Staying Organized in Graduate School

Published: Tues., March 7, 2017

Staying organized for graduate students usually means two things--organizing your daily schedule and responsibilities as well as organizational strategies related specifically to any research responsibilities you may have.

Organizing your Daily Life

  • Create a Schedule and Stick to It
  • Often graduate students are more responsible for managing their time than they may have been previously. You may find that you will be given final deadlines, but not the deadlines for the steps along the way. If your final deadline is months, or even a year, down the road, if can be easy to procrastinate. Break those larger projects into smaller tasks and set up a backwards calendar to outline when and how you should be completing those tasks. Backwards calendars start with the end point and require you to break down all the tasks leading up the that end point.

    Whether you use planners or digital calendars attached to your email account, calendars should help you note what needs to be completed and when. Include all of your deadlines, classes, or activities. If you do not include something on your calendar, it is likely you will forget to do it. Additionally, if you only mark a few meetings you may think you have large windows of free time. Adding blocks of time for certain activities, like writing your thesis, will help you use that time more effectively. Don't forget to include other activities that are important to you whether that is working out at the gym or regular meals with friends. Putting an activity on the calendar helps you prioritize it.

  • Use Technology to Help
  • In addition to digital calendars, online resources can help you manage your to-do lists and schedules. For example, Trello allows you to create your own online to-do lists, breaking down down tasks and timelines onto multiple calendars. It will then prioritize the most important or upcoming tasks. Also, Trello allows you to share to-do lists with other users, making it ideal for group projects.

    Some graduate students choose to use programs for their note-taking. These programs can be very helpful, but remember that you should aim to organize these notes or materials in a similar way to how you organize any materials that you do not have digitally. It is rare that you will only have resources available online or on your computer, so make sure that you coordinate how you sort similar materials available in multiple places. For example, most of your faculty may provide you materials online, but occasionally there may be handouts that were not provided digitally. If you do not plan to scan those materials in, your paper filing system should match however you organize those materials on your computer.

  • Create a Document Management System
  • From class assignments to research articles and manuscripts, graduate students acquire many documents that they have to organize in some way. How to you plan to sort those documents? Think carefully about how you will sort and organize all these documents. Many students use paper filing systems, binders, and/or folders on your computer or in programs like Box. Remember if you cannot find those documents later, those folder labels should be revised. Be specific about the names of folders you use or use specific sub-folder names. A folder labeled "Research" with no sub-folders could easily contain many different documents and finding what you need will be difficult. Give folders and sub-folders meaningful, descriptive, and specific names, for example "Literature on X", "Data Collection for Y project" or "Final Reports for 2017 study on Z."

  • Sort your Emails
  • If you do not already, consider using folders to organize your emails. Only keep emails in the inbox if you're currently resolving those issues. Once, emails are deleted or placed in a folder you can easily forget about them. However, keeping important emails saved will help should you have to address that issues again in the future. Again, use meaningful and specific labels for these folders. If you cannot figure out easily where you would have placed that information later, having folders is useless.

Organizing your Research

For many graduate students, it can be difficult to organize all the documents and materials involved in their research projects. Think carefully about the documents you will need to organize and set up a system for those items early.

  • Use a Citation Manager
  • If you haven't already, start using a citation manager (e.g. Mendeley, RefWorks, Zotero) to organize your research articles. These programs allow you to collect all of your research articles in one place. They also allow you to add notes and additional information on those articles. If you keep your research notes in too many different places you are likely to forget or misplace an article. If you have never used a citation manager before, the library has a number of resources to help you decide wish one you want to use and to help you learn how to use them.

  • Organize your Data
  • Consider how you organize all of your data. Is there a particular program you plan to use? If your data is in multiple programs how will you coordinate between them? Depending on the nature of your data, the system you use may vary, but you should determine the method you want to use to maintain your list of materials. Always keep your data saved in multiple locations--should something happen to data in one location, this will help you from losing all of your work.

  • Create a Research Activity Calendar
  • Look up the dates of major conferences in your field and the deadlines to submit a proposal. Knowing roughly when those deadlines are can help you plan to have a strong proposal to submit. Also, if you would like to develop a new project to present, outlining those dates lets you know how much time you have to complete that work.