Category Archives: Idea Organization

In a Slump? Here are Two Things That Will Make Your Life Easier

I’m going to be really honest. This week was rough. I’m sure you can relate to feeling overwhelmed and underproductive (I just made that word up). Some days, you just wonder what you’re really doing in grad school in the first place.

Well that was me this week. You see, I am preparing for my A exam, and in my lab that means that I have to have a comprehensive proposal written in about 10 weeks. I’m also in the midst of writing two manuscripts and searching for grants.

Stressed. Worried. Curled up in my bed not wanting to move.

That’s pretty much how I spent yesterday. But then I found two resources that turned my week around.

Take Control with Productive Flourishing

If you need something to challenge you to get moving, look no further than Charlie Gilkey’s post that poses 50 relevant questions about your productivity. This post helped me define what I was trying to accomplish and what I needed to prioritize. Then I used their free planners to map out the next 10 weeks.

Accomplish More with the Pomodoro Technique

Once I had my plan, I was ready to take action.

The Pomodoro technique in it’s simplest expression is working with razor sharp focus on one task for 25 minutes and then taking a 5 minute break. Once the 5 minutes are up, you start up at your task again. Every 4 “pomodoro” cycles, you take a 15-30 minute break to rest and recharge. (If you want to learn more, read this.)

My application of this technique had been spotty at best, but then I found a free online Pomodoro timer that made it much easier to take this method wherever I work. On a campus computer? No problem. In my office? Yep, still on Pomodoro cycles.

With these two new tools, I overcame my slump funk.

Bad days happen. Bad weeks happen, too. You’re allowed to feel overwhelmed when things get tough, but there are always tools, methods, and most importantly people who are there to help you get through it.

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photo credit: katiew via photo pin cc

Remember: Even If You Feel Behind, You’re Not Losing

Sometimes grad school can be a little intimidating. You’re surrounded by brilliant people all the time, and you might start wondering how you fit in.

Especially during the first weeks of a new semester, it seems like everyone has something exciting to report, and you begin to feel stuck and small.

It can be hard to remember that you’re brilliant, too.  That’s why they picked you.

Here are some ways to get you out of your funk and back into the game.

Think about it for a minute

Someone somewhere in your department had faith in your ideas. They read what you wrote, looked at what you’ve done, and decided to train you. You are worth their time (and their grant money). Your adviser, your mentors, and your entire university is vested in your advancement. They care about you.

Talk to another (more experienced) grad student

The more advanced grad students have done it all. Seriously, go find one and pick their brains. Vent to them about your coursework, your ideas, your IRB troubles…whatever. They will likely have ideas or tips from their own experiences. Or at the very least be able to lend a sympathetic ear.

Talk to Your Adviser

And make the most of it. Remember, if you’re the Olympic athlete, your adviser is your coach. Listen and learn.

Get Organized

It’s incredible how much information is out there. I use Evernote to keep track of articles and classnotes that I find helpful. That way they are neat and searchable for when I need them.

Make a (Minimalist) Game Plan

Leo Babauta calls it his three Most Important Tasks. Before you go to bed, list out the three most important things on your to-do list for the next day. When you wake up, address these three tasks first. That way, if nothing else, you accomplish something related to your goals.

Make a (Complex) Game Plan

Maybe you want more than Leo’s method. You like big checklists and huge plans. You want to plan out your time for the entire month.  Look no further than Productive Flourishing’s free planners.  These things are amazing because they encourage objective-based planning. Set goals, and define your path towards them.

Most importantly…

Remember that you’re not losing. Graduate endeavors are individualistic affairs. For the most part, you set your own path and determine how far you go. 

Look at others around you for inspiration and encouragement. Collaborate and commiserate when you need help. But ultimately, you will look forward to focus on your own goals and cross your own finish line.

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photo credit: ….Tim via photo pin cc

The Grad Student’s Guide to Creating a Scientific Library in Evernote

Like I said in my last post, I absolutely love what I can do with Evernote. I am going to tell you exactly how I create a searchable library with Evernote. This is one of the most powerful tools I have for creating reference-rich writing. I love processes, and I love organizing. Every part of this process is in a way cathartic for me. Now is the time to sift through the mountains of information and create an intellectual space that is all yours.

