Finding Order in Chaos – OR – Tips for Staying Organised

There are so many aspects of research and writing – particularly in the context of working on a PhD thesis – that warrant immediate attention that it is difficult to decide where to begin. Topics like narrowing down your research question and managing the supervisory relationship are particularly relevant at the beginning of the PhD process and, consequently, are perhaps the obvious place to start. Indeed, books on authoring PhDs tend to be chronological; ‘Start at the beginning and when you come to the end stop’, as the Mad Hatter[i] would say.

Reflecting on the process of writing my own thesis, however, there are some things that I didn’t really – finally – get my head around until my third or fourth year that I wish I could have known at the beginning. One such ‘soft skill’ was organisation.

Organisation of the thesis itself, for me at least, was relatively straightforward. I knew more-or-less what I wanted to include in each chapter and roughly how the chapters fit together.  What was much less obvious was how to keep all the bits of all the chapters organised in the mean time. How could I safeguard older drafts and incomplete chapters from inadvertent entombment under the ever-growing stacks photocopied journal articles? What should I do with all of the notes scribbled down on bits of paper and Starbucks napkins, irrelevant to my present work on Chapter Three but vital (in 6…or 7…or 12 months’ time) to Chapter Seven?

Stationary supply companies have come up with no end of organisational assistance devices. It doesn’t bear thinking about how much money I’ve spent over the years on boxes and binders that I never really found a genuinely useful purpose for. In the end, (for me anyway) the answer was remarkably simple and – better yet for a cash-strapped PhD student – cheap: manila envelopes.

The system works like this:

  • Have 1 A4 sized envelope for each chapter including the Introduction and Conclusion. (Letter sized if you are in the US.) Label the back of each envelope with the appropriate chapter number or name. (You could do this on the front if you prefer, but I found that the flap closure could get in the way of attaching things; see below.
  • Attach an index card to the envelope labelled ‘To Do’. I stapled mine, but a paperclip would also do the trick. This little index card becomes a convenient place for making notes about general content and formatting decisions relevant to the chapter that you don’t want to forget or leave out. For example, all of my analytical chapters followed the same pattern but used different sub-titles. By making a note of this general pattern on the chapter appropriate index cards, I could rest assured that I wouldn’t forget some aspect of it at a later date.
  • Thus labelled, the remaining exterior of the envelope is a handy place for sticking relevant post-it notes or jotting reminders. By the time it came to writing each chapter, the outside of my envelopes had become quite cluttered. This, however, was no bad thing; it was gratifying to systematically take off the sticky notes and crumple them up as their content was gradually incorporated into my text.
  • The real value of these chapter envelopes, though, lies in the interior pocket. Here you can safely store sketchy chapter outlines and half-completed drafts, not to mention all of those odd scraps of paper and Starbucks napkins, until you are eventually ready to use them.
  • Last but not least, once the envelopes – now battered and torn – have served their purpose, they can be recycled without the pangs of remorse sometimes felt when throwing away something expensive or irreplaceable. The next time research and writing necessitate organisation, all you will need to do is make a quick trip to the stationers. (Or departmental supply cabinet.)

This particular organisational system has remained useful beyond the completion of my thesis. For a start, all of the notes and references that I used to write individual chapters remain tucked away inside the chapter envelopes which, if all goes to plan, should help streamline any necessary cross-checking and revising post-viva.

I have also found this method useful when writing journal articles. Snippets of information that didn’t make the final cut for my thesis but that could still prove useful for as yet nascent journal articles have been safely stored in a series of manila envelopes for future use. Article outlines and journal style-guides can be affixed to the exterior of the envelope. Moreover, once initial copy has been submitted to a journal, the article and all supporting documentation can be safely stowed away in the envelope until the reviewers’ comments come back.

I don’t make any pretence that this particular organisational system will work for everyone. Different strokes for different folks, as they say. What I am certain of, however, is that had I implemented this system in my first year I would not still be finding unused notes to myself forgotten in the backs of drawers or stuck to journal articles long since filed away.


[i] Or the King if you’re partial to the book.



2 responses to “Finding Order in Chaos – OR – Tips for Staying Organised

  1. Dear Friends, I found your link on Postgraduate Forum. I want to thank you for taking the time to set up this blog.

    About organising information, I do something pretty much the same but I use plastic folders (5 for £1.00 from Wilkinsons – the cheap high street store). Maybe not so environmentally-friendly as manilla envelopes but more durable – and nicer colours .

    I find I need to use things like bright coloured stationary supplies to keep myself positive and motivated when doing the PhD.

    It might start as information management but it ends as self-management (i.e. how to manage my own feelings to stay healthy and successful in my research).

    • Dear Gero2009,

      Thanks for your comment. I completely agree aabout using stationery supplies that keep you motivated and in fact how it acts as self-management! In fact, feeling ‘happy’ during your research increases your ability to be successful, I’m sure of that!

      Good luck with your PhD and I hope you continue reading the blog!

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