Keeping your lab and research notes organized

Eva Lantsoght
Author
Eva Lantsoght
Published
4 Jun '20

We all have heard stories about PhD students writing up their thesis and not being able to find anymore some of their lab notes, or the reasoning behind a certain choice, or another piece of vital information. With many years of work that go into a PhD (or any other research project that you will do afterwards), it can be challenging to keep all information of the project organized.

In today's post, I'm giving you information about some tools you may want to use for your research and lab notes. The final choice is up to you, but I want you to start thinking about how you will organize your information in a way that is easily accessible to you when you need your notes.

1. Project Notebook

For my research projects (and PhD student projects) I keep a separate notebook per project. Within each notebook, I make a table of contents and number the page, so that I can easily find back which calculation is on which page.

I used to work a lot on loose sheets of paper (preferable scratch paper from the printer, with something that I don't need anymore on the other side), but I've come to understand that it's much easier to get things out of order with loose sheets of paper than when you have everything in a project notebook.

2. Everything Notebook

Raul Pacheco-Vega uses an Everything Notebook, to keep track of all his research notes and more. If you like analog work, this approach is certainly something you may want to look into.

3. Evernote binders

If you prefer to have everything in digital form, binders in a software such as Evernote, can be very useful. I keep a lot of personal notes, as well as notes from meetings in Endnote. Even when I take notes by hand, I will then go ahead and take a picture of my notes, and upload this to my Evernote.

You can add papers, notes, photographs and much more to your Evernote binders. Evernote also has nice templates to help you with planning and lists.

4. Binders

When I used to work a lot on loose paper, I would combine notes and other information in binders by punching holes into the pages. The advantage of such a system is that you can keep adding information in each category, and that you can also include information such as technical drawings. The disadvantage (as with any analog system) is that it is difficult to have a back-up in place (unless you regularly scan all your notes), and particularly for binders with loose leafs, it may be easier to misplace or lose certain pages.

5. Folders on your computer

When you start a new project, consider making a new folder on your computer. Then, within this folder, lay out the architecture of the subfolders. Typical folders you may want to include are: Report 1, Report 2, Measurements, Calculations, Project Administration, Notes from Meetings, and Emails. If you do Inbox Zero, I highly recommend you save your email messages in the designated project folder. Even if you don't do Inbox Zero, it may be good for future reference to save emails in the right place.

6. Research diary

If you want to take notes about the thinking you've done for your research, the decisions you've made, and the reasoning behind certain choices, keep a research diary. Take some time every day to log what you did, why you did it, and what you are planning to do the next day. In my book, I've provided a template that you can use for your research diary.

You can keep your research diary logs in analog form (for example within your project notebook), or in digital form (for example, as a folder within your project folder on your computer, or as an Evernote subfolder).

7. Consider your lab conditions

Before making a choice, think about the places where you will do most of your note taking. Will you be in a dusty laboratory, or away in the forest without a power outlet available? In those cases, you may prefer analog tools for keeping notes. Alternatively, you can field notes, and then take pictures of them and keep them in a digital system.

About Eva Lantsoght

Eva started writing about doing a PhD while studying concrete structures at TU Delft and since then blogs about the non-scientific skills you need during a PhD and life as a PhD.