comments that I may have missed!

An update on NVIVO for the literature review

I recently made a YouTube video about my experiences with Nvivo for the literature review. I realised when I was making this video that I needed to update my post a little about NVIVO. This is for a few reasons:

  • NVIVO 12 looks different to NVIVO 11 for Mac. In fact, now NVIVO 12 looks very similar to NVIVO for Windows.
  • I am further into my PhD so have more perspective on its use
  • I now have a Youtube Video where I explain in more depth!

What are my thoughts on NVIVO now?

I still love it. It has been invaluable for me during the writing and updating of my literature review and in writing my data chapters. Why has it been useful?

In a similar way to people who use multiple word documents for interesting quotes or useful quotes, I have been able to quickly identify quotes that I might want to use or articles I want to re-visit as they are similar to my findings.

At a glance, I am also able to find papers that I have forgotten about due to my use of the file classification sheet.

Some updates on NVIVO:

In my first post, I don’t think I went in-depth enough about what I might code. In my YouTube video, I discuss my coding by showing an article I have coded. Here are some of the things I code for:

  • Definitions of contested terms: I use these definitions to choose who I might reference when I mention a term for the first time as it allows me to see the many perspectives on the issue and choose the author I agree with most.
  • Quotes which use a term/theory I am confused about: As a PhD student sometimes there might be a topic in your field or a term which provides you with a lot of confusion and trouble. I used NVIVO to code instances of terms I was unsure about, which allowed me to understand how people talk about the issue and what keywords are in the field/theory.
  • Description of my method: I found this useful as describing a method can feel very hard and difficult. How do you describe what you have done in a clear way? This allowed me to review some of the key terms that people use and the general format of writing about my method.
  • Quotes I love: This one is pretty self-explanatory, I code quotes which I think are really interesting and useful

It is best to code for things which will be of use in the future. Don’t just code every sentence, as you will have too many things coded and this won’t be any good when it comes time to write your thesis. It is a learning curve to know what you want to code and what things may be of importance later. If you aren’t sure here are some tips:

  1. Try to think by chapter, what sort of things would you want for your literature review? What sort of things would you want for a data chapter? You may want different types of coding for your different chapters
  2. Think about the areas of the field that cause you trouble in your writing – code examples of the way that people write about these things. When you come to your own writing on that section you can review how people write about it and see the different terms and ways of writing.
  3. Be afraid to make mistakes. I have some nodes which I have only coded something to once. I made the node thinking it would be important, and then never used it again!
  4. Be adventurous and just begin! Once you have coded a few articles you may realise the things you want to code. Remember this is your project, your thesis, and you can decide what to code!

If you are interested, here is my Youtube video:

Visual tools in your PhD

Often, PhD students imagine their journey to be linear and then it ends up with pitfalls and successes:


This post is about when you get into the dips, or as I call them, pits of despair. Sometimes when you are in a lull you don’t know how you got there, or how to get out. This can be spurred by external issues (see How I avoided a PhD meltdown) or issues directly related to your project.

I have found when I am in the pits related to my PhD visualising helps. This only really works when it is an issue related to my PhD. Some issues I have had are:

  • being overwhelmed by the data, where do I start?
  • a document I am editing isn’t working, but I can’t figure out why
  • my brain feels like mush and nothing seems to be clicking
  • I  feel like an imposter who knows nothing

This post explains some tools for visualising that may help you see clearly. I am a visual person, so for me I believe this really helps me to understand where I should go next. If you are overwhelmed by external things, I am not sure that visualising will work.

I will briefly explain mind maps/diagrams, visual editing, drawing and visual data coding.

Mind maps/Diagrams

I have used mind-maps and diagrams at every stage of my PhD. They allow me to think in a way that is not linear and see how ideas interconnect. Some examples:


Above I have two examples of the way that I visualised the connections between my data. I have blocked out some of the ones in the mindmap above, but you can see that I have 4 main ideas which I have coloured coded and tried to see connections between all of them. When I made this diagram I was very confused by my data and how to represent the complexities of what I found. I am still unsure, but this helped me to see the main ideas that were connected and the ideas that I thought were the most important.

Nvivo also has a really cool tool where you can link your Nvivo codes to the mindmap:

Screen Shot 2019-11-02 at 12.43.40 pm.png

Unfortunately, I do not have many more examples, as often my mind-maps are on paper and after my computer died last year I lost all of my old photographs which contained most of my mindmaps.

Visual editing

At times I recognise that my writing is disjointed but I can’t see how. At times like this, sometimes a critical friend or your supervisors can assist; however, I think that figuring it out yourself might increase your own writing skills and editing abilities. I have three tricks I use for visual editing: cutting the document up, highlighting and post-it notes.

