Organization & Habits for PhD Students

A PhD is not like any other degree. No one is holding your hand. No one taking note of your attendance. No one is giving you a schedule to follow. Aside from a monthly meeting with your supervisor for 45-60 minutes, you're on your own.

The PhD program is a job where you are your boss and you're in charge. You reap the benefits, and you deal with the consequences of failure. I have yet to meet a PhD student who claims to be winging it. 

Organization and habits are important to keep in anyone's life, but it's crucial for the PhD. 

My Organizing tips

colored note cards

Best for writing down outlines and quick facts found in sources. Each color can be a different topic. 

accordion folders

Best to organize loose pages of reading material and note cards. You can make each pocket a different topic.

weekly calendar 

This could be a pocket diary or a month-sized pad of paper. Or, if you'd rather stay paperless, create a calendar on iCal or Google Calendar. Just make sure you have a separate calendar specifically for your PhD.

 I may or may not like having a routine... 

I may or may not like having a routine... 

cloud drives

Save all documents to a cloud drive like Microsoft OneDrive or Google Drive. This allows you to access your files on any computer and won't lose them.  


Wunderlist is my favorite check-list app. It syncs through cloud, so what you write on the app in your phone will be visible on your computer or tablet. You can create folders for specific lists and share your lists with friends. 

my habit tips

stick to a schedule 

Just because no one is going to be on your ass about what you do doesn't mean you shouldn't keep yourself in check. Create a schedule and stick to it. That means if a friend invites you to a movie in the middle of a weekday, you politely decline because you're working. The PhD is your job.

plan weekly & daily

So you might have it planned out that you'll read secondary sources Monday and Tuesday, then write Wednesday through Friday. That's a good start. But, then when the day arrives, you'll either try to wing it or you'll spend 30 minutes planning out the day. Plan it out ahead of time. I.e., Write down a list of books you need to get from the library, get those books, then read them one after another. Instead of getting a book, reading it, going back to the library, getting another... you get the idea. Don't waste transition time. 

 add activities to your plate

If you say: Okay I'm going to work on my PhD all week and then relax on the weekends, you're going to go insane. You need other things in your life during the week. I.e., exercise, reading for pleasure, sports, weekday-date nights, cooking, learning a new hobby. 

start early

Ideally, you should start working before eating anything. I mention Intermittent Fasting in an early blog post here. Once you eat, your body chills out and any motivation to do work is going to disappear. After lunch in the afternoon, when the sun is setting and it's getting closer to dinnertime, you're going to have trouble getting any substantial work done. Because I've got my schedule on a tight-lock, I work 9-3 and then head home and do my lighter work, like reading, from my flat. 


This is redundant but needs to be said. And not just clocking in hours of sleep but making sure you get good sleep. 10 hours of tossing and turning sleep does not beat 7 hours of deep sleep. Sleep affects our mood, our energy, our ability to focus and think rationally. And no amount of coffee is going to fix a shitty night's sleep. I suggest you get 7-8 hours of sleep per night. 

My organization game is no match for my friend, who has created her own personal notebook and it's effing beautiful. She should start a business in notebook design.


I just learned that "bullet notebooks" is a thing. I'm feeling the #PinterestGuilt right now because my handwriting sucks.