You will need an Evernote account for this. If you do not have one, sign up for a free account here.


Four reasons why you never want to use anything other than PDFs in your library

First things first. We’re dealing with PDFs of scientific articles, the portable document format. Yes, you may think it’s enough to bookmark the link to a journal article and look it up whenever you want. There are a few inconvenient things with this approach.

  1. You will not always have an internet connection. Whether you are in the field for 2 months or some budget person thought it was too expensive to install a router in your wing of the building, there will be some time in your graduate life when you will not have internet access.
  2. Most journals restrict access to their articles. Your university probably (hopefully) has agreements with major journals so that you can access their content from the university library or a university internet connection. Download the PDF while you can.
  3. It is really annoying to click through links every time you want to look something up.
  4. It’s bad form to send a link of a paper to a colleague. Do the leg work for them, and attach the PDF.

PDFs are the currency of grad school. When you checked out prospective mentors, you looked at PDFs of their recent publications. Within days of arriving (or even being accepted), your advisor or labmates start sending you PDFs of relevant articles to bring you up to speed. Graduate level coursework rarely uses books and instead relies on PDFs from current journals. You are a considered a “rock star” when you can name the author and provide the PDF for the article that your labmate read months or years ago and found soooooo helpful but just can’t seem to remember. By the end of your first year, you will have saved or been emailed dozens (hundreds, maybe) of PDFs.

Anyways, back on track. We want PDFs. And we want them in our Evernote in a way that we can search every single piece of text in them.

Working with the Desktop Client to import all of your precious PDFs

First let’s address that file of PDFs you have on your computer somewhere. For files that you have on your computer already, it is easiest to use the Evernote Desktop Client (or whatever it is called). Open this in Windows by going to Start > All Programs >Evernote.

You’ll see something like this:

The left-hand column lists your Notebooks which are just collections of notes. I have three notebooks (you can’t see them here): Lab Notebook, Lectures, and My Stuff.  The little arrow next to My Stuff indicates that it is my default notebook. This is where notes get put if I do not specify otherwise. If I wanted to change my default notebook to Lab Notebook, I would right click on Lab Notebook, go to Properties, and click the checked box. To create a notebook, go to File > New Notebook or hit Ctl-Shift-N. Make sure the Snychronized box is checked. This way it automatically connects with your account.

The middle column says something like “No Notes were found”. The final column will display any selected note. This is also where you can edit the text of the note.

Now open up your file of PDFs. I don’t know where you keep them, so you’re on your own with this step.

Now simply drag and drop a PDF from your file to the middle column of Evernote.

Like this.

Note: Make sure to do this one at a time. If you drag more than one file at a time, Evernote will attach all of the PDFs to one note. This is fine if it is what you want, but it does not work with what I want to show you.

You will see a new note pop up in the middle column with a preview of the PDF you just dropped. Go ahead and drop all your files into your library. Evernote has a monthly upload limit of 60MB for the free account. Depending on the size of your library, you may need to upload it in batches. I have never exceeded the limit, but I’m sure mine is not the biggest PDF library out there.

The PDF notes will be have the same title as the files that you input. Having all of your notes labeled things like Lecture1.pdf or AmJNut2007.pdf or 9383333000044.pdf is not going to help you. It is vastly important to have a consistent naming scheme. It does not have to be complicated. I just use the title of the article as the note title.

So instead of “Tucker2007.pdf” I will have “Assessment of usual dietary intake in population studies of gene-diet interaction”.

Notice the search bar at the top of the middle column. Go ahead and take it for a test drive. Type in a keyword or phrase and watch as every PDF with that phrase shows up. I type in “children” and 16 papers show up. “Children BMI” turns up only two. This dramatically saves me time when I am honing in on a topic to write.

