starting the phd? get organised now

Yes, I know nearly everyone says you need to get organised – but that’s because it really is true. Getting yourself well set up for the long haul will save time – and your sense of being in control – later. Attending to the organisational basics at the get go will provide the structure you will need from now on. So….

Get your office space together 
If you are working from home, get the best chair you can afford. I have a reconditioned Aero which was quite expensive – but you can pick up Aeros on Ebay for not too much more than the crappy knock off versions. Butof course your chair doesn’t have to be like mine there are lots of other decent chairs out there. But there are some awful ones too – so check the chair options out, particularly if you are prone to back/neck problems when you sit for any period of time. Or you might be one of those people who want a standing desk… if so, get it installed now!

Avoid getting the scholarly hump

Fred had an unwelcome case of the scholarly hump

Position your desk where you can get natural light – and air – if at all possible. I wrote my PhD with the Australian sun over my shoulder. My current desk is under a skylight which I can open when the English weather is acceptably non-rainy.

Get some bookshelves with room for the key texts you are going to accumulate over the coming period. Make a separate space for library books so you don’t get them muddled up with those that you purchase.

Get the best computer you can afford – with a decent size screen. Depending on the nature of your research, you might also need a laptop, or you might be happy with just a laptop and dock. I think you can’t beat writing at a desktop, but not everyone agrees. Make sure what you get allows good secure storage options.  It’s also good to have ready access to an cost-efficient printer.

You’ll want to keep files, and some could even be hard copy, (yes still paper), so you may want to get a filing cabinet. I no longer use filing cabinets but I do find a plastic filing box useful on some occasions. And do load up with the kinds of stationery you like most….

You may need more specialised furniture or equipment

Bert really liked his new illuminations-friendly desk.

If you are working in a university space try to make sure that you have these things too – a good computer, chair, printer and light and air. Ask to move rooms if you are given a cupboard and you can see something better is available!

Do whatever you need to make the space feel like the kind of place you can spend some hours each day.

Get yourself onto bibliographic software straight away
There’s lots around to choose from. When I started my PhD, there was only Endnote and indeed, most universities still provide just Endnote. I like Endnote myself, but then I have been using it for a very long time. Endnote does pretty well all of the things that other newer software does, including importing libraries and storing pdfs. But it costs money and some people really don’t get on with it. There is free software out there, as well as other low cost versions that do a good job. If you have time, take some of the options for a test drive to see what you prefer.

If you aren’t familiar with this kind of software you really just need to know that that it functions like a set of electronic library cards – it’s a data-base in which citation details, key words, and your notes about each publication – and often the publication itself – can be stored. The data base is searchable. Rather than physically rifling through piles of files and lists of publications, you simply enter a search term and get an instant response. The primary benefit of a bibliographic tool is that you cite as you go, and your reference list is automatically compiled at the same time, in whatever style you choose. At the end of a PhD, this citation and reference function will have saved weeks of your life.

My top tip is to ensure that you enter the details of publications in a consistent style – I have found that using sentence case works best, rather than title case – most versions of bibliographic software add in capitals efficiently, but seem to be less consistent when it comes to taking them out.

The key issue is of course not what type of software you use, but that fact that you use it, and use it straight away. It is a real drag going back to the things that you’ve read to enter the details post hoc. Get into the habit at the start of entering everything you read in your chosen system.

Finally, start a couple of ‘keeping track’ files
The first file is for ideas about your research topic. As you get going in the PhD you’ll feel the need to get down  the thoughts that just pop into your mind, you might want to experiment with an idea or try out a few versions of your question – so put these notes into one place. maybe with sub-files if you’re super-orderly. This ideas file might be in a note-book, or it might be on your computer. Whatever format, keeping these research ‘working-out’ ideas together is a good idea. t’s easier to look back through your file to find an idea you once had, rather than go hunting around for that odd scrap of paper. You might also record in this file questions you have for your supervisor, and questions you might ask other PhDs.

keeping a good record of potential ideas for inquisition came in very handy later

Rick’s early list of ideas for the inquisition came in very handy later on

The second file is for the key points that you get from your reading. This is not the notes of each individual publication, but is a record of the ways in which you are thinking about the literatures as a whole. How do you understand the origins of a particular idea? What appear to be some key debates in the field? Who seem to be the key figures? What things are you surprised about not finding? How do two sets of literature speak or not speak to each other? Building this ‘helicopter’ view of the literatures is crucial in the PhD, as it is the way in which you have to establish the position you will take in the field, and to the field.

You might also be the kind of person who diaries, so get your researcher journal going at the start – make one place where you can record your personal reflections on the process. It’s good to start a diary-type journal at the PhD beginning, and not when you are having your first crisis. Capture the sense of excitement, fear and curiosity that marks the start the doctorate so you neither forget how you felt nor why you wanted to do this big piece of research in the first place.

Well, that’s the beginning of my list of basics. Coming next, something on routines…. but perhaps you have other things that you think are essential organisational activities at the start of the PhD? Additional tips are very welcome.

About pat thomson

Pat Thomson is Professor of Education in the School of Education, The University of Nottingham, UK
This entry was posted in Endnote, office, PhD and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

21 Responses to starting the phd? get organised now

  1. Kim says:

    Download Scrivener! Best decision i made as word just struggles with a document like a PhD thesis

    Liked by 1 person

    • pat thomson says:

      I know a lot of people really rate it. I don’t get on with it at all Im afraid and I do write all my books in word… but i don’t advise this at all as I know its a bit “old fashioned”.


