Graduate Student Workflow, Part 6

I will be continuing on in my series about my workflow as a graduate student (overview in Part 1). Last week, in Part 5, I talked about free writing. This week I will discuss the next step in the writing process for me: memos.



For me, memos look a lot like my free writing. They are mostly unformatted text (I will throw in an occasional header for sanity reasons). The big difference is memos are focused. They usually start with a question or idea that I want to expand upon. Maybe I am working through collected data or some literature I have just read. Perhaps I am asking the 10 questions about my research ( Memos are a great way to start thinking through without worrying about the consequences (no grammar check, no worry about formatting, or if there’s a point).

Another difference between free writing and memos is the likelihood someone else might read a memo. My free writing I don’t share with anyone. However, my memos might get shared with co-authors or my advisor – especially memos that I have iterated on and are in a little better shape after a couple of drafts.

Really rough memos I do in Evernote. One nice thing about Evernote is you can link notes to each other. So as I am writing I can paste in links to other relevant notes (which would include other notes I’ve written, pdfs I’ve saved, or media I’ve clipped from the web).

Screenshot 2016-03-30 23.40.00

Screenshot 2016-03-30 23.44.01

If my memos make it to the stage where I am doing multiple iterations or drafts, I switch to Word. This is mostly so I can save versions as needed to Dropbox and so I can share easily with co-authors and my advisor.

Memoing is an important step in between free writing and starting drafts of academic papers. This is where the big thinking happens. Granted, you are thinking your way through the whole writing process, but this stage is where the questions get asked, the connections get made, and the literature starts to make sense. I have found it makes the next step, which I will talk about next week, much, much easier.

Grad Student Workflow, Part 4

As mentioned in Part 1, I am discussing my various workflow tools in order to have a more pleasant and efficient grad school experience. Last week, in Part 2, I discussed my general task management and in Part 3 I discussed reading and citations. This week I will be starting my sub-series about writing.

Sources: Much of what I’ve learned about my workflow, I’ve gotten from other folks. What I’m discussing in the next few posts is an amalgamation of different work management patterns I’ve gotten from around the internet, people in the lab, or figured out for myself. I would like to give a big thanks to Hacking the Thesis.



Over the next month I will be posting about the various steps I take in my writing. My plan is to talk about the following:

  • free writing
  • memos
  • academic paper drafts
  • writing for blogs or other “general” audience media

One book I found very helpful was Writing Your Dissertation in 15 Minutes a Day. The habit that I have picked up since my first read through is writing everyday. I do this by setting aside roughly 45 minutes of my day for my free writing. I aim for about 1500 words per day of this kind of writing. The next level of writing is slightly more structured memos, which usually have some kind of focus (a question I am trying to answer, or something specific I am analyzing or drafting up). Finally, the free writes and memos then feed into my rough drafts. When I know what kind of question I want to answer for a particular venue, I can start a more formal drafting process. This is also where I bring in coauthors to help with the argument, literature, and clarity.

While my main focus is my academic writing, I also change things up to give my brain a rest by writing fiction and journalling. Perhaps I will have more on this after I’ve finished this series of blog posts.

Grad Student Workflow, Part 3

As mentioned in Part 1, I am discussing my various workflow tools in order to have a more pleasant and efficient grad school experience. Last week, in Part 2, I discussed my general task management. This week I will be talking about reading and citations.

Readings and Citations

One of my jobs as a graduate student is to read. A lot. And when I am reading, I am synthesizing the information in order to use it in my own research. Some of the tasks involved in the reading process include: finding articles, reading (like the actual work of reading the documents), summarizes the work and creating an annotated bibliography, and citing sources in my own work. I will go through this process step by step.

Find Articles

To be fair, this step is a whole blog post in its own right and I really don’t have the time/space to do it here. Suffice to say, there are lots of ways to find the literature you need and determine if its right for you, etc. For the sake of this blog post, I will just use one of my own articles as found on Google Scholar.

Searching for "Ringland Minecraft" yields 3 results in Google Scholar.
Searching for “Ringland Minecraft” currently yields 3 results in Google Scholar.

I download and import into Zotero the first article listed under the Google Scholar results for “Ringland Minecraft.”

Zotero entry for the article I am going to read.
Zotero entry for the article I am going to read.

Reading the Article

I’m going to be honest here. At this point, if I’m seriously reading this article then I’m probably printing out a hardcopy and handwriting my notes in. If it’s not a deep read, then I might just be jotting down some notes by hand in my notebook or in Evernote. I just absorb better when I’m handwriting my initial notes.

Annotated Bibliography

Ever since having to write an extensive literature review as part of my PhD Milestones for my program, I’ve become a huge fan of the annotated bibliography. However, it has taken me almost an entire YEAR to come up with a workflow for creating these annotated bibs. Follows is what I’m finally happy with. It took a bit to set up, but it’s smooth sailing now that I’ve got it.

  1. Read the article, take notes.
  2. Summarize main points of the article in 3-4 sentences. May also use keywords or anything else that will help you find the article again later.
  3. Add this summary to the “abstract” section of the article information in Zotero. Do NOT just copy and paste the abstract of the article – that will not help you find it later!

    Filling in the abstract section in Zotero.
    Filling in the abstract section in Zotero.
  4. Use Zotero to create an “annotated bibliography” from the article. The style I use, APA annotated bib style, uses the abstract section to create the annotated part of the reference.

    Creating an annotated bibliography item from Zotero.
    Creating an annotated bibliography item from Zotero.
  5.  I then go to my Todoist Reading list where I probably had something like “Ringland safety paper” listed. I paste over the top of that the citation I just copied from Zotero.

    Adding a reading list task in the form of an annotated citation.
    Adding a reading list task in the form of an annotated citation.
  6. Having labeled the task item in Todoist @reading triggers an IFTTT recipe that I created.

    Completing the Todoist task with the label @reading triggers an IFTTT recipe.
    Completing the Todoist task with the label @reading triggers an IFTTT recipe.
  7. The IFTTT recipe looks for any Todoist tasks labeled @reading. It then takes the completed Todoist item and appends it to a note titled “Completed Readings” in my Evernote.Screenshot 2016-03-04 00.54.18Screenshot 2016-03-04 00.54.41
  8. I can now search all the readings I have read and summarized this way in one Evernote list.
    The completed readings are then found in Evernote.
    The completed readings are then found in Evernote.

    I also have the information in Zotero. So anytime I want to create an annotated bibliography with multiple items, I can pull the citations from my Zotero library. This way if I want to make a themed bibliography for a specific lit review, I can pull all the sources I need without having to dig through many different lit list files to find them. The other great thing about Zotero and Evernote is that they are searchable, so if I just remember some keywords about a paper – like “parent safety” – then I can pop those into my Evernote to get the full citation.

Citing Sources

The final step in going through literature is to then cite it in your own work. I do this when I am working in Word. I use the Zotero Word plugin and just pop the cites directly into my document. The plugin also auto-generates the reference list, so that I don’t have to write it by hand. It is a huge time saver.

Hope some of that is useful to you as you go about designing your own workflow. Next week I will start talking about the writing process!