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!
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….
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.
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.