Tuesday, 30 September 2014

Evernote: Tags

I wasn't convinced by tags at the beginning, but using a notebook-only approach wouldn't work due to Evernote's rather simple nesting capabilities (notebooks can only go one level deep). I actually see some advantages of tags now too - for example I can have a bunch of notes on a program (e.g. Evernote!) in lots of different notebooks (Blogs, PhD Advice, Programming). I can easily have a look at them all (across notebooks) using the tag, but I can also look at those notes linked to programming (both Evernote and non-Evernote related) by just checking the relevant notebook.


I organised my tags by using parent-tags (normal tags can be nested within other tags by simply dragging and dropping). I don't actually use those parent tags for tagging notes, they are just there to help me group other tags, so that I can find them easily. When on a computer I often tag notes by dragging them onto the tags, so being able to locate each tag quickly helps.

For example, I have a parent-tag "Activities" within which I have (not surprisingly) all my activities, such as writing, climbing or programming.

The only exception to the rule is my "tools" tag - it's nested within a parent tag and there are tags nested within it, but I do use it to tag notes that talk about a whole bunch of programs I might want to check out (but don't want to have a tag for each of them). 

You can see that each of my parent-tags has ... in front of it. This is so that I know which tags are the parent-tags and don't tag any notes with them when tagging by starting to type the tag name (which I do when I'm away from my computer, tagging on a mobile devices).


I decided to create a whole bunch of tags at the beginning and then try and stick to them, i.e. avoid creating new tags on a whim, so that I don't end up with each tag only being used once (which would render tags useless).

I also keep my naming consistent. Anything that is an activity, that can be written with an ing ending gets written like that, i.e. travelling instead of travel, meal planning instead of meal plan. Similarly, I keep the names in plural, for example definitions, books, conferences. Those rules arbitrary, but easy to remember, and they help to ensure that I don't accidentally create multiple tags for the same thing (i.e. so I don't have "book" and "books", which again, would make searching via tags less useful).

Sometimes I wonder how necessary the tags actually are - the search function in Evernote is excellent and most of my notes can be probably found relatively easily without tags. For instance, most of my Scrivener notes have the word Scrivener in them, so using the tag "Scrivener" doesn't really add much. However, there are also instances where tags add some extra information, for example if the note is based on something I found on Twitter it gets tagged with "Twitter" (and it happens automatically when done through IFTTT). The note doesn't actually have anything to do with the Twitter as a platform, so won't have the word "Twitter" in it and couldn't be found this way - but thanks to the tag I only need to remember that this thing I'm trying to find was initially spotted on Twitter. So I will use tags for now, even if only to figure out in what scenarios they are actually helpful!

Side Note: I do wish there was a way to automatically tag notes with a parent tag, e.g. if I tag something with "Twitter" it should also get tagged with "tools" automatically. As far as I know there is no way to achieve that easily though.

Monday, 15 September 2014

Evernote: update on the way I'm using it

I am taking some taught courses and have decided to create a separate notebook called Courses. I initially put notes on the courses in the Meetings notebook, but for some reason it didn't sit well with me, it felt like those notes didn't belong in Meetings.

I might also get rid off PhD Concepts & Definitions, Ideas & Notes notebook - I have created a document in Scrivener that keeps the definitions important for my PhD, so most of the basic things went there. This notebooks currently contains notes about my ideas linked to organisation of certain project, but I wonder whether those couldn't live in another notebook (e.g. PhD Advice & Resources or Lab Journal). I will see what happens, if it doesn't get much use it will need to go.

Monday, 8 September 2014

A new beginning: PhD

I have started a PhD.

Starting a new job, in a new city, new apartment, new flatmates, new department, office, colleagues… Almost everything in my life suddenly changed and changed quite drastically.

This is the sort of change that brings chaos, along with new challenges.

In an attempt to deal with this change and protect certain important aspects of my life I started planning and organising (how I love organising!) ahead of time in an attempt to mitigate some of the unavoidable uncertainty that comes with such a Big Move. I'm organising everything, from my belongings, through computers, to streamlining the way I work and keep track of projects and tasks.

I'm curious to see how it will all work out and whether systems established ahead of the time will actually work out. How much have I managed to predict? How right (or wrong) was I about the type of life I will lead during my PhD?

