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:

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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:

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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:

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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!

How I avoided a PhD meltdown

In August-September I had a few really bad months. Somebody really close to me died, my dog died, my partner had a sports injury, and then I accidentally drowned my laptop. This was a really hard time for me, to top it off I was busy with teaching undergraduates for the first time and trying to plan for my fieldwork (see my post on The P in PhD should stand for Paperwork.)

Losing my computer could have been the last straw to make me throw in the towel completely. I learnt two things from losing my computer: 1) IT departments will sometimes quote you more than the cost of a new laptop to fix your laptop 2) making regular backups is extremely important.

If I had lost all of my PhD files I honestly do not know how I would have reacted. I think I probably would have cried for a week and then seriously contemplated quitting. But I was lucky.

I was lucky because I use OneDrive, provided by my university, to automatically backup all of my files. My EndNote library is not kept in this automatically syncing folder because I have read that cloud storage can cause corruption of your EndNote library. It is kept in a seperate folder, but I use my online EndNote account to sync all of my References in library. People who use a Mac should note that for about six months I wasn’t syncing my files properly, so make sure you are pressing the sync button NOT the ‘sync status’ button (seems obvious in hindsight, but keep it in mind). In fact, the only file I lost was some of my NVIVO file (read more: Nvivo for a literature review: How and why) because I also do not keep that in my cloud folder as I am unsure of the stability of the file in cloud storage. I lost this because I had been inconsistent with adding my backup files into my cloud folder.

So yes, I was very lucky that I didn’t lose everything and I now take even more precautions. I have a 1TB hard drive that I have set up ‘Time Machine’ on and I also sync my whole PhD folder to my student folder on the University drives (when I am on campus).

So consider this your timely reminder to make sure you have a system for backing up your files and that you use this system regularly.  I didn’t expect for everything bad to happen at once, but this is the way life works sometimes and you need to ensure that accidentally drowning your laptop won’t ruin you! The title of this blog post may be melodramatic but you really don’t know when, or how, you may lose all of your files and trust me, the timing definitely will not be perfect!