1. Cut the document up

This is a great tool for looking at your own writing in a different way and identifying how paragraphs/sentences might work in a different order:

  1. I print my document (one-sided) and cut out all paragraphs (you can also do this at the sentence level). Put all introductory paragraphs to the side, particularly ones that explain the structure of the writing.
  2. I mix them up remaining sentences and walk away (make a cup of tea or have lunch)
  3. Re-arrange the sentences/paragraphs in an order that you think makes sense, trying to forget how you had it structured previously.
  4. Open a new document and copy all the paragraphs in the new order. Keep your old document just in case.
  5. Assess if you need to change linking sentences, topic sentences and change if required
  6. Read the whole document and decide if you like the new structure better (maybe also assess what changed – just as a learning tool for yourself)

2. Use highlighters/the highlight function

I use this strategy when I feel that a paragraph is clunky. When I say clunky, sometimes this means that there are two paragraphs which appear to be organised well but are actually a mismatch of two different topics. For this, I use the highlight function in Microsoft Word. I identify the topics that I think the paragraphs have and use a coloured highlighter for each. For example in this picture, I have yellow for ‘othering’ practises, pink for the commodification of culture and green for claims to authenticity:

Screen Shot 2019-11-02 at 12.20.29 pm

It immediately became clear to me when I did this that the first paragraph was a jumble of topics. This was for my confirmation document last year and I had received feedback from my supervisors that this section did not read well. This helped me to understand why. Please also note, that this is a very early draft of this document, so please use it for understanding the technique, not the content.

3. Use post-it notes for structural editing

This tool I use for larger chunks of text which have multiple paragraphs and are too large to organise in the ‘cutting up’ method. Its very simple, I identify all of my section headings and write them on a post-it note. I re-arrange the post-it notes into themes or in an order that I believe works. This takes time and I play around with it until I feel the order is right.



This is a technique that I wish I was skilled in. My lovely friend Kieran has kindly offered to provide me with an example of the way he uses drawing in his PhD.


Kieran accompanied this image with a short description of how it helps him:

“Drawings and the archetypes and metaphors really help me personify the major actors or agents in the ontology of my study. With this big drawing in my mind, I can elucidate more freely without reading from notes. It is being added to all the time of course as I find new actors, agents and metaphors in the landscape of my ontology.”

I have added it into my plan for the next few months, to try and visualise my PhD and some of the interconnections between concepts. Definitely cool and a great technique to understand connections between things!

Visual data coding

For somebody who is a big Nvivo fan (for example Nvivo for a literature review: How and why and My adventures in transcription!) I actually did not use Nvivo much for my data analysis. This is because Nvivo for me is a data storage system, it does not analyse my data for me.

Here, I will briefly describe some of my initial steps of data organisation and coding:

  1. Read all of my transcripts without writing anything or coding
  2. Wrote some notes down (see image above under mind maps) and tried to see connections
  3. Used Post-it notes to move codes under larger themes (note at this stage I had not coded any of my transcripts – this was initial thoughts from just reading my data). As you can see here I used larger post-it notes to identify the broader themes and then smaller ones to identify sub-themes:Screen Shot 2019-11-02 at 12.39.28 pm.pngThe four here are an example, but I actually had many more (too many). I scanned these post-it notes into Nvivo so I would have a copy of them for the future.
  4. I coded the transcripts in Nvivo to these codes and themes I had worked out. I then printed these and cut out each quote and visualised them on large pieces of paper. This meant I could move quotes around and change the codes slightly where I saw fit. It is hard to photograph but looked something like this: D8MIFF9U0AILZBb            These pieces of paper are colour coded to broader themes and these colours match the mindmap in the first section of this post. As you can see this data was A LOT of data. This is where I got overwhelmed. What you can see here is about 1/3 of the data I showed my supervisors. Following this meeting, I did the mindmaps, which you can see in the beginning of this post.
  5. The step is happening now, I am writing and connecting more of my theory to data (very exciting) – maybe I’ll have a post on that soon!

I hope this post has helped you. There are many other ways I used visual methods in my work, but these seem the most translatable. For organisation using visual tools please see my post on How I plan in my PhD/Organise my desk.

Please share your thoughts, tips and tricks in the comment section!



How I plan in my PhD/Organise my desk

In this post I thought I would share how I plan my days/weeks in my PhD. This process evolved over time for me, and is the culmination of workshops/googling/other blogs.

Gantt chart

Personally, I actually hate Gantt charts! Yes, I do think they are good for long term planning. Yet, a lot of people have them and don’t actually do anything with them! Usually every candidate tends to have a gantt chart, but doesn’t actually use it to make smaller, achievable chunks. So I use mine to plan my weeks.