Who knows, maybe I will find that the steps I undertook made my life a thousand times easier. But then again, maybe after a month or two I will throw my hands in the air and start from scratch.

Time will show.

Monday, 25 August 2014

PhD Tools

This is the set up I've used during my undergrad/Masters and that I'm going to carry through onto the PhD.

I'm using a whole bunch of different tools to streamline my work and offload my brain - I have a goldfish memory (the castle around the corner is a surprise every time!*) and tend to worry about everything. All the time. I can't be very efficient without knowing that I can "forget" certain things because they have been recorded somewhere (and that I will get a reminder when the time comes).

The ease of recording things, as well as the ability to access the information is paramount, as I work from several locations and need to be able to get my hands on all that data anytime, anywhere. I need a set up that will not only work between office and home, but also between 4 different countries on 2 different continents. Something that will work cross-platform, as I use both a tower PC and a MacBook, as well as an iPad and an Android phone.

I am currently using:

The Trio of Skim, Scrivener and LaTeX - Skim for reading and marking scientific papers, Scrivener for the bulk of my writing, including notes taken on the papers all the way to, hopefully, the Thesis. LaTeX is my secret weapon of choice when it comes to formatting, it's really second to none in this category.
Mendeley - for keeping track of my references. It produces a bibtex file that can be used with LaTeX to automatically input and format references, both in text and at the end of the document as a bibliography.

For keeping track of most of my life I'm using Calendars (used to do Google, but swapped to iCloud now for no real reason), Evernote and Wunderlist. Each of those plays a slightly different role, Calendars organise my day/week/month, Evernote collects things that might be of use one day (meeting and lecture notes, recipes, manuals, travel arrangements, blog ideas…), while Wunderlist is there, well, to keep track of my multiple to-do lists and my daily agenda.

Mailbox - I have also recently started using Mailbox on my iPad and Android in order to achieve "inbox zero". I wasn't sure I will likely, but I'm totally digging it.

I'm also using Bloglovin' and Pocket to read things that are not scientific papers. Bloglovin' keeps track of all blogs (I read mainly academia/science-related blogs). Pocket is the "I'll read it sometime later" bucket, where I throw stuff that might be interesting, but that I'm not sure I want to keep - if I do want to keep it, it will probably end up in Evernote.

I am still working on my cross-platform links, as an iPad is a fairly new addition to the family - I was lucky enough to win one in a contest and so haven't been building those systems with an iPad in mind. I am also attempting to use IFTTT to automate some processes, but I think I have a long way to go here.

I am going to write a separate blog post on how I'm using each of the above, in case anyone out there is curious, but also so that I can see how my habits evolve over time. Once the posts are written I will link to them in this post (probably make the names of the programs clickable too).

*I'm pretty sure I have heard this somewhere, but for the life of me can't remember where.

Thursday, 7 August 2014

Evernote: Notebooks

If you google Evernote you will be flooded with articles and blog posts about it. This is by now means the way to use Evernote, it is just my way of using it. And it will most likely change.

I started from creating a bunch of notebooks. Since I wanted to keep everything in Evernote I have quite a spread of different topics here.

Some of my Evernote notebooks. The arrow points to a notebook stack including two notebooks.

My current notebooks are:

0. Default Inbox - this is the default notebook where things go before being sorted. If I don't have the time, or if I'm just sending something to Evernote (e.g. through email - yes, you can send emails to your Evernote!) it will go here. I will move it from here later and put it in an appropriate notebook.

1. Lab Journal - this is a place where I will keep track of my everyday work. I'm going to attempt being fairly paperless and not having a physical notebook - I will instead use my iPad to make notes.

2. Meetings - notes from meetings, as well as agendas for future meetings go in here. This includes meetings with my supervisors, but also meetings with any other group of people, e.g. a journal club or admin meetings.

3. PhD Advice & Resources - this is where I put links and notes on anything that might make my PhD journey easier. It might be articles on academic workflows, courses worth doing, productivity tips, software worth checking out, thesis writing advice etc.

