The Forgotten Skill: Organising your PhD Brain

The PhD journey can be complicated, hectic, and sometimes, feel like hell. A whirring, excited brain is great for research, but can be difficult to manage. Ellie King speaks about the often neglected skill of a PhD: organising your brain, and offers some tips on how to get things a bit neater.

Have you ever tried to remember every single thought you had during the last 3 years? Have you ever written an essay and thought ‘yes, that’s a great point I should make! Now, who was it who said it, and where the hell is it?!’ Have you ever thought the key to research success is being super smart? Welcome to the forgotten skill of your PhD: organising your thoughts.

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This is something that isn’t much talked about within the research community. Yes, we look at time management and organisation skills, but have we ever stopped and thought about how we organise our minds? I’ve found that the background of a PhD is the constant whir of thinking: about where to go with an idea, about how to analyse data, about what to bring up in your next supervision. This whir needs to be turned into something manageable, because it’s no good when you’re writing your thesis to suddenly remember that idea you had two years ago and then wonder where it went. I always have thought of my PhD success not being driven by my intellect, but by being able to file and organise my constant stream of thoughts and manage to pick them out again eighteen months later.

Now, I’m quite an old-fashioned analogue person, so my method of organising my mind might seem weird. But you can definitely translate it into the 21st century if that’s more your gig.

Firstly, the master notebook. It sounds pretty obvious but every time you have one of those thoughts, write it down. Put the date on it. If you think it’s really important, draw a box round it. If these ideas are in between your to-do lists and supervision notes, then that master notebook becomes a record of how your brain has ticked through research. My supervisor makes fun of me for being ‘the only person left in the world to still write things in notebooks’ but it has seriously helped.

Second, handling readings. You’ll probably all have your own methods for doing this, but with the amount of papers you take notes on, getting a system in early is a godsend. For me, yes you guessed it, I do all my notetaking on paper, but once a month I spend the time to log all of this into a bibliography excel spreadsheet. This includes all the publication information about the paper, but also space for a summary of what the paper said, any key quotes or words, and some notes on what I thought of the paper. Super useful for when you need to get to a paper or an idea but you can’t quite remember who said it or where it came from. Ctrl+F, and bingo.

Thirdly, general computer organisation. Those emails? Get them filed. Those file names: get them more specific than ‘research draft’. Use file folders effectively, splitting work into planning, publications, drafts, reading lists, whatever else you need. The more broken down the better in my opinion, otherwise you’re stuck trying to find ‘research draft’ within a file of fifty of the things.

I really believe that if you’ve got your office in order, whether that’s physical, digital, or metaphorical, you’ll have a much easier time on this difficult PhD train. Instead of research being a daunting mass of hell (and we all know it sometimes feels like this) it can become a little bit more manageable if that hell is neatly organised into boxes that you can easily get to when you need them. If you’re tracking every thought, every to-do list, every meeting, every paper you’ve read, then the train may run a little smoother.

How do you manage your hectic PhD brain? Tweet us at @ResearchEx, email us at, or leave a comment below.

by Ellie

Ellie King is a Second Year PhD student in Warwick Manufacturing Group. She has been at Warwick since 2014 in the History department, and has recently moved faculties to research applying user experience to the museum sector. Ellie is partnered with the Oxford University Museum of Natural History. You can connect with her on LinkedIn here, or follow her on Twitter @ellietheking

One thought on “The Forgotten Skill: Organising your PhD Brain

  1. Ellie, thank you, this is really excellent advice, especially for people starting out on the PhD. I wish I had read this at the beginning.
    Initially, I used to make notes that looked like Greek, when I tried to back to decipher them. It took me a long time, but for readings & notes, I eventually worked out how to get the best out of my referencing software Endnote. There I include notes, & include quotations with page numbers, & also add external documents of notes.
    On the point about notes, I found that as my thoughts and research developed, I needed to organise the files and folders differently. You are so right about how important it is to be able to find the things you remember.

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