Long term weekly planning

I use my Gantt chart every 2-3 months to make a weekly plan. This weekly plan fits on an A4 piece of paper, and I quickly type it up a few weeks before my last one expires. It basically contains a list of the next 10-12 weeks, with my set in stone commitments and my ‘focus’ for that week. The ‘focus’ tasks come straight from my Gantt chart. It looks something like this:Screen Shot 2019-06-09 at 9.53.47 pm

I use the ‘focus’ to determine my weekly tasks.

Weekly Planning

Every Friday afternoon I have time allocated to plan my week and to clean my desk. On this Friday afternoon I plan the next week. I usually put in my commitments first (I use outlook to track meetings and appointments), schedule time for reading and then look at my focus for the week and add tasks to achieve that. Here is what it looks like (note: all names are pseudonyms) :


So my weekly planning is also daily planning, as I have allocated segments for each day. I have a set lunch break, and try to follow the 15 minute breaks in the middle segments. I’ve found that a large part of having success with this method is being strict with yourself. You have allocated these times for you to work, so work! Don’t pick up your phone unless it is in your allocated break. The same goes for Youtube, Twitter, Facebook etc. I treat my PhD like a full time job so I try to only work 8am-5pm, Monday-Friday. This doesn’t always happen, but I have found that it has given me less stress, and I value my time at my desk more. If you don’t set yourself hours it is easy to be unproductive as you can see the whole morning, day, then night stretch before you. If you know you only have until 5pm, you want to use all your time as productively as you can!

You also need to know what works for you, and when. For example, don’t schedule reading time in the morning if you know you hate reading in the morning! Try and be realistic about the tasks you can achieve, so you are setting yourself realistic goals. I have also found I am much better now at assessing how long a task will take, as I have practise at scheduling my time.

For those interested as to why I have ‘code article’ on my planning, this is because I use Nvivo for my literature review. Unfortunately when I had a computer malfunction, I lost some of my Nvivo file, so when I say ‘code article’ it really just means quickly grab the key quotes and fix them up in my Nvivo file.

Random things that pop up

One thing I found when I first started my PhD was that I had an ever growing to do list, and I had many suggestions from my supervisors of who to read, things to search for etc. I found the easiest solution for this was a visual to do list. I use post-it notes (cheap ones do not work – they fall off the wall) and have three columns, ‘to do’ ‘in progress’ and ‘done’.


Sorry for the dreadful picture – my iPhone was trying to be arty by ‘focusing’ on one side and blurring the other. This list is different to my ‘monthly’ planning list. It is usually things that aren’t urgent, but I want to be able to remember for the future. I only have 1-3 items in the ‘in progress’ section at a time. This allows me to truly focus on the task at hand.

My desk as a whole


This is my desk overall. As you can see it isn’t super tidy, but I do like to keep some sort of order to it. To the right, I have my Gantt chart and my weekly tasks on the divider between my desk and the person next to me. The trays are for my printed articles, spare paper for notes, my de-identified transcripts, and papers that need to be filed on Friday. On the left, I have all of my printed articles sorted by subject. I keep most of my stationery in the drawers.


Below the magazine holders, I have folders. These are mainly filled with readings for courses I have taught and notes from workshops I have attended.

My calendar

I use my electronic calendar in Outlook as a way of managing my meetings and appointments. I do not schedule my tasks in the electronic calendar. It is only a tool to manage appointments/meetings. I have found this to be the most effective method for me, as I always generally have my phone with me. Paper planners (for me), always get left behind and I have a dreadful memory, so need something that I can quickly refer to.

Electronic organisation

People often ask me how I organise my files. For me this is simple.

  • I have a folder for each potential chapter in my thesis, and organise drafts in here by date. Within each folder is a folder for feedback from my supervisors. Every time I open a document to write/edit, I ‘save as’ with a new date, to help track versions and eliminate any problems with file corruption (as I can always open the last saved file if a file corrupts)
  • I have a folder for meeting notes. You should be planning your meeting with your supervisors, and I usually print an agenda prior to the meeting. I keep these here.
  • I have a folder for ‘planning’. This includes my Gantt chart and my weekly lists.
  • My PDFs are all organised in Nvivo, and I have a copy in Endnote. I simply save PDFs to my downloads – I do not need to organise them in another way on my computer.
  • All my files are saved to my OneDrive. Except my Nvivo and Endnote files. The Nvivo file is constantly editing as you work in it, and cloud storage doesn’t like this. I save a back up to my cloud storage every time I close Nvivo. Endnote files will corrupt if they are saved on cloud/or USB storage. I use the ‘endnote’ online service to backup my Endnote.
  • My notes and annotated bibliography are all in Scrivener ( see this post: The way I take notes for my PhD).

