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HQP Workshop: Organizing your research

New Silva21 workshops for HQPs are designed to explore different topics in either the field of forestry research or life as a scientist. The goal is to help HQPs develop new skills, share their expertise and to maintain interactive collaborative meet ups on a regular basis.

Workshop objective: Explore different techniques of organizing academic research (literature, data, meetings, etc.)


For a copy of the original presentation as part of the Silva21 HQP workshop, click the image to the right


Why does research organization matter?

Graduate students often face challenges in managing research materials, field and lab data and their time. The best way to overcome these challenges is finding an organizational system that works for you. This may come in the form of a lab journal or research notebook on pen and paper or using digital tools. Finding a system that works for you ensures you can stay productive, limit stress and enhance your research quality.

How to prepare your research and stay organized

The best time to become organized is ideally at the beginning of graduate school. But grad students are hardly ready for what this experience has to throw at them. So we'll say the second best time is now (if you're not already).

Start by getting organized by establishing a research plan and structure before diving into the actual research. This will help you clearly establish research goals, questions and methodologies while also maintaining documents and tracking progress.

From our discussion here are some top tools grad students used stay organized:

  • Reclaim: Reclaim is an AI scheduling automation app that finds the best time for your meetings, tasks, habits, & breaks

  • Mind mapping like PowerPoint and Canva

  • Project management tools like, MS Project and MS Planner (it was discussed that MS project might be the preferred option since it allowed more detail for shorter timelines)

  • Task management tools like Notion, Asana

  • The classics like post it notes, paper agenda and bulletin board!

Digital tools

In this day and age there are endless tools available to help you stay organized. What's important is that you find one that works for you and you can utilize consistently! Jumping back and forth between software is often just a waste of time.

Reference managers

We all know all research begins with a solid literature review. This is where reference managers become your best friend. The two most common software are Zotero and Mendeley and both are great ways to keep track of your literature.

Side by side comparisons of reference managers Zotero (left) and Mendeley (right)

For a more in-depth discussion about searching, reading and organizing your literature review, you can read Amy's personal blog post here.

Literature review organization

Once you've done all the searching and finally have your virtual stack of PDFs to read, it can be daunting to try to figure out how to take notes from each article. For this, tools like Notion and Canva are great options. Notion can be used to create table formats with tags and keywords, and can also be integrated with a Zotero plug in which is a huge advantage (for step by step instructions, visit the IRSS GitHub). Otherwise if you're more of a visual learner, Canva has great whiteboard and mind-mapping boards.

A screen shot of a literature review table by Brent Murray
A screen shot of a Canva mind map by Amy Wotherspoon

Note taking

When it comes to note taking, the easiest thing may just be to stick to Microsoft Word or Google Docs. But if you're looking for something more tech savvy, pages and notes can be integrated into Notion, or you can utilize a different program entirely like Evernote or OneNote

Side by side comparisons of note taking tools Evernote (left) and OneNote (right)

Of course, there are other types of note taking apps that were brought up; graph-based note taking like Obsidian can be a great way to summarize ideas and notes in a more visual way.

Data organization

When it comes to data organization, this is where you should be the most organized (and the most protective!). While there's a variety of different data programs we may be using throughout grad school, regardless of what you're using this is where it is most important to stay organized. It's essential to have well structured data management including a well-organized hierarchical and file naming system. These includes having:

  • Structured folders that separate raw data, processed data, scripts, analysis results

  • Descriptive and clear file names that include a description of the data, study names and specific identifiers

  • Structured data format that may be .CSV files with well defined columns and/or data documentation (e.g. README.txt) to provide metadata

  • Data cleaning and pre-processing: Separate scripts and document each steps and keep tracking of missing data, outliers, and decision making

  • Coding scripts: Whether you're using R or Python, keep well-commented and organized in logical sections. Use functions to modularize code and improve reusability

  • Reproducibility: keep all the necessary code and data that would allow your analysis to be replicated by someone else. Use relative paths in your scripts and refer to data files so that your code remains functional even if you move a project to a different directory.

  • Data back up and storage: regularly back up your data (you can use code software like Robocopy) and keep a copy in the cloud or a different location to avoid losing your most prized data. We also can't stress enough the importance of external hard drives.

  • Data sharing and archiving: consider sharing your cleaned and processed dataset along with your scripts on repositories like Github to make it easier to work on code collaboratively and so that your research can live on beyond your graduation date. This code can also be useful to share with your fellow grad students to save them time when they're working on cleaning data or pre-processing data similar to your.s

Time and task management

Grad school will use up a lot of time so its best to manage your time and use it efficiently.

One way to do this to maintain productivity is through time management techniques such as setting task priorities to focus on the most important things first. Tools we've already discussed like Notion can be great options for this, as well as others like Trello or Asana.

Tools like Notion (left) and Trello (right) are great options for time/task/project management

It's always a good idea to break the most important task into smaller more manageable chunks so they don't seem so daunting. Set shorter more realistic deadlines to help keep you on track (your advisor will thank you later).

Other techniques for writing productivity include things like the Pomodoro method to help you maintain focus with scheduled breaks.

It's also a great idea to have regular reviews of your research progress and organization system. You may have to call on your advisor for this step!

Maintain your system

This kind of system will only work if you keep it up to date! It's important to be consistently updating and maintaining your organizational system as research progresses. It can be a good idea to set a specific time for regular organization sessions to prevent clutter and confusion, like at the beginning of every month.

We hope this blog post helped you understand the importance of organization and different strategies that are available to grad students. We hope you can utilize some of these organizational strategies into your own research experience. Good luck!


Have questions about this content? Email our scientific coordinator:

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