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Flailing in the Dark: Getting a Grip as an Early Stage PhD Student

Welcome back to An Eddying Flight, Dear Readers (and apologies in advance, as always, for Wix's formatting insanity - I've done my best!).

If you're currently in the early stages of a PhD (or an MA, or any kind of extended research-heavy project) and you've met up with friends from your department or your writing group for a Zoom chat or a coffee, or even just that ten minutes before the meeting or training session starts, you will almost certainly have heard someone utter the words:

"At this point I just feel like I'm flailing about in the dark..."

Maybe you were the one who said it; I was. And then everyone else makes a kind of low-pitched 'Hmmmm' of sympathy which translates to 'Yeah, me too'.

You're reading All the Things. You're highlighting pages like mad. You're talking about your research, and you're writing. But it's all chaotic, even random - none of it really seems to be connecting to anything else in your head. Half the time you've forgotten what you highlighted by the time you cap the pen, and if anyone asked you to summarise what it was about, you'd need a brown paper bag and a quiet corner to sit in, STAT.

If you bring this feeling of uncomfortable confusion and helplessness up with supervisors or other people further along in the process, they'll very sensibly tell you that this flailing stage is pretty much standard - all a part of the rich tapestry of undertaking a post-graduate research based degree. In fact, it's a vital and important part. The sense of lostness and confusion is your brain opening up to accept all the vast amounts of information that it will need, later on, in order to make sense of everything. That sensation of flailing around in the dark is a good thing. It means you're aware of how far you have to go and you're ready to learn. Really!

I accept this; it doesn't mean I'm a fan of feeling this way. So I tried to figure out some stategies for making it a bit more comfortable to open up my brain to accept vast amounts of new information (etc.), tricks to help me feel in control of the process. Perhaps the first step would be to download some referencing software? I went to Twitter for recommendations. I downloaded. And I discovered that this did not work for me. I tried with Zotero and Mandeley, I really did. I did the online tutorials and everything. But I hate them. I feel they are unnecessarily, even intentionally over-complicated to use, that they don't actually do what you want or expect them to do, and that even if you can get them to do the things they are supposed to do, they don't do them well.

I spoke to two lovely friends who are now bona fide doctors in the English and CW area, and both of them told me that they too had given up on referencing software. They just wrote their references down by hand in their notebooks. Everytime they picked up a new book or journal or paper, they popped the citation at the top of the page, made the notes they wanted, handwrote any references. Simple, effective. Genius. Not for me, though, unfortunately. Some Type A part of my brain just could not accept that my references would be organised by date of reading, not author name, and that if I read a second or third book/paper by the same author later on it would be pages away or even in a different journal. I also kept forgetting, in my enthusiasm to get through my reading, to actually write down the references, then running out of room, or realising that I'd ever-so-slightly mis-written them... It doesn't help that I have no less than five notebooks on the go at the moment, living in various rooms of my house. This method wasn't working either; it just made me feel more stressed.

At this point I was cosmically lucky. I stumbled across the most amazing resource, which I am about to share with you - the vlogs of Professor Tara Brabazon, who is the Dean of Graduate Research at Flinders University (an Oz institution who have a branch here in the UK) and who has devoted what must be hundreds of hours to basically answering almost any question that has ever caused any Post-Grad Researcher to wake up in a cold sweat in the middle of the night. I've barely managed to dent Prof. Brabazon's back catalogue, but I already worship her like the academic Goddess on Earth that she is. Her videos are brilliant. And this one in particular made a lightbulb go off over my confused and flailing little head:

I realised that I needed to find something half-way between the informal notebook scribblings and the rigid, non-intuitive referencing software. And I already knew what that was. It just hadn't occurred to me to use it that way previously: the answer was OneNote.

Now, I'm not trying to sell OneNote to anyone here. Other digital note-taking/journal style software is available and may even be superior! But it comes bundled with other MS Office applications and if you, like me, have a university computer, it's almost certainly on there, even if you haven't stumbled over it before. If you don't have a uni computer, you should still be able to download it for free using your university's MS Office licence if you're a registered PGR student with a uni email.

So how does OneNote (or another digital journal software with equivalent functionality) help with feeling lost, confused, and as if you're flailing about in the dark? It helps because it's incredibly simple and straightforward to use. The set-up is basically idiot-proof, and I can say that because I'm the idiot who tested it. But it also gives you the ability to divide your notes by topic - as suggested by Prof. Brabazon - as well as alphabetizing everything by author, AND allowing you to move things around, insert new references/authors if you need to without having to disorganise the existing notes you have. I'm going to try and show you how, below, with the aid of a few screenshots.

