Staying organized and productive in grad school (without going crazy)
During my first year – actually, before I even technically started grad school but was working in the lab – my advisor told me how important organization was in grad school. “Pick a method and stick with it,” he said. “Otherwise it’ll be a nightmare.” I all but scoffed and replied, “Oh, I’ll stay on top of it. I’m very organized.”
Smash cut to the end of my third year, the day before my committee meeting, as I sift through four and a half years of data trying to remember which samples I ran for what, I flashed back to that conversation and thought… yep. It caught up with me.
I started with the best of intentions, keeping my papers very organized in Mendeley, neatly tagging and commenting on each new paper as I downloaded it. I had a running spreadsheet to track all my samples and all the analyses for each one. My sample boxes were tidy. All was well in the world of science.
Somewhere along the way, though, things began to slip through the crack. Other things start to take precedence, higher-priority things with a deadline. But I’m here to tell you to make it a priority. One day of tedious file-sorting and data compilation per semester will make your life easier. Also, part of staying organized is staying balanced and productive; I’ve found it’s easier to work on data organization if in turn I’m focused and efficient when you’re working on a task, because I’m not as stressed out and frantic. Here, I’ve compiled some general advice for things I wish I had known when I started (or, things I’ve tried to keep up with with mixed success, to be frank).
Reading papers critically In a way, being productive, efficient, and organized starts with critically reading papers. When you’re first starting out, reading the volume of papers you need to is a daunting task, let alone reading them critically, skeptically, with an expert eye. It’s a skill that takes years to develop, and you never stop improving.
- When you download a new paper, note – somewhere, whatever system works best for you – why you downloaded it. What project is it related to? Does it have a specific useful figure? Are the authors someone to follow? Helpful programs/apps include Mendeley, Papers, and Zotoro.
- It helps to have a color-coded highlighting system, so when you look back at papers it’s easier to remember what you were thinking. For example: yellow is general point or fact, green is methodology, red is a concern, blue is a reference to note.
- Write a bullet-point list for each paper: why you need it, what the main conclusions are, what the implications are, and any questions you had.Start with just reading for comprehension. Look to just follow the authors’ arguments and work on interpreting data and figures. That gets you the first three bullet points.
- Once you’ve reached comprehension, circle back to the arguments and data. Is the argument sound? Are the data appropriate and useful? Focus on just the data and figures, and – ignoring their conclusions – make your own interpretations and conclusions. If these were your data, what would you do with them? Compare your conclusions to the authors’. If there’s a mismatch, why?
- Remember that it’s always good to ask questions! Especially when you’re starting out, asking about methodological details and background literature will only help. Even if you’re worried about appearing ignorant, push that feeling aside and know that if you take the step of saying, “Hey, I didn’t totally understand this part of the paper, could we walk through it together?”, you’ll come out the other end knowing something. And your advisor will know that you’re comfortable asking questions and having good, open conversations about science and your progress/understanding. That kind of communication is important to establish.
Staying organized Keep track of your shit.
- Pick a paper organizing program early and stick with it. Use tags, notes, and folders to track papers well. Keeping references for projects/papers organized makes it so much easier when it comes time to plug them into your manuscript; most have a citation tool, where you can just drag and drop. Some options are Mendeley, Zotoro, and Papers.
- In a similar vein, you can keep a spreadsheet of papers you download; noting why you downloaded it – e.g., useful figure, authors to know, reference for a project/paper – can prove useful when it’s a year after you started your project and you know you saw just the plot you need but… where? If you’re using a paper management program this isn’t necessary, it just might be helpful.
- DATA ORGANIZATION. This is the big one. Everyone deals with different types of data, but some general helpful advice is stay on top of it. It can be hard to keep up with this when you’re doing lots of lab work and taking classes and trying to write grants, but it’s of the utmost importance. Losing track of your data is the most frustrating and, in the end, time-consuming thing. If it helps, get some labmates together one day and have a lab data day when you’re all committed solely to data organization. (Sounds super fun, right?) - Ask older (organized!) grad students how they store their data; if you work with a lot of similar data, they may have a template you can use so that all your data are consistent. If a spreadsheet has multiple tabs, make the first tab a ‘table of contents’ so you can quickly see what’s in each file. Keep your file structure (folders, etc.) on your computer organized; for the love of god, don’t just save stuff to your desktop and let it sit there forever.
- Put dates in your file names. - Write everything in your lab notebook. You never know what weird information you’ll want to know later (for yourself), and there’s always the chance that some reviewer will question a part of your work. Better to be safe than sorry. - Your advisor probably has advice on this too; when you leave your lab, you’ll typically need to leave an organized copy of all your data for their future use, so having it in a consistent format is key. This will also make your paper-writing process smoother.
- BACK. UP. YOUR. COMPUTER. Get an external hard drive and do weekly (if not daily) backups. If your university offers online/cloud storage, use that too – two backups are better than one. There is absolutely nothing worse than a computer crashing and losing hours or days of work. Save often.