Take a moment to appreciate the birth of your library and feel empowered with the amount of information you can access. I am just as proud of my electronic Evernote library as I am of the physical library I have touted with me from California to Texas to New York. I get all tingly just thinking about how I get harness information from all over the world.

How to make your library even fancier on

Technically, you have all you need to take advantage of the incredible search powers of Evernote, but I like to spruce things up a bit by including my personal notes along with the PDFs. To do this we need to switch over to the online version of Evernote at Sign in with your name and password. You should see all of your PDFs neatly titled and ready to go. You now have access to them wherever you get online.

Click on the first PDF. Unlike the desktop version of Evernote, the online version displays the PDF as an attachment much like an email would embedded in a blank white space. Click on the pencil to add your notes, thoughts, plans, and anything useful regarding this paper. I like to include the full citation in APA format, the abstract, and a paragraph or two of notes. I treat this like an annotated bibliography.

Don’t know what to write? Download my PDF template of Useful Things to Know about a Paper. Remember, you have access to the PDF right there. You don’t have to summarize the whole thing. Instead think about what you will want to know years from now when you finally sit down to write your dissertation. Why did you include this particular paper in your library?

Keeping your Library Up-To-Date with Email: how to send PDFs to your Evernote

This is the ultimate in convenience. You may have noticed that the notes in are structured a lot like emails. It is possible (and highly recommended) to take advantage of email when creating your notes. Evernote provides an email address for your new account. Click on your username in the top right corner; then click Settings. In the Account Settings Menu, you will see Email notes to [email address]. 

Copy your personal Evernote email, and put it in the contacts list for both your personal email account (I use Gmail) and your professional email account (whatever your University uses) and give it an alias like “Evernote”.

Ok, say you have an email from your advisor with a PDF of an article attached. (Surely it is safe to assume that.) Go ahead and click the Forward button. Replace whatever email title was there with the title of the article. If you want to send it to a particular notebook, append @[Notebook name here] to the title. If you want to tag it, add #[tag] after the notebook.

For example, the email title “Assessment of usual dietary intake in population studies of gene-diet interaction @Lab Notebook #required reading” creates a note titled “Assessment of usual dietary intake in population studies of gene-diet interaction” in Lab Notebook with the tag “required reading”.

Include the citation, abstract, and your notes (or advisor’s reasons for sending this to you) in the body. Make sure the PDF is still attached. Click send and then rush to to see your lovely new note. Going back to the Desktop Client, click Sync and see it magically appear on your personal computer.

Now isn’t that so much better than simply downloading it and losing track of it?

Congratulations! You now have a mobile, manageable, updatable, searchable library complete with your notes. You can access this library on your personal computer, lab computer, iPhone, or iPad.

If you have any questions about setting up your very own Evernote library, feel free to email me or leave a comment below.

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So what’s the deal with Evernote?

Evernote is hands down my favorite tool to use for grad student work. It’s a crazy awesome digital notebook that I can access online, on my computer, on my iPad and on my iPod.

From the Evernote website:

Evernote makes it easy to remember things big and small from your everyday life using your computer, phone, tablet and the web.

You can write notes, save webpages, attach photos and pdfs, collaborate with others, and sync to mobile devices. Evernote even provides a Web Clipper to save anything you see online. Scroll down for a cool video on what Evernote can do.

Well that’s great, you say, but what about me? I’m not a doctor or a magazine writer or anything like that. I’m a grad student. What can I use Evernote for?

I am so glad you asked.

Introducing the Super Amazing and Convenient Thing I do with Evernote

Ok, I read a lot of scientific articles. I even take notes on them…sometimes. When I first started grad school, I printed out all of the pdfs and diligently highlighted and scratched notes directly on the text. You know, just like high school taught me. Then I would file them in a file cabinet by author’s last name.

That system lasted about two weeks. It was tedious to print and alphabetize and store all of that paper. I felt a twinge of guilt every time I had to print out a 50-page book chapter.

But my biggest problem was that there is no searchbox for printed text. Every time I needed to reference hepcidin levels in children (for example), I had to physically sift through all of my papers. Ugh.