For more tips, check out this tweet:

I hope this has helped you in some way! What are your tools for planning/organising?

My adventures in transcription!

I like to consider myself quite prepared and organised, but when I suddenly had interviews that needed transcribing, I realised I didn’t know much about it at all. I then undertook a magical journey of finding the right way of transcribing, that worked for me. I have detailed it here for those who are looking to read more about alternate methods of transcription.

Attempt 1: Using voice-to-text, speaking the interview out loud

I had read online that voice-to-text options are the way to go for transcribing. I did a quick google and found otter.ai which is a voice-to-text transcriber. Otter.AI is good if you want to record the conversation and have it transcribe for you. Sounds almost too good to be true right?

Right. Unfortunately I had also read that with voice-to-text they don’t quite understand accents that aren’t American. I’m Australian and speak extraordinarily fast. My interview participants speak English as a Second Language (or third, or fourth) so they also have an accent that isn’t American. I knew that this option would probably not work for me, but I had a way around it. I had read the simplest way to work around the accent problem is to put headphones in, listen to the recording on your phone, and speak it out loud to your computer. Quickly edit the mistakes and boom you are done! The site suggested it would only take around 2 hours for a 1 hour interview.

The only problem is that Otter.Ai works from being able to distinguish between two voices to create the transcript. So what I ended up with was a jumble of text that was a mix of both my text, and the interviewees text. Here is an example in which there are two speakers, with their text jumbled (I ask a question, then the participant responds, and I ask a follow up question):

Screen Shot 2019-02-28 at 3.12.39 pmWhilst it cut down on typing, I had a severe amount of editing to do AND the timestamps didn’t align with the interview audio, as when I was speaking out loud I was actually a lot quicker than the interview had been. I think the first 1 hour interview took around 10-12 in total, due to the need to listen and re-listen and correct the words that Otter had heard wrong (quite a lot of words actually – turns out it really doesn’t like my voice, or African place names). Not to mention questions didn’t have question marks, some sentences were cut off etc.

Result: less typing but 10-12 hours (1 of speaking the interview out loud, roughly 10 editing)

Attempt 2: Letting Otter.AI have free reign of the recording

After my first attempt, I decided to letter Otter.AI just have complete control of the transcription. My second interview I wanted to transcribe had a much more British accent and I was hoping that Otter would be able to pick it up. Turns out Otter liked that participants accent, but it still didn’t like mine at all. This was quicker in the editing phase, as it could recognise that we were two different speakers. It was also quicker as I didn’t need to speak the interview out loud, automatically cutting an hour of editing time. However, it still had problems when my participant spoke too quickly or whenever I spoke. To give you an example:

Screen Shot 2019-02-28 at 3.16.26 pm

So here I have put white boxes over identifying features (names of people and companies) I have put a clear box of mistakes that would require editing. I have also added two red annotations that I added which shows how Otter didn’t always keep text together (a small, but time consuming issue to fix).

One frustrating thing about otter is that when you click on a word to edit it, it automatically starts playing the recording from that word. I hated this, sometimes I wanted to edit a word without having to fumble around and hit pause.

Result: no typing beyond editing, but 7-8 hours of work. 

Attempt 3: Heading back to Nvivo

By now I had also realised a fundamental flaw in Otter.AI. It requires the internet. This is fine for those who are in a country where there is stable internet and electricity, but we have had two scheduled power outages in the last month (lasting all day), and random ones in between (lasting from 1 hour-8 hours). In one of these power outages I realised, I am importing my interviews into NVivo anyway, why not have a go at using it?

I began transcribing in NVivo and it was honestly a breeze. I can choose the speed that the interview plays back (Otter.Ai can do this too) and it is a much simpler interface. I could control when the audio played, could use my keyboard to go back and forth (using the shortcuts my Mac has). I can also use the keyboard to create new transcript lines, meaning I don’t need to pause the audio if I can type quick enough to keep up.

I typed the whole interview in 5 hours. This includes time taken to wander around the house, stare aimlessly into the fridge, and check social media. So considering that professional transcription time is roughly 4 hours for every 1 hour, I’m pretty happy with NVivo. I type quickly and used keyboard shortcuts, so if you are a slower typer this might not be for you.

Result: 5 hours transcription time, no internet required, but lots of typing.

