Workflow Management for PhD students: My Current Workflow

Since I started my program in City and Regional Planning at Penn, I’ve been trying to figure out the best way to manage the tons of information that I’ve been exposed to. There is the voluminous amount of class-assigned readings of course, but there are also the readings I’ve been doing on my own to familiarize myself with the academic environment, and many blogs and online news sources that help me keep up-to-date with current events relating to cities and sustainability. Thankfully, there are also many great suggestions for workflows for researchers and academics that have been a great help to me, and that I will continue to use to hone my own work flow. In this article, I’m going to talk a bit about my own style, as of now. I say “as of now”, because I have just completed my first semester of a (hopefully) four-year program, and as I have to manage more and different types of information, my workflow is sure to change.

There are quite a few of digital workflow posts out there now. See here for a compiled list. Here’s a great article on going paperless from Day 1 of grad school (which, for the most part, I also HIGHLY recommend). In the same going completely digital vein, this video by Stian Haklev was brilliant, though to get to that level of customization/integration wouldprobably  take quite a bit of time and effort for me at this point. For now, my process looks a bit more like Dr. Chris Teplovs’ (here), in that I still utilize physical notebooks– good old pen and paper– as part of my workflow.

Reference Management

So, for all my readings– for class, research, and for my qualifying exams, from Day 1, I have used Zotero as my reference manager. I’ve made libraries in Zotero for each of my classes, research areas, and for major papers that I wrote this past semester. Zotero allows you to attach pdfs that I’ve downloaded from Blackboard or Canvas (UPenn’s learning management systems), which it will automatically sync to cloud storage (up to 300 MB free). There is also a note-taking feature, which I have found useful for jotting 1-2 paragraph summaries of books, and main ideas for articles/other sources. I usually only fill in the notes section until after I have finished the source, so the notes section really is my synthesized take-away from the work. Zotero also works well as a plug-in for Word, so when I’m writing my papers, it’s easy to drop in references, citations and bibliographies in any style I like (similar to EndNote, but free!).

This is a screenshot of my Zotero desktop library (there is also an online version, which is synced to the cloud). On the left panel are the libraries I've created this semester. The middle panel shows my sources. The right hand panel is where I write a 1-2 paragraph summary of the book (as it pertains to my own research) after I have finished the whole book and have synthesized the main ideas.
This is a screenshot of my Zotero desktop library (there is also an online version, which is synced to the cloud). On the left panel are the libraries I’ve created this semester. The middle panel shows my sources. The right hand panel is where I write a 1-2 paragraph summary of the book (as it pertains to my own research) after I have finished the whole book and have synthesized the main ideas.

Note-Taking While Reading

I also take notes while  I am reading, with a pen and paper. This is what helps me focus on what I am doing and stay actively engaged in the work (as opposed to zoning out, and reading the same page over and over a dozen times, without knowing what I’ve read). Physically writing– in my own handwriting, all over the page, utilizing shapes and arrows and solid and dashed lines– helps me learn, retain, and recall information. I usually do not read linearly (from the first page to the last page) if I am not reading “for leisure”. As much as I enjoy reading, I now also think of it as part of my job (“professional reader”), and I have to get through a lot of reading in very short periods of time, so I read introductions and conclusions, chapter titles, figures and image captions, and I use the pen and paper to help me keep track of where I am. I try to tease out the main ideas, then find its supporting evidence. I do not usually print journal articles or other digital material, and use my laptop to scroll through and take notes in my notebook. I usually use a small notebook for this task. In the below picture, it is a 5.875″ x 8.25″ Rhodia 80g side-staple notebook. After I fill up a notebook, I scan it, so I have a digital copy and archive the hard copy in my library. 

I use pen and paper to keep engaged and active while reading, as well as for a kind of muscle memory for the ideas in the book/article/class. Once finished with a book, I will synthesize the ideas in the notes into 1-2 paragraphs to add to my Zotero reference manager.
I use pen and paper to keep engaged and active while reading, as well as for a kind of muscle memory for the ideas in the book/article/class. Once finished with a book, I will synthesize the ideas in the notes into 1-2 paragraphs to add to my Zotero reference manager.

