Staying organised during your PhD

Organisation is one of my favourite things. It’s sad but true. I love the feeling of creating order out of chaos, straightening out my world, and getting everything out of my head and onto a list on paper. But when you start a PhD, you have to up your organisation game. A lot. It’s so easy to lose track of things, as I know from experience – I’ve sometimes forgotten where I filed something, and at one point went scouring through my folders of PhD papers to find a chapter draft which my supervisor had put hand-written notes on (aka irreplaceable notes), which I was terrified that I’d lost. Spoiler alert: it was right where I left it.

And it’s not just PhD related papers you have to worry about – you’ve got to remember where you left that scrap of paper with a crucial admin detail on, the place where you’ve filed your funding details away, where you left that draft of that article that you’ve been writing. You’ve also got to remember what deadlines you have coming up; what classes you’re teaching and when, and the prep that you need to do; where that piece of paper telling you when that dentist’s appointment that you booked an eternity ago is hiding. Sometimes, it’s more exhausting keeping track of what you have to do than actually doing the actual things that need to be done.

Everyone has a different organisation to keep track of everything that’s going on during their PhD. One of my favourites, which I aspire to but could never keep up myself, is keeping a huge chart encompassing the timelines for every project, what needs doing and when, all beautifully colour-coded. On the other end of the spectrum, I’ve met people with little or no organisational system who get by just fine, seeming to have a sixth-sense of what needs doing and where everything is. If only my brain would cope with an internal organisational system!

My own system is a little more erratic. To keep track of appointments, plus what needs doing and when, I have a diary and a weekly planner, as well as a Google calendar and more long-term to-do lists. For long-long-term things (aka things that I realistically won’t have time to do but want to try to do anyway), I have a folder which is categorised by type of task, with post-it notes stuck on blank pages detailing tasks I want to complete. For repeating tasks, like remembering to water my plants or take my medication, I use the reminders on my phone. This probably seems like overkill (I often have that thought), but it’s just my way of staying on top of things. If I didn’t have all of these categories of ‘to-do’ lists and diaries, I’d just have one long list, which doesn’t work for me.

Folder organisation

And then we come to all the files and folders. I don’t even want to count how many I have at this point, but it’s … a lot. The upside is that they form a nice little table next to my desk to put snacks on top of. When I’m done with papers and drafts, I sort them by chapter and file them away in a labelled lever arch folder. For stuff that I’m working on, or work that is on hold (like a chapter edit while I work on a new chapter), I keep these  papers in separate files, away from my more ‘permanently finished with’ work. I’m sure this is probably a bit unusual, but again, it works for me (most of the time – lost annotated draft aside).

I have similar folders on my computer for the same purpose of keeping track of all the PDFs and Word documents I use. I never really got on with any of the traditional methods of keeping articles organised, like Mendeley, or OneNote for taking notes, so I just do it manually. The key is making sure that each PDF is titled by the name of the author and an abbreviated title, making it easy to search for exactly what I need, or titling Word docs as comprehensively as possible so I can find them again easily. Again, it’s not a flawless system, but it’s working fairly well for me.

It’s taken me a long time to get to this point, to finally find an organisational system which, while not perfect (are any completely flawless? If you’ve got one that is, let me know!), does what I need it to do. At the beginning of my PhD, I had absolutely no clue. I had never had to be organised like this (maybe I should coin a term – hyper-organisation? Mega-organisation? Hella-organisation? I’ll put that on my to do list). At one point, I had a list of the different lists I was keeping. That was madness.


My organisational system does have its flaws!

The point is, it will take some time to figure out how best to keep track of everything that you need to, and that’s okay! It’s normal at the beginning of your PhD (and, let’s be real, throughout) to feel swamped, to forget appointments and meetings or to lose important bits of paper. It’s not something that you’re going to figure out in a day, a month, or probably even a year. But, having reached the 2.5 year mark, I can tell you that there is light at the end of the organisational tunnel.

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One thought on “Staying organised during your PhD

  1. Fariba says:

    I feel this so much. Recently I got an iPad mini. It’s helped me cut back on printing PDFs and has helped me store them in one place where I can access them easily. I have so many folders, binders, and boxes of papers it’s crazy!

    Liked by 1 person

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