My transcription tips

  1. Try many methods, don’t just settle for the first one you try, or the one recommended to you.
  2. Learn the keyboard shortcuts for your program.
  3. Put your phone in another room so you aren’t tempted to pick it up and get distracted.
  4. Just do it! It is a pain, and can be quite boring but it won’t happen if you don’t do it!
  5. Enjoy the time of listening to your interview again.
  6. Buy a transcription pedal (something I haven’t done, but everyone recommends them).
  7. Don’t be sad if you don’t have funding for transcription. Being sad won’t make your transcription magically happen (I say this because I did spend a few days wishing the transcription fairy would visit).

Hope this has helped, even if it gives you some potential ideas for transcription. Comment below if you have questions, or you can always connect with me on Twitter.


The way I take notes for my PhD

In high school I was really bad at taking notes and studying. So much so that I barely got into a university degree! In my undergraduate I slowly learnt tricks for studying and remembering all the things I had to do. But when you begin a PhD, it is quite honestly a whole new ball game. The things you read you will need to be able to find, and remember in two or three years time!

Everybody has a different process, but I thought I would outline mine in this blog post. I’ll begin with a confession; the thought of PDFs in folders has always scared me.  To me, the idea of knowing what a file is by the way I name it and being able to find the things I have highlighted a year later seemed (and still seems) impossible. I honestly do not know how people just use PDFs on their computer to remember all of the things they have read (hats off to those who can do that!). In the beginning of my PhD I printed every article I read, so I could file it manually (my inspiration here). I still think this is the best method for me, but I have had to adapt it due to overseas fieldwork (can’t exactly drag printed articles around the world with me).

Below I detail the steps I take when reading an article/book/whatever for my PhD.

Manually enter the article into EndNote

I know some (most?) PhD students import database searches into their EndNote libraries and work from there. But I have two issues from this:

  1. You have to check the references to ensure authors don’t have different name versions (otherwise in documents your EndNote will automatically treat them like two authors who have the same last name and first initial).
  2. How do you know what you have read? Or where to start reading?

I manually enter the details to avoid this. In the beginning I used the EndNote keyword feature to help find articles I had entered, but now I do not do this (as I use Nvivo and it is easier to find things and it is a bit redundant with the way I file articles). In my endnote I simply add all necessary bibliographical information and attach the PDF (my back up in case of catastrophic tech failure). I also use the endnote online to sync my library to the cloud.

Add an annotated bibliography entry to my scrivener

This annotated bibliography is whatever I am thinking/feeling at the time. Some entries are more detailed than others. See the example below:

screen shot 2019-01-29 at 2.23.30 pm

I have blocked the first two entries APA reference as I am quite critical in my entry of them (not quite ready to have such a strong academic voice just yet). You will notice how all four of the entries are quite different with what they identify and talk about. I don’t follow a set pattern for these, it is quite literally my thoughts. For most it is a summary of what the article said and my thoughts. This is a good way to begin to think critically about all of the things you read.

Add some writing to my scrivener file

This part has helped me to actually start writing. Since the beginning of my PhD I have always added sentences to my Scrivener file to match the article I am reading. For example:

Screen Shot 2019-01-29 at 2.30.31 pm.png

This is my scrivener file for my whole PhD. On the left side you can see I have folders set up and each of these contains sub-folders and text within. The top ones are actual chapter drafts that I have begun working on and the ones filed under ‘research’ are things I have randomly written that I am unsure if I will need/what chapter they will be in. The text in this screen here is an example of where I have begun to write about postcolonialism and education. Notice how I have written sentences about what Matereke argues, but also included a quote I think might be relevant. When I begin to write this section later, I can use these as starting points to construct an argument that flows (and actual paragraphs). I will also know what authors I have read who are related to this area. My other files generally have more writing in them than this, but I chose a small example in case someone wants to read the text (to see what I mean)! Let me know if you want more detail on using Scrivener for a PhD!

Code the article in Nvivo

I have already discussed this in my blogpost: Nvivo for a literature review: How and why. I use Nvivo to help me sort my PDFS and find quotes that I like, or in general sentences that I think are really eloquent and helpful at understanding a concept. For example:

screen shot 2019-01-29 at 2.35.38 pm

A quick glance at my code for ‘colonialism’ allows me to see some ways of writing about colonialism and allows me to remember the key words that are used when discussing this concept (‘civilising mission’ ‘racialised hierachies’ etc).

In conclusion…

I hope this blog has helped you understand the way I take notes, as I have managed to transform from a person who was completely analog with note taking (in undergraduate) to able to work digitally. Not only do I work digitally, I always know where my readings are, how to find something quickly and I don’t start writing with a blank page!

If you are just beginning your PhD, don’t be afraid to find the system that works for you by experimenting with a jigsaw of other people’s methods!