Getting organized as a phd student – Part 1

Some time ago, I once again found myself in a state of panic. Luckily, unlike what happened to me when I was not yet optimally organized, this time I was able to get out of it and get back on track. But without the new measures I had taken, it would never have been as easy or as quick as it was.

I have to say that I don’t make life very easy for myself. Take last year for example. I had to manage my PhD (which should already be a full-time job!), as well as two research masters, combine jobs to put food on my plates, and also of course to take care of my personal life (family, friends, volunteer work, fulfilling projects that are usually always put off, etc.) and all this in full covid. To my great surprise, I turned out pretty well.

© Stil

Of course, the ideal situation for any researcher looks more or less like a quiet and spacious office, with all the books you might need at hand, a durable work surface, on which you can rest your reading cards and come back to them later, leave a few interesting journals open on the right page, and an assortment of pens that always write well and without making a mess.
But the reality is often quite different.
So here are a few keys that, in my humble opinion, have worked for me and should perhaps help you get organized, especially if, like me, you’re crazy enough to do so many things at once.

In the physical world

No office? Slip your laptop into a lidded box when you’re not using it, with planner, bic pen, a few draft sheets, book in progress. All you’ll have to do is move the box wherever you can. I’ve already experimented with the dining table, the bed, or the sofa with some success (for Zoom sessions where you have to show your heads, try the most stable place possible, at worst, the computer on a chair and you sit on the floor against a neutral wall, no one will pay attention).

No library nearby? I’m not going to lie to you, it’s going to be difficult. But you have two options. Either you decide to work only from sources that you can find online, but this assumes that your internet connection is concrete and that your subject can be used without a dead end. Or, what I advise, go to the library anyway, even if it means 3 hours of transportation there and 3 hours of transportation back, but make the most of this outing. Choose the library in question carefully if several are possible, check the catalog before you go to see what is part of your bibliography imperatively or what may be worth a look, consult a maximum of books on the spot and borrow as much as you can, if possible consult a map beforehand so you can get to the library without wasting time. Above all, if you can only go once a month (or even worse), don’t go without knowing what you need and prepare yourself as much as possible.

Impossible to find what you’re looking for among books bought and stored at home? Sort your bookcase! Separate the books that you clearly use for your thesis from those that are for your personal entertainment, separate your books from those of other people you live with, if applicable. And if this means that you no longer have a bookcase to store your books in, that’s fine. I’ve been known to store books in dresser drawers, carefully sorted and arranged so that you can see the edge of them. If your clothes can fit somewhere else, do so, it’s very pleasant: top drawer antique philosophy, third drawer art aesthetic, bottom drawer reference works, etc. If not, don’t hesitate to experiment with crazy places for your books. Just remember that the kitchen or the bathroom are obviously not good ideas. But apart from that, you can do just about anything you want, the idea is to be able to see all the slices of the books easily at a glance, don’t bother trying to make it presentable for an impromptu visitor.

Too many papers? This problem is rather rare nowadays, but tenacious in some people. Remember my lidded box? At the bottom, in a place that rarely moves, there is a set of pockets that I use to store the papers related to my thesis. A pocket for the lectures, a pocket for the reading cards, a pocket for the flying papers of the style « a bright idea came through me and I wrote it on a bar napkin with lipstick ». At the very back, I also put away a special pocket with transparent sleeves, in which all the important things are stored. In my doctoral school we call it a portfolio. In it I have all the certificates of the training I have completed, conference programs, my school certificates, that sort of thing. Don’t keep paper documents for your thesis if they have nothing to do with this classification (in the humanities anyway), you can always get the rest in digital format and you’ll save space (unless of course your subject imposes you by nature to do things differently).

© Tom Hermans

In the virtual world

Not enough storage? Lost all my documents? Nowadays, it’s impossible to do without proper storage equipment. You need to buy at least two USB flash drives, of identical size, on which you save your entire « Thesis » file every time you make a change without exception. The ideal is to have three, but two can do the trick, if you store them in radically different places (still not in the kitchen or the bathroom…). If you can, protect their access with a password, data theft between researchers is not a legend, protect your work, you took a long time to do it. All disciplines that require something other than text or pdf files, don’t forget to provide storage space accordingly, photographs, videos, or audio files take up space (not to mention those who develop graphic simulations that rocks, but I doubt those need me to double check their storage).

Problem organizing digital documents? Create a system. Your brain needs to stay available for research (or the countless other tasks you’ve set for yourself), so help it. Even when you’re very messy and scattered by nature, it’s possible to make compromises. Create a large « Thesis » file and within it several sub-files: your reading cards, your digital books, your writing progress, your proposals for conferences or study days, etc. Each element must be distinct. And remember to give easy and short titles, you don’t want to bother to find or put away a document. Finally, for the ultimate slackers (of which I am one) for whom it’s impossible to sort all the documents as soon as they arrive in your life, plan a file « to sort » and set one day per week when you can take a few minutes to put everything back in its right place.

Other important tips :

Take care of your lifestyle. It’s out of the question to sit still for 6 hours at a time without getting up to stretch your legs, to miss a meal because you don’t have time, or not to do any sports during the week (except for medical reasons of course). Organize your time in blocks and forget the to-do list for all that is hygiene of life, you will not do it in the duration otherwise.

Take care of your social and emotional life. With the covid, it’s not easy, I agree. But try to reserve one evening per week (or 3 hours if you really can’t do better) to enjoy your family, friends or your other half without thinking about anything else (if the sanitary conditions require it, it’s not as good, but in webcam it counts too). Sometimes you’re afraid to lose time by doing this, but in the end, it’s those 3 hours that will recharge you and give you the shape for the rest of the week.

Compartmentalize! If, like me, you are curious by nature and multiply commitments, make sure they don’t interact with each other. No document that is not related to your thesis should end up in a pocket where you only have this, and your thesis documents should never end up in your health book or with your calendar for the volunteer marauds! Your life has many facets and that’s fine, they can sometimes get mixed up intellectually, that’s what makes it so rich, but don’t let them pile up without a head or tail, you’ll quickly get lost.

I hope that one or two things that may have helped me can help you in your turn. In the next section, we will discuss the organization in more detail, addressing a major problem: time. Lots of great achievements to you and hang on!


Thank you and see you soon!


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