    • Oh, yes. Scrivener! Best decision for me too: for my PhD* (finished in 2008) and all my academic writing since then. My wife uses it for her fiction writing as well.
      The good news is that you can try it for 30 days (of actual use, not necessarily consecutive), either the Mac or the Windows version. 🙂

      Some of my favorite features are the split view (allowing us to be working in two parts of the document at the some time; or a pdf/image file on the side of the writing document), the corkboard (works like having little post-it with main info on each part/chapter of the project), the metadata (including project or document notes right there at your fingertips) and, finally, the (oh so lovely) snapshot ability (to save versions of the same document, meaning you can always go back in your work with no worries).

      Seriously, I would buy a computer only for this app alone!

      As for the bibliographic software I was using Sente, but I kind of fell in love with Zotero lately. Any of them works well.

      Another suggestion is buying a good laptop and then a good external screen. That way you have everything in one machine and use the external screen (and external keyboard, if you want) to the wider tasks. I confess that I love my little MacBook Air 11′ for writing, but I need my external screen for wider research.

      Finally: backup, backup and backup! Did I mention backup? Regularly! Keep your work on an external drive (flash drives are great nowadays for their portability and storage size) and on the cloud. (I’m biased towards Dropbox, but Google Drive, iCloud or OneDrive should work fine as well.)


  2. etherealrose says:

    Such great tips! I really wish I’d learnt the one about getting a good chair before I suffered from backaches for a good half a year. Other organisational activities that are very worth doing: getting to know your supervisor (e.g. emails introducing yourself before you formally start), getting to know the institution from an administrative point of view, so who the people are to contact for all sorts of admin matters (signing forms, getting approvals, asking questions), what formal support arrangements there are apart from your supervisor (e.g is there an institutional requirement for a second supervisor/advisor, who do you go to if there are serious problems with the supervisory relationship?), getting yourself set up with IT services, learning how to use/connect to the printers, scanners, photocopying machines in the office/library. I found these things took time but were really important background information either in case things went wrong, or to get things off to the best start possible.


  3. loismelina says:

    *Mapping software like MindManager can be useful for keeping track of ideas and for connecting literature to those ideas, or just for keeping track of literature. *Some people find white boards are helping for sorting out ideas.

    *This may seem obvious, but when I started by PhD studies, my files were way too broad–e.g. “Research” instead of separate files for different methodologies. Be narrow and specific when filing.

    *I endorse the back-up, but have come to be a fan of automatic back-ups like Carbonite.

    *I like hard copies of books if I am going to have to look things up in them later, but I like reading books on Kindle, in part because it stores your highlighted passages, and then you can copy them to a Word file and you have all your notes–you can print them out or cut-and-paste (and the hard copy then comes in handy for verifying citations).

    *Take notes on your reading. Don’t just highlight or attach a sticky tab and think you will remember that thought later.

    *Some people like to download articles to electronic devices, like tablets, and listen to them while commuting. (Not something that would work for me, but some people swear by it.)


    • Katherina says:

      Very nice ideas here! I like the idea of the reference manager to situate ideas and/or literature – do you have a few examples you could show, how this looks like in practice? I would be a bit afraid to struggle where to situate a specific idea or text (especially when the subject is new for me), in the end spending more time doing the mindmap than I would gain from the exercise …


  4. John Knowles says:

    One of the best pieces of advice I was given was “Curate your data”.


  5. hlmurray88 says:

    Great ideas here, thank you. I also find that keeping a work log helps. This is an A6 notebook – at the top of each page I put the dates of the week and then below I put the reading I’ve done, the writing I’ve done and any training or events I’ve attended. I even use different colours to separate writing/reading/events! It also doubles as a reading list, because I jot down the shelf numbers for each book I need to get out from the library; it’s easy to carry around when I go there.

    Not only does this help me to keep organised and remember what I’ve done (especially when my AHRC scholarship requires regular updates) but, when on weeks when I feel I haven’t worked hard enough or long enough, it’s definitely a self-esteem boost to see that I have done something that week!

    Liked by 2 people

  6. McLarenJen says:

    Reblogged this on Jennifer McLaren and commented:
    I’ve been thinking about writing a blog post about getting set-up for a PhD..then I read this post from Dr Pat Thomson’s blog, which says just about everything I wanted to say! Plus there are many excellent suggestions in the comments.


  7. Anne Krook says:

    Get an electronic calendar, or use Outlook, or whatever comes with your office-productivity software. Book reminders as tasks into your calendar (e.g. every two weeks you’ll add 2 people to LinkedIn). Book countdown ticklers for key deadlines (“you now have two weeks until fundling application is due; one week; etc.) But above all book in dedicated writing time. People who finish PhDs treat them like jobs for which they show up to work, not like mysterious callings that they hear from time to time from a distant Muse.


  8. If you are fully-funded – Learn to work a 9-5 (this applies to SS/HUM – I know lab based science is different and I don’t have the expertise to discuss it or recommend it). I agree with Anne that many academics do the PhD a disservice by making it sound like some mystical process rather than a complex project that you need to allocate hours to like any other task.

    After supervising a few and thinking about the most successful PhDs I’ve seen, they all had this in common.

    My old flatmate who is highly successful in his area finished his PhD and was writing his first book at the start of his third year based on getting up, starting work at 9am and finishing at 5pm – monday to friday like any other worker. 9am-5pm was work time – if he wasn’t writing, he was researching, if he wasn’t researching he was doing admin. What he wasn’t doing, was doing ‘non-work’ stuff during the day. I also think it reduces the culture shock if you stay in the academia and switch from being a PhD student to being an employee.


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  10. Would be nice to have your references cited, specifically for the images. Where may one find the MSS for “Fred, Bert and Rick”? Great images. Cheers!


  11. Nevermind. I knew it was familiar. The images are from John Mielot, scribe to Philip the Good.


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  17. Abdul Sattar says:

    Really a good effort for the PhD students. It gave me more confidence for my PhD.


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