No one has time for that.

Enter Evernote.

Evernote lets you create notes (text) with titles and attachments much like an email. These notes can be organized into notebooks and stacks and given tags. Every bit of text is searchable.

Let me say that again. Every piece of text whether it is a Word document or a decades old scan of a forsaken book chapter is searchable. 

I took all of my pdfs and dumped them into Evernote. Then I organized them so that each note included the title of the article, the citation, the abstract, and whatever notes I had taken. Now I reference Evernote every time I sit down to write. When I forget where a certain concept was discussed, I just conduct an Evernote search and up pops the paper!

If this sounds like a fabulous resource to you (and it should), I’ll be walking through my exact method in upcoming posts. Here’s what you can do to prepare:

Action steps for Evernote

  1. Sign up for a free account at
  2. Install the Evernote Desktop Client
  3. Start brainstorming about what scientific articles you want to include. If you already have PDFs saved, you’re in great shape. If not, that’s ok, I’ll walk you through it in the next few posts.

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The Secret Tool to Make Scientific Articles Find You

Summer is here! For graduate students this means two things: the undergrads are gone, and campus is finally a half-decent place to work. Now that I’m back in this hemisphere for a bit, my main focus is writing. Between all the projects I have (piecing together my proposal, writing Chapter 1 of my dissertation, and drafting a manuscript), I’m aiming to crank out at least 100 pages of quality in the next three to four months.

Since this is scientific writing we’re talking about, every statement I make needs to be backed up and referenced. I can’t just go around making crazy, wild claims. I’d just look dumb, and nobody wants that.

“Ok, I need relevant, current papers. How do I get them?”

After two years, I’ve amassed quite the load of papers. I am slowly reaching the point where I can name papers by their author. I used to think it was so cool when my advisor would say: “Oh look at so-and-so’s paper from 2006 from such and such journal. That’ll answer your question.” How on earth does he keep a career’s worth of information in his head?

Anyways, even though I have a formidable collection, I still need keep up with new publications. I do not have time to do random searches every week.

Fortunately, I’ve discovered a tool that make the process of finding references much, much less time-consuming.

Use Google Reader to stay up to date on relevant journals

For those who may not be familiar, Google Reader is web-based tool that can read Atom and RSS feeds. You’ll need a Google Account to use this. If you don’t have one, get one–it’s free and oh so useful. Most websites with changing content (online journals, newspapers, blogs, etc) utilize RSS feeds to share their new material. I used to use Google Reader for just blogs and webcomics; however, it can be a much more powerful tool if you use it to subscribe to academic journals.

For example, since I study human nutrition, I want to stay current on the Journal of Nutrition. I then go to their website and click on “Subscribe to RSS Feed”. You’ll see a bunch of jibberish. This is why you need an RSS reader. Copy the URL from this page and paste it into the (big, red) Subscribe box on the top left of the Google Reader page. You will then have all of the journal article titles and abstracts filed neatly for your perusal. Each time a new issue gets published, you will have all of the new titles and abstracts conveniently waiting for you. If you find an article worth your time, click on the box with the arrow on the right side of the page to be taken to the full article.

Bonus: Share the love

If you find a really outstanding paper, send a pdf of it to a labmate with a relevant project. This will show three things:

  1. You are on top of things and responsible.
  2. You are engaged with the work of experts in your field.
  3. You look out for your labmates.
Leverage your awesome time-saving approach to help others. It is crucial to develop good relationships with your peers during grad school. Even a small action like sharing an article can be the start of a beautiful collaboration.


5 Minute Action Steps

If this sounds like a good plan for you, here are three steps to get you started in 5 minutes:

  1. Sign up for a Google Account and open Google Reader.
  2. Find one relevant academic journal (Hint: look at the last paper your advisor told you to read. What journal does it come from?)
  3. Subscribe to that journal’s RSS feed.

Perfect! You now have journal articles coming to you instead of you hunting for them. You now have one less thing to do!

Go do something incredible.

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