3. PhD Concepts & Definitions, Ideas & Notes - this title is pretty self explanatory I think!

3. Programming (stack):

  • Code Bits - I would like to put useful pieces of code in here. I found that while using R and LaTeX I would sometimes encounter a problem, then do a fair bit of research and find a neat way of solving the issue. Then 8 months later I'd have no clue how I sorted it out… I had no place to put such bits of information and would end up having to dig through my old pieces of work in order to find out how I did something.
  • Web Archives & Resources - pretty self explanatory, things related to programming that are not bits of code!

4. Conferences
4. Travel - I wasn't sure whether to split those two or just keep them as one folder, but then I thought that I might want to keep other information on conferences, not necessarily strictly related to travel. So there are two folders for now.

7. Blogs (stack):

  • About Blogging - where I keep generic information related to the activity.
  • Blog Ideas & Drafts - some bloggers write their blog posts in Evernote. I'm not sure I will do that, but I think it might be useful for storing ideas and resources. For instance, if I read an article and it gives me an idea for a post, I can not only jot the idea down, but can send the article to Evernote too, so that it's kept there for reference.

Food & Drink (stack):

  • Baking, Cooking, Wine, Basics & Resources - those 4 notebooks should be pretty self explanatory. I keep my favourite recipes there. It's pretty handy - I just took some photos of my mum's cookbook when I went home, which saved me having to copy out things by hand. I can also copy things sent by friends or found on the web into there. And when I go shopping and want to check what I need for lasagne I can get access to the ingredients on my phone.

House - I live in a shared house, so anything relating to the house, like bills or inventory, goes here. I can easily email the information to my housemates from Evernote too, or I could share the notes or even the whole folder with them.

Manuals & Documentation - I want to try to be fairly paperless, so any manuals, timetables, schedules etc. go here.

Other Interests & Cabinet - I have quite a range of interests and I didn't want to create a whole bunch of folders, so everything else that doesn't fit into the folders above goes in here. This can be things like good articles on organising your wardrobe, blog posts on sexism, article on diseases in pet parrots or a business card of this awesome rock climber I met on my last trip.

Wish List & Gift Ideas - what it says on the tin!

Note: numbers in front of some of the notebooks above are there to force the notebooks to appear in certain order (the most wanted ones on top).

Monday, 4 August 2014


I used to jot down the most random things in order to get them out of my brain - a song that I heard and liked, a book someone recommended, a gig in town 3 months from now, a bit of code, idea for a blog post, what I need to tell my mum the next time call her… This resulted in dozens and dozens of random pieces of papers lurking around my desk. Getting lost. Making mess. Not being there where I needed them for reference.

Notebooks sorted this problem to an extend, but still left a lot to be desired - every single time I left the notebook at work I needed to check something while I was at home. Every time I visited someone the notebook wasn't there. When I went to visit my parents (which requires a plane trip) I had to pick and choose what I can take with me.

You get the idea.

I have had an Evernote account for a while, but I never really got into it. People would rave about it and I just couldn't make it work.

I like to keep organised and I was getting annoyed at not having an efficient way of dealing with bit and piece of information. Since PhD would involve more information that I have ever had to deal with (or at least so I suspect!) I thought it's time for a change.

I decided to go all in and really give it a shot. I think that one way to make it work might be to put everything into it. All the information, so that it becomes the default place to go for inputting new information, but also for looking for things.

I like to keep information categorised and so I quickly set up some folders. I then equally quickly found out that folders can be nested within stacks, but that's it. Organisation with folders is only one level deep in Evernote and that's not enough for me. Or at least, it's not enough to work the way I worked before.

I never got the idea of tags in general and I tried to avoid them in Evernote, till I realised that I could use them the way I wanted to use folders. Now I have a mix of folders and tags. I have a rule though - I created both notebooks and tags at the beginning and I will not create any more ad hoc ones. This is to avoid having a folder with just one thing in it or a tag that only refers to one note (rendering them pointless).

Every time I feel like reaching for a piece of paper to note something down I make a note in the Evernote. I use it to store notes on various events, to keep links and blog posts that I want to have access to. I sent itineraries there. I can get access to it on any of my devices, so I can use it on the go, but I can also make sure I keep my desks clutter free (or at least random-pieces-of-paper free!).

If you'd like to know how I organised my Evernote for (mainly) academic use you can read about it in separate blog posts about my Notebooks and Tags.

Friday, 14 March 2014

I did it!