This is my OneNote set-up - a digital 'notebook' which I have saved under the generic title PhD Notes:

At the top, you can see that I've divided the notebook into sections based on my current, basic research areas - 'Time', 'Narrative', etc. - plus a catch-all 'Misc' section. I know that by the end of my PhD there will probably be a dozen additional, more specialised sections here, but that is no problem, because you can use that little '+' symbol at the end of the list of section tabs to add new ones easily whenever you want, and you can also delete them, rename them, and move them around too.

Your new notebook will look like this:

Trust me, I know it's depressing as heck. But you'll be astonished how quickly it fills up. First of all, decide on a few basic areas that you know you're definitely going to be dwelling on heavily in your research, and give each one a tab to create a section in the notebook. Change the tab called 'Quick Notes' by clicking on it and renaming it, then add some more. Don't overthink the tabs too much - you can change them later, and there will be no need to scribble anything out or use Tippex (she says, giving her age away)! That's the beauty of doing this digitally.

Next, within each section you're going to want at least a couple of individually named pages so that you can alphabetize your reading. I've done that by author surname - pretty standard - but you can obviously use whatever system you're comfy with. I've started out, as you can see in the very first screenshot above, by giving myself two pages, authors A-J and K-W. If I later find that I need to divide this further to save myself from wading through 200 authors on each page, I can easily make a new Authors E-I or J-L page and then copy and paste all the corresponding references into that.

You can also use the 'View' function to give your 'pages' rule lines of different kinds (narrow ruled, college and so on) and change the colours of the 'paper' to make it easier to keep track when you flick between sections.

Each time you make a new entry, that author/book/paper will get their own little text bubble on the page, which you can move if you need to. For example, if I read something new by an author called 'Dankles' I click in the space above 'Dengi' and begin to type. A new bubble will form and the Dengi one will automatically move down, along with all the others below that. It's good idea to leave a chunk of space at the top of the page and between each reference for this reason; if you end up manually dragging the bubble around it can end up overlapping with the one below, so you have to move that one, and so on. However, if you forget to do this, you can always go to the place on the page where you want to add your new reference and 'Add Space' from the 'Insert' menu; it's just less faffing about if you don't need to.

Now, everytime that I sit down to read, I make sure that I have OneNote pulled up and synced. If I'm reading a real book or something I've printed out, I have OneNote open on my laptop or my tablet (I've even managed to get it installed on my phone, for desperate times). If I'm reading a PDF or webpage on my tablet, then I have it on the laptop. What I'm saying is, separate the screen you're going to be updating OneNote on from the screen where you're reading. This is a really good way of mentally separating reading from writing while doing both at more-or-less the same time. It also means that you don't have to toggle between applications to type up your references; that's frustrating and time-consuming (unless you're able to copy and paste from the source, of course - lucky you, if so!). If you've downloaded your paper or book from a website and need to include the link, you just copy and paste it into OneNote exactly as you would your Reference List or Bibliography.

You could even choose to use a OneNote notebook or a series of them as your informal Reference List/Bibliography and, provided you kept everything up to date and ensured your referencing style was the one required by your university, simply copy and paste all the references (minus the quotes, of course) into your preferred word-processing software to make the formal one at the end of the process of writing your thesis up. For a lot of people I know that this would save a great time of both time and effort!

Here you can see my K-W page in the 'Time' section, where the Morten, Kate references end and the Winterson, Jeanette references begin. Hopefully several more writers will eventually live between them, as my reading moves on:

I like to set my author names and titles in a larger font to make them easier to find when scrolling. I also think it's a really, really good idea to put any typed quotes in bold (or a different font, or colour, whatever you like) so that it's completely impossible to mix up a quote with any paraphrasing, thoughts, or reactions you're moved to add on the page.

I've deliberately screenshotted a bit of the page where you can only see basic notes and references here (I'm shy), but most of my bubbles also have large chunks of paraphrasing and rambling reactions to the references too - and this is really helping me to connect the reading I'm doing to my wider work and to each other thing I've read or plan to read. It's quick, hassle-free and completely intuitive to add those notes in that way, instead of being a grinding faff (like with referencing software) or a panicked search (like with physical paper notebooks) and it makes a habit of sustained thought and combined reading/writing so much easier to develop. My thoughts about what I'm learning are just more organised and clearer to me with this system, and I've only been using it for a few weeks.

I hope that you, too, will discover that once you're set up, the sensation of flailing about aimlessly in the dark fades gently away like a forgotten nightmare. Let me know in comments or in a Tweet/FB comment how you get on!


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