What is the best way of taking notes for your PhD?

Taking notes from the articles we read is not something we researchers talk about a lot, which means you have probably developed your own ad-hoc, idiosyncratic methods. And they probably work … but could they be better?

I find the very best way to learn this kind of everyday practice is in casual conversations; the sort that usually take place in the tearooms and hallways of academia. When @riotk asked me to do a post on note taking I figured Twitter was the ideal vehicle to start gathering ideas. Twitter enables me to host a ‘watercooler’ conversation – globally.

I know lots of people either don’t like Twitter, or think it’s a waste of time. I hope to convince you otherwise. Last night I facilitated a live Australian #phdchat on the topic on note taking tips and techniques, where lots of good ideas were shared. In fact, the discussion threw up a surprising diversity of practices and of thoughts on what appears, from a distance, to be a rather mundane subject.

Head over to ‘Storify’ to see the story I made by editing and commenting on a selection of the many tweets .

I hope you enjoy my notes on this conversation on note taking. If you have any more ideas on note taking to share I’d love you to leave them in the comments – either here or on the Storify site.

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24 thoughts on “What is the best way of taking notes for your PhD?

  1. michelleredman says:

    Hi Inger, I missed the live #phdchat last night so thanks the ‘storify’ story you created. I agree twitter is a great way of connecting people to start conversations and elicit the kernel of ideas which can be explored more deeply in other forums. Thanks for keeping us PhDs connected when it often feels otherwise!

  2. M-H says:

    I take notes from my reading in a notebook with a column on the right for my reaction to what I’m reading and writing – emotional, intellectual, critical, connecting to other ideas – it helps me remember by connecting me to the text more closely I think. Also, I always always always mark direct quotes – I use “”. But ** would also draw the eye and lessen the chance of direct copying. And I write the reference on each page of the notebook, and include the page number I’m reading on each entry. I learned these things the hard way!

  3. Bhavika says:

    I have always taken notes with pen and paper, helps me remember things better… but I got Evernote after reading this and am loving it (its just been an hour since I got it!) so far…

  4. ptrentolsen says:

    Apologies if I am repeating a past suggestion, but this may add a bit more to how Evernote can be useful. A colleague once suggested that I use the camera on my phone to avoid costly photocopying. Evernote is a great way to collate all sorts of materials into a personal archive, including pictures of book sections, graphs, and other media. In addition to cutting/pasting and typing my own notes, I have found this smartphone method an effective addition to the arsenal.

    • Oliver Slay says:

      Which can be done now with OneNote tied with Office Lens… Office Lens straightens out images of whiteboards and pages that were taken off-piste and then inserts them into a section in your OneNote notebook.. I go through the QuickNotes every now and again and sort them into an appropriate section…

  5. accidental chemist says:

    Reblogged this on accidental chemist and commented:
    I’ve always stuck to pen and paper to take notes, grudgingly supporting this with Endnote organised papers – I@m not a technophobe, I simply don’t remember anything I read or write digitally, whereas an insignificant jot on the back of an envelope will stay with me for weeks.
    Here’s a twitter discussion on how other postgrads and researchers take notes. Also worth a glance is the article on Luhmann’s Zettelkasten (http://takingnotenow.blogspot.fr/2007/12/luhmanns-zettelkasten.html)

  6. PhD student says:

    Great timing! I just started my PhD (in science) and because I want to do everything digital I use onenote, evernote, springpad, read it later and Mendeley. Because I use android and win7, I am thinking about how to organize everything. After a google search I ended up on this site 🙂
    I like to hear from people what their strategy is to prevent a data-overload and big notes mess.

  7. Anonymous says:

    I find Mendeley to be very useful. It allows highlighting pdf files and writing ur own notes, which u can also export. Plus, it’s great to find documents.

  8. Ros says:

    I’m really surprised to see so many people still using pen and paper. For me, there are so many advantages of taking digital notes – not least that I am much less likely to lose them! I use Nota Bene, which is neither free nor cheap, but for me it’s worth every penny. It has a combined wordprocessor and bibliographic database with attached note taking files, all designed by academics for academics. I can search my notes to find a particular quote, drop it into my document and have the reference automatically appear in the footnote, formatted into whatever style I’ve chosen. It dramatically reduces the time it takes me to write a paper. It’s also brilliant for anyone working with non-Roman fonts (I use Greek and Hebrew regularly). I know I sound like a walking advert but I do truly love this software and can’t imagine writing my thesis without it.

  9. Marialuisa Aliotta says:

    I also like pen and paper. As a physicist I always have to deal with mathematical symbols and equations and it is a lot easier to write them by hand rather than using computer software. I also shared a useful tool for taking notes from articles and papers that I think can help becoming better readers and writers. Here is where to find it: http://wp.me/p1YSjr-aZ

  10. Jess Charlton says:

    I always write my notes by hand in the first instance, leave them for a week or so, and then type them up. Going over them again helps to fix them in my head, plus if I can’t remember exactly what I meant I can still remember where the notes came from to go and reread the original and make it clearer. If I’m working out concepts, I use a little whiteboard so I can easily erase mistakes!

  11. Kaan says:

    What I do needs a bit of organization at the beginning but once you given the time for it, it might work on you too. First of all I am a pen/paper guy who realized the importance of being digital, thus I take notes with pen and paper, then copy them to word file, not very effective but it works for now.
    The trick is while I am copying them to a digital file, I add small key words, let’s say I am reading an article about the immigrants in the Ancient Greek cities, and I seem to disagree with the author in question, and decided to make Contra. in footnotes. I add Thesis-Contra. right next to the note in the word file, and I always organize my notes in a thematic fashion in the word file.
    Let’s say I work on diet of Ancient Egyptians in the Old Kingdom, I create thematic titles relating to subject, such as Pork Consumption, Alcholic Drinks, Drinks in Rituals, Meats in Rituals, Daily Distribution of Meals, etc. This thematic organization combined with added key words, will give me, I hope, a precise information of the knowledge related to my thesis and my reaction to it.
    There is a danger to it, which is loosing the sight of the guiding idea of the thesis and being stuck with the themes, making those themes a category to be discovered rather than a tool to help with your ideas related to thesis. But I have to admit that my thesis does not require that much creativity, it is mostly analytical work, thus this method works for me and I hope it works for you too!!

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  13. Jennifer says:

    Hi there, I’m a subscriber and adorer of your site. I’ve been going through some old posts and it appears the storify site is down…. Not sure if this is on your end, but wanted to comment in case it is! I am eager to see the notes you collected on note-taking!

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