The choice has been made, the funding sorted, the paperwork signed. I will be starting my PhD project in mid-September, with fieldwork in the Land Down Under before the end of the year. I'm excited and apprehensive and very aware that the real stress and seriousness of this choice will probably hit me closer to the time.

The topic is very interesting, the department, group and supervisors are meant to be great (and really did seem so from the little interaction I had with them - good sign!), the fieldwork in Oz is an amazing bonus. The city itself is also a great place to live, although  I will probably complain about the darkness and rain (the cost of living up north). I was trying to be careful when applying, trying to only apply for places I really thought I could fit in. But until you get a chance to talk to those people and to have a look around you can't really get a real feel for it. Of course a couple of conversations and a visit are not the same as a few years of actual work that the project requires, but one can only try their best while collecting the intel. Pull some strings, keep your eyes and ears open, ask questions. Be prepared.

I will have a lot of independence with a supervisor who is very hands-off (or so I'm told), but that also means a lot of responsibility. I don't like people looking over my shoulder and I don't need spoon-feeding, so fingers crossed that I can manage to truly be in charge of my own learning and development, of my own research. At the end of the day, I think this is what it is about. It's time to fledge.

Some wing stretching and exercise might be necessary first though.

Friday, 28 February 2014

PhD interviews

There is a myriad pages and blogs out there with interview advice, so I won't bother to give tips here. What I will say though is that I was invited to several PhD interviews (both PI interviews and funding interviews) and that pretty much all of them seemed to follow the "stress interview" path.

Of course it might just be my personal impression, but all official interviews were panels interviews, with people asking unrelated questions in quick succession, frequently forcing me to forget about my current train of thought and jump onto a completely new, seemingly random (as in: not following from the previous question/answer) idea. Some questions were relatively easy and predictable - about me, my current research project, ideas, experience. But there were also questions about aspects of methodology and analysis for the PhD project (which I would be starting in 7-8 months time) and let's face it, it's pretty much impossible to know details of those this far in advance, while applying for several projects. There were questions of the predicted impact of the PhD project, how it would change the field, what post-doc projects would I like to create based on the PhD outcomes... Again, that's about 4 years from now. Those big picture questions, asking for a lot of detail were probably the hardest, although I was also asked a bunch of modelling questions despite the fact that I clearly stated in my application I have no modelling experience.

During one of my interviews I gave a 3 minute presentation on my Masters project - and afterwards I was left there hanging, the questions started without any indication I should sit down with the panel (I figured what the heck and crossed the room and pulled a chair for myself). After some of the answers I gave I was told "this is not what I wanted you to say".

I also had at least one "mean" interviewer on each panel, one person clearly disinterested in me and my answers, interrupting or looking out of the window. I was incredibly grateful that someone warned me about this type of behaviour before my interviews. Once I spotted it and knew I can safely assume it's just an interview method, paradoxically it calmed me down instead of adding stress - I expected it to happen, it happened, therefore things were going how they were "supposed to" go. I knew it wasn't personal and it helped.

The hardest part of the process ironically turned out to be linked to the fact that I was made more than one offer and had to make a choice. And I wanted it all.

Saturday, 25 January 2014

Masters and PhD hunt

The first semester of my masters year is nearly over. It's been great so far, busy, but great. It is the first time when I could really really get into a topic - from both the theory side (dissertation) and empirical side (practical research project). It's a research-based year and so it's different from the first 3 years of my degree. I get a chance to explore, play and think for myself, instead of focusing a lot of my energy on deadlines and marking criteria for different little pieces of work. I can plan my own experiments and I'm also responsible for my work and learning to a new degree. My time is unstructured unless I structure it.

I loved most of my degree and I'm glad I had a chance to try and learn lots of different things, as I think it helped me to not only develop a range of skills, but also allowed me to realise what my interests are and what type of research I'd like to be involved in in the future. This year confirms what I thought before: research is it for me. This is what I should do. This is what I will do.

Having this confirmation is helping me through the PhD application process, which is tough and stressful. There is however something incredibly exciting about learning, researching and possibly teaching, sharing the passion and knowledge, as a career, and this also helps to push through. The competition is high and the funding situation is not great, but hopefully, with a bit of luck, there is a PhD out there for me.