Big Ideas Writing

I have another notebook that is larger (8.25″ x 11.75″ Rhodia 80g side staple notebook) that I use for brainstorming ideas. This is where I might outline a large paper, or sketch out a mind map for some ideas that I have. Again, I find that physically sketching and writing actually helps me recall and make connections between sources that I’ve read.

Calendar/Research Agenda/Daily Tasks

Wherever I go, I carry my Midori Traveler’s Notebook, which actually contains three separate notebooks within it: a planner, a graph-ruled notebook, and a lined notebook. The calendar, I use to keep track of my appointments and events. On the right side of the notebook, which is blank, I jot down my areas of interest for the week that I want to look into. This is like having an ongoing system to keep myself looking into new things, and a way that I can easily name what conclusions I made during the past few weeks. In the second notebook, I keep on-going big-picture ideas on my research agenda. Good ideas from the brainstorm notebook might end up in here, and meetings with my adviser are always recorded here. It might also include my notes on the career trajectories of researchers I admire, or scopes of the journals I’d like to publish in. This is a great record to easily flip through from time to time, and since I have the Traveler’s Notebook with me at all times, I can do it often. Lastly, the graph-ruled notebook is a list of daily tasks that I need to accomplish. This is anything from errands to class assignments, to reminders to prepare for meetings with professors or colleagues. The Traveler’s Notebook has a high-quality yet simple leather cover, and the inside notebooks are replaceable and switchable, making it very easy to add or replace notebooks as I go along. (see here for all the awesome ways this notebook can be customized/used)

The three notebooks within my Midori Traveler's Notebook, which I keep with me at all times. This is how I keep track of my Calendar, Research Agenda, and To Do List. 
The three notebooks within my Midori Traveler’s Notebook, which I keep with me at all times. This is how I keep track of my Calendar, Research Agenda, and To Do List. 

Studying for big exams in History and Theory of Urban Planning

I’ve been studying for two big exams coming up– my quals in Urban and Planning History and Theory. As I am going through the (over 60!) recommended books for the exams, I have also been utilizing a bulletin board with big themes that I can quickly look up at as I am reading, and also, easily rearrange if needed. These index cards have been mostly from field-defining works, to help me place what I am reading within the broader academic literature. In addition, since historical events and periodization are a big part of urban and planning history, I have created an Excel file to manage all this information. I haven’t found very good timeline software/applications out there that can be easily integrated with Reference Management. So Control-F and Excel will have to do for now.

Prepping for a big exam, where over 60 books are on the recommended reading list, this bulletin board of notes from field-defining journal articles helps me mentally categorize what I am reading, as I am reading.
Prepping for a big exam, where over 60 books are on the recommended reading list, this bulletin board of notes from field-defining journal articles helps me mentally categorize what I am reading, as I am reading.

*A side note on writing…Writing with fountain pens with archival-grade ink on high-quality paper is actually a hobby of mine, which may help explain the emphasis on physically writing. Whether it is the tactile sensation of feeling the glide of the nib as I take my notes, or smelling the wet ink, or flipping through pages of my own handwriting actually improving my memory recall/concentration, or just my love of pens and ink that compel me to keep one foot in the non-digitized workflow… the world may never know.

 

Blogs, news, and online sources

Lastly, I use Feedly, both on my laptop and on my iPhone to subscribe to news sources and blogs that I like to follow. On my commute, or sometimes while grabbing something to eat or a coffee, I take a look at general and cities/sustainability/environmental planning-related news and articles from other sources. If I see something I like, I use Twitter to tweet the article and it then shows up on a Twitter feed on my blog for easy reference.

So, there you have it. A more-analog-than-digital workflow in the digital age. In the coming months, I do plan on looking into applications like Evernote to manage my bookmarks, scanned journals, book summaries, and images that I like, because I am not completely satisfied with tweeting for what I’ve been using it for. Welcome your thoughts and comments!

One thought on “Workflow Management for PhD students: My Current Workflow”

  1. I appreciate that you have not stopped using your quotations. Makes your articles very Theo-ish. Sounds like you’re doing well and let me know if this works for you! 60 books…Can’t imagine! Good luck with the next semesters!

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