Thursday, July 30, 2009

Master's as PhD training

In completing a master's degree, I learned a few things that will help me immensely in maintaining sanity while working on my PhD. Most of them derive from mistakes I feel I made in the way I handled research for my master's degree. Without further ado, here are my lessons:
  1. update reference manager tags as soon as I add a new reference--It makes it really difficult to find things when I don't keep them consistently tagged.
  2. start writing the literature review as early as possible--It is a nasty beast.
  3. start notes for other sections of dissertation asap--This would force me to think of my current work as part of a larger project so that I stay focused on a single large-scale goal and remember how all the smaller parts fit together
  4. take copious notes on daily progress and problems--I confronted several similar problems throughout my master's research and I had to re-solve them every time because I didn't remember how I did it the last time. This would also help me write my dissertation and work more efficiently because I wouldn't have to spend so much time and effort trying to figure out what I did and did not do.
  5. note the next steps I need to take the next day to keep work flowing smoothly--A running to-do list is not good enough. It needs to tell me what to do next so I can dive right into work every morning.
  6. have an idea of the structure and content of target publications while working--This should help keep me focused on a publishable, coherent line of research. It should also help me keep my thoughts organized.
Now all I need to figure out is how to make sure I implement these ideas. I bought a notebook for taking notes while I work. I haven't decided if this will just be research notes or if I will also use it to tell myself what the next steps are when I leave work every day. My plan will also involve more pre-planning and administrative time, but I think that will save sanity and time overall. Administrative time can be kind of therapeutic, anyhow.

Next week I have a workshop on supercomputing. The following week I'll start revising my thesis for publication and start implementing some pre-planning and organization for my PhD. Exciting stuff!


  1. I made a lot of the same mistakes myself. I guess you can have someone tell you a million times, but until you go through it and see the process, it's not entirely obvious.

    Rather than use a notebook, which I am very prone to forget, I keep a research blog. It's locked so that no one can read the entries but me. I like doing this because I can tag the entries (and thus search for relevant entries later). I also can access it from any computer.

    The down side is that it's not entirely secure (i.e. encrypted).

    My husband just kept a document on his laptop that kept all his notes. It serves the same purpose, but he could only keep track of things by date or searching for particular phrases.

    Good luck! Organizing these huge amounts of information, knowing where to start, how long writing is going to take, etc. is a major, major learning experience. Hopefully the PhD will go better! (For both of us!)

  2. I'll have to keep the blog idea in mind. I'm not sure if blog, local document, or notebook will make it easier for me to keep notes. Since I am not in the habit, I'll need something that is easy so I don't decide that I'll remember what I was going to write and put off writing it down until I've forgotten it.

    I like the idea of having searchable notes...

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