PhD work is hard, but there are some simple things that you can do regularly to make life a whole lot simpler. Here are some of the good habits that I wished I had, observed and learned from others, or have but didn’t realise how helpful they were until a lot later.
Keep your references tidy
Everyone hates this and that is why we use referencing software. But the referencing software really does not make it easy at all to be honest. You add a new paper to your EndNote library only to find that the author information is all a mess or the journal is quoted in its abbreviated form instead or the page numbers are missing … the list of problems goes on. You’re probably thinking: ya know what, I will sort it out later. Well, you probably won’t because there are so many more exciting things to do instead.
The consequences of this are that when the references are a mess, you find yourself adding multiple entries of the same references and then use different versions of the same document in your references (personal experience). The nightmare I had with Mendeley is something I would never wish upon anyone one. Don’t be like me, take some time to sort it out right from the start. Thankfully it does not really require much brain work so put on Netflix in the background and make this experience a little less painful.
Track your progress
This serves many purposes. Firstly, if you have to report your progress to your supervisor, you have an updated research progress ready. Secondly, you keep a close eye on your deadlines and the amount of time you have for each part of the work. Don’t be that student who spent 6 months perfecting a literature review chapter but only has 3 months to write a findings, discussion and conclusion chapter. Lastly, tracking your progress keeps you motivated. It is torturous to look ahead and see that you have 50,000 words left to write. Seek some comfort in your progress thus far, and know that if you keep at it, you will reach that end goal. This was the only thing that kept me sane during the writing up period.
There are many ways to track your progress. Updating your Gantt chart, updating your thesis plan, check your calendar reminders and deadlines etc. The most important thing is to track not only what is coming up ahead in the PhD, but also what you have accomplished so far. it will go a long way in motivating you through our the PhD journey.
Write everything down
My best ideas come from the shower. There have been many times when I ran out of my shower to grab a notebook and pen to jot down my shower epiphanies. You will probably think: oh you know what I will remember it later. You won’t. During the analysis of my research data, I wrote this smarty-pants idea on post-it notes and stuck them on the window in front of me. It got to a point when I had to stand on my desk to reach for an empty space on the window for them. This really helped my writing up when it was very easy to just refer to them and rearrange them on the window to make them flow logically.
You probably heard of people talking about keeping a research journal for reflexivity purposes. Sometimes I wonder if this was something people just talk about but probably do it once or twice. In any case, keeping a record of my thoughts paid off very well for me. I kept a record of my weekly (sometimes monthly) reflections. Within this reflections, I discussed the ideas that I had, my doubts, my confusion, my difficulties… everything that makes me go “hmmmmm” is written down. I never intended to share this with anyone else, so I left it messy and wrote whatever came to mind. While I wanted to keep it private, I realised that it was an incredibly powerful way of sharing the research journey and thought process. So much so that quoted myself from my journals in my methodology and analysis chapters. Pompous isn’t it? I call it transparency ;) What better way to convey your train of thoughts that letting your past selves speak for themselves?
Keep your work in the cloud
It's 2019, time to phase out the flash drives and thumb drives. With all your work in a cloud software, you can be sure that wherever you open your files, it is always the most updated version. No need to panic about whether you have the right copy or if you brought the right thumb drive to the office. It is also easy to grant your supervisors access to the latest documents in your folder without the need for repeated emails. Beware of data protection and confidentiality policies of your university though and the type of information that is being saved.
If you are as paranoid as I am, back up your cloud files onto another cloud software ie. I uploaded all my files from Dropbox to One Drive monthly. The only time I use thumb drives these days is when I am giving a presentation where it is not really appropriate when I sign in to my Dropbox account and have to type my embarrassing kiddy email account in the username box.
Organise your files
For the love of god, stop saving your files on your desktop. Keeping your folders in order will go a very long way in ensuring that you can find your files quickly and efficiently. It is also useful when you are looking for multiple documents at the same time without having to dive in and out of thumb drives and folders.
Also, adopt a systematic file naming technique like “draft 1” “draft 2” “draft 3” or “draft (date)”. This is to make sure you do not lose any of your older drafts, in case you need to revert back or copy a chunk of words that you have recently deleted. Also very helpful in dealing with those supervisors who say “take this out” after reading draft 1 and then also say “why didn’t you write about (the thing they made you delete in draft 1)” after reading draft 2. it is not worth the fight sometimes, copy and paste it in and tell them what a wonderful idea it was (though you made you take it out initially). Also you won't end up with a document named: “full thesis draft final final FINAL finalest mostfinal finally finaliest final.pdf” Been there, 4 “finals” was my record.