Productivity The elusive goal in grad school: being productive without crushing yourself with a crazy workload.
- Oh my god, sleep. Get enough of it. Nothing will crush your productivity, mental health, and physical health like not getting enough sleep.
- Take real, actual breaks and vacations. If you worked a solid week, take the weekend to really relax. You’ll come back Monday refreshed.
- Keep daily to-do lists reasonable and realistic! Break down big tasks into smaller, more specific tasks. This helps in two ways: it prompts you to develop a detailed plan of attack for projects, and at the end of the day, you’ll be able to cross off items instead of staring down a daunting list of projects to polish off.
- Track your time at work! (I use the ‘Timelines’ app; screenshot below.) After I started tracking my time at work, I quickly realized how often I actually switched tasks. Now, I still use it to help keep me on task, but I also use it to track my weekly hours. I’m pretty militant about not giving into the ‘overworked grad student’ stereotype, so being able to pop open an app and say, “Yep, I worked 45 hours this week, I have no qualms about not working this weekend!” helps quiet the voice in your head that’s always saying, “You should be working…. You should be working…” (Obviously this changes as things like exams and grant deadlines come around.)
- Tracking my work time also helped me realize what my natural attention span for different tasks is, and when my best working time for different things is. Reading papers? Usually 30 minutes. Writing? 45. Learning that allowed me to better schedule my working time and not feel unproductive for taking a break every once in a while. I’ve realized writing at home in the mornings is great, and slow afternoons are perfect for repetitive labwork. Eventually, this will help you block out time in your schedule for specific tasks. Tell your labmates/advisor/whoever might bother you when your writing time is; respect it, keep it sacred.
- If you need a little extra help focusing, there’s an app called ‘Forest.’ You plant a tree and set a timer; focus for the timer (don’t leave the app), and the tree grows in your forest! It’s cute and silly and sometimes that’s what you need to help you focus on that manuscript – or even just to kick a social media habit.
- A note on time tracking: During my first year, they had us track our time in a spreadsheet in 15-minute increments – not just during work, but all our time. Personally, I don’t recommend this; it turned into an exhaustive task that only made people feel guilty about time spent not working. If you want to do some tracking beyond work, I suggest something more binary so you can keep track of some general wellness and Want to add a caption to this image? Click the Settings icon. self-care things, but not tracking every 15 minutes you spend on Reddit or watching Netflix. I use the ‘Streaks’ app, which lets me set daily/weekly/monthly goals; e.g., I set goals for things like taking vitamins and getting 30 minutes of movement (walking, running, yoga, whatever) daily, plus my running three times per week goal. Then there’s no time constraint and it’s just keeping me accountable for my well-being.
- Having some accountability outside of, say, a grant deadline can be helpful. It can be you and your advisor setting a goal deadline for a manuscript or a weekly writing group where you share your progress, but having some form of (gentle) external pressure can be good for otherwise deadline-less things.
- Keep a semester-by-semester timeline of projects and goals for all of grad school. Even though it seems long, time flies, and soon you’ll be staring down two years left and breaking down your projects into monthly goals and deadlines is the way to make sure you get done with – well, probably not everything, but most of it.
- Switching from undergrad to grad student mode in classes can be hard. Just remember that classes are no longer your top priority; they’re actually pretty low on the totem pole. Rather than stress over how much time a class is taking up, try to set a goal number of hours to spend on it and get done what you can. This will obviously vary class to class (e.g., a reading-based seminar requires far less time than a quantitative class), but it is a good general rule to follow. They’re probably not going to ask for your GPA in a post-doc interview.
- This is small, but I like having a very clean (neat & tidy!) workspace. This is something that definitely waxes and wanes; it’s so easy to let used mugs, stacks of papers, and fluttering post-its pile up on my desk, but I always feel on top of my game when I have an empty desktop with my plant (he’s a little palm and his name is Spike) and a single mug of fresh, hot tea. It helps infinitely with my mental space when I sit down to focus on a task; minimizing visual distractions, for me at least, makes me more focused.
- Know how much coffee you can drink without becoming totally wired.
- Last but not least: Do not compare yourself to others. No one has the same path going through grad school. Even if you have a labmate who joined in the same year as you, your experiences are different. Comparisons only ever lead to stress, frustration, and self-doubt. Be your own scientist and be confident in your abilities. (Hardest thing to do on this list!)
This is all advice I wish I had taken to heart during my first year; I probably heard some of it, but it can be hard to follow. Internalizing the “Grad school is just a job” mentality is hard when you’re surrounded by a culture that, at least stereotypically, promotes overwork and stress. Focus on what you’re doing when you’re doing it and don’t worry about what other folks are doing. Stay on top of your data – an organized scientist is a productive and efficient scientist.
Now, I’m off to organize some spreadsheets!