Note taking and the PhD student

Someone told me that the secret to being a successful PhD student is to write EVERYTHING down. That means literally EVERYTHING; because you never know what might come in useful down the line and what random doodling may turn out to be a brilliant thesis-saving idea.

I thought this was a bit of overkill, to be honest. I mean surely I can just take a few notes as I work and that should be fine, right? But then I noticed all the other PhD students jotting things down constantly in little pocket notebooks. And then I spotted my supervisor also writing stuff down constantly at a conference. The final wake-up call came from chatting to another PhD who confessed he buys a separate notebook for every event he attends.

All this left me seriously worried about how little I was writing down. Maybe my lack of note-taking was causing me to miss out on some crucial info that everyone else knows but which I’ve forgotten due to my lazy lack of scribbling? Perhaps brilliant ideas for my upgrade talk/ fieldwork/ lit review (delete as applicable) have already lost in the mists of my short-term memory? Clearly something needed to be done.

So I bought myself a notebook and have started keeping it constantly in my bag. It’s turned out to be a very useful acquisition, especially as I do a lot of my thinking on the move. The 15min walk down the obligatory massive Sheffield hill into Geography is an ideal time to also have a little mental wander. A lot of PhDs will tell you that their best ideas come in the shower, but I’m usually just thinking ‘mmm, warm’ or something similarly inane. No, I need to be moving around, preferably in the cold, to think clearly. And this makes my wee pocket notepad very handy indeed (also, I imagine it wouldn’t fare so well in the shower).

Every time I have a decent thought, it goes in the book. Most of it is pretty nonsensical but maybe one day a couple of lines in this notebook will be the start of some ground-breaking research. I live in hope!

An unforeseen danger is that the urge to write everything down has become a little all-encompassing. I have an impressive array of to-do lists, timetables and plans on the go plus my (also new) diary is becoming very full very quickly. I have to be careful not to spend too much of the day writing to-do lists for what I will do that day, once I have finished making my to-do list. I hear this is a common PhD problem and is in reality, an elaborate and cunningly “productive” form of procrastination. And then there is always the tactic of doing something before retrospectively writing it on the to-do list, just so you can have the satisfying feeling of crossing it off. That is definitely bad – don’t do it, you’re lying to yourself (clearly I never, ever do this).

Anyway, I’m going off-topic a little. Basically the two points of this post are:

1) If you are a PhD student, don’t be a note-taking doubter but by yourself a pad, carry it around and write EVERYTHING down. Trust me (but keep a handle on the list-writing).

2) If you’re not a PhD student, by a notepad anyway. You never know when you might have that amazing idea for a great novel which will turn into a multi-million making franchise (JK Rowling thought of Harry Potter on the train after all).

Happy note-taking!