Now that the season of compulsory fun is almost behind us, it’s time to start cultivating some good habits for 2015. Although my thesis is now a handsomely bound volume on the shelf, the skills I learned in writing it are now propelling me through many other projects. Here are my top tips for researchers:
1. Take proper notes
Don’t just read a book or article and imagine that you’ll remember the important bits. Taking detailed notes saves you bags of time in the longer term, as you won’t have to reread material you covered at the beginning of your project. Although notes aren’t polished pieces of writing, make sure you’ve captured the key information. Examples of possible styles are:
- Brief notes, using mainly keywords – this approach is good for linking with other sources
- Summaries of the main points – particularly useful for inclusion in a literature review
- Mindmap – placing the main idea at the centre of a diagram, then branching out from it with other themes and ideas
2. Keep a record of your sources
There are few things more dispiriting than finding the perfect quote but having no idea as to its provenance. I was a menace before I discovered Zotero and would spend ages searching through Google Books to locate sources. As a reformed character, I now add all my research material to Zotero, then paste a citation into Word, Evernote, Scrivener, or wherever I’m doing my writing. It takes seconds, but saves hours (and also avoids inadvertent plagiarism).
3. Manage your tasks
It’s fiendishly difficult to keep on top of your workload without a clear sense of what needs to be done. I studied for my PhD part-time alongside a very heavy and varied workload. The only way I could get everything done was to ensure that each task, no matter how small, was added to a list and assigned a deadline. Often the minor tasks would be reprioritised, but I never lost sight of them. When it all threatened to overwhelm me (which it often did) I’d choose a couple of tasks that were vital and focus on them. If those at least were achieved, then a potential crisis was averted.
I’ve tried pretty much every task management app out there, but my favourite is Todoist. The interface is simple yet flexible, and it works across all my devices. My tasks are broken down into different projects and I can always see at a glance exactly what needs to be done next. It also presents me with a satisfyingly large tick when my day’s work is done.
4. Set writing goals
Most researchers, unsurprisingly, love finding information; they’re often not quite so keen on writing about it. Based on my own experience, the only way to complete a large piece of writing, such as a thesis or a book, is to set realistic goals and then focus on achieving them. I really struggled before coming across Scrivener. Now, with this wonderful piece of software, I can easily set word targets for particular sections of my book and also specify a word count for each day I spend writing. It made a huge difference in those torturous weeks leading up to thesis submission. If you prefer an analogue approach, I’d recommend the writing audit forms on the ThinkWell website.
5. Organise your research material
These days it’s far too easy to acquire heaps of research material but never actually do anything with it. For example, I’m very good at downloading journal articles and then promptly forgetting about them. Consequently, one of my favourite features in Evernote is the reminder tool. When I add a new article, I also create a reminder that pops up in a week’s time, nudging me to take a proper look at it.
I also make use of tags in Evernote and Zotero to flag what needs to be done with certain pieces of information. Two of the most used are ‘tba’ (to be added) and ‘tbr’ (to be read). With a few clicks I can quickly see the material that needs to be either read or incorporated into my writing.
6. Back up your work
These days, I’m incapable of speaking to anybody without enquiring about their backup arrangements. Usually, they’ve made absolutely no provision and go away looking anxious. I don’t actually enjoy putting the wind up people (really, I don’t), but I’m haunted by memories of researchers who’ve lost everything, usually just before they’re about to submit their thesis. Occasionally, I also encounter someone whose life’s work has been erased by an airport security scanner or flushed down the loo. As an inveterate pessimist, I have no trouble imagining the thousands of ways in which my plans could be thwarted, but many researchers assume that everything will be fine.
Please, please expect the worst and act accordingly. I recommend a backup tool called Crashplan. At only $59 per year, it costs the same as a monthly pint of beer and keeps your data safe.
7. Learn new skills
Like it or not, the Modern World is always devising new ways to torment us, mainly through complicated bits of technology. Resistance, I’m afraid, is futile. The best approach is to see it as an opportunity, rather than as a threat. By learning new skills such as HTML, you can give yourself an edge over competitors in the job market. Also, a strong social media presence really helps with book proposals. Many people pride themselves on being techno-numpties, but the geek shall inherit the earth.
Wishing all my visitors a very happy, healthy, and successful 2015.