Organizational Strategies for Your Doctoral Research

computer and agenda with stickie notes over it

Your first week as an official PhD candidate will feel like the start of an exciting adventure. Although before you can begin working on a literature review, you’ll need to obtain a reliable computer, plenty of office supplies and a really comfortable desk chair. You’ll also need figure out how to organize your research. Don’t wait to implement an organizational system—before you know it, you’ll have reams of paper and you won’t be able to find anything. The following tips can help you establish an organizational system that works best for you.

Using a Reference Manager

Digital tools can make life as a PhD student a lot easier. Reference managers are software programs that collect, archive and organize references, citations and documents. Some of them are free while others have paid versions. Just Google “reference manager software” and check out the features on the different programs to figure out which one you’ll use. Many GCU Students love RefWorks for utilizing their research organization and are encouraged to use that program.

Recording Your Progress

No matter how extensively you plan to use digital technology, you will inevitably write things down manually, especially if you’re conducting field research or if you’re spending hours in a lab. Keep a notebook or binder with labeled sections with you while you work and write down every detail. Even if you don’t think something is important enough to write down, do it anyway. You’ll thank yourself later while you’re writing.

Keeping a PhD Notebook

In addition to a written record of your research and progress, you should keep a separate notebook for brainstorms. Bring your PhD notebook with you everywhere—to work, to restaurants and yes, even to the gym. You never know when a flash of inspiration will hit you. Perhaps you’ve thought of a clever way to phrase a paragraph for your dissertation, or you’ve gotten some insight on a paper you read a while ago. If you take your PhD notebook with you everywhere, you won’t have to worry about forgetting your thoughts.

Organizing Unread Papers

As a PhD student, you’ll likely read hundreds of academic papers. Keep a designated pile on your desk for unread papers. As you read one, make a note of which information is in it and add this information to your records so you can easily locate it again. Some reference managers allow you to store more extensive notes directly in the software, or you might prefer to keep your summaries in a Word document. When you’re done reading a paper and taking notes, file it right away.

Choosing a Filing System

These days, most PhD students keep the bulk of their research in digital files. Develop a filing system that allows you to easily identify which information is where. For example, you should have a consistent file naming convention so you can locate data quickly.

The College of Doctoral Studies offers a variety of assistance available to allow students to reach their full potential. There are mentors available, faculty access, collaboration with other learners, the DC Network, and many more options to make sure you’re education is fulfilling.

Grand Canyon University is an accredited school that offers dynamic doctoral degree programs. Our doctoral candidates receive extensive student support, and have access to comprehensive resources, including our Center for Innovation and Research Teaching (CIRT). Use the Request More Information button at the top of your screen to find out if GCU is right for you.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Grand Canyon University. Any sources cited were accurate as of the publish date.