The Art of Writing a (Ph.D.) Work Log


October 26, 2013

As a student I did not spend a lot of time writing thoughts and ideas from my courses down, but instead assignments, reports and exams played the role of documenting my learning and understanding of the curricula.

When I started my Ph.D. a year ago, I realized that I would need to start writing down a lot more, and from day one I wrote minutes from meetings, notes from seminars, notes from student project supervision and notes about the progress in my work. Initially, this seemed slightly overkill since I could more or less manage most of it in my head, but as time passed more tasks showed up, and today I would feel limited without carefully writing my Ph.D. work log. In this post, I explain what tools I use for writing my work log and give some points that I find important in writing a (Ph.D.) work log.

Why a (Ph.D.) Work Log?

I have two main reasons for writing a work log, as explained in the following. In my work, I often find myself working intensely on a particular problem for several days, sometimes an entire week, and then some other task shows up, removing my attention from the problem I’m trying to understand or solve. In the process of solving the problem, I read articles and in books, do calculations on paper and computations in Matlab, all of which contribute to my understanding of the problem. When I subsequently remove myself and my attention from the problem for a while, the main ideas remain in my head, but a lot of details from the reading and calculations and computations escape. And exactly for this reason, I find it valuable to log my work and thoughts; when I return to the problem, I read the log and can more easily get back into the problem, as deep as I was when I went to do something else.

Likewise, writing down the findings, results, issues, thoughts and ideas about a particular problem is a useful way of post processing the work; it forces you to think everything over again, which usually helps to get a clear picture of what might be wrong and what needs to be investigated more carefully to resolve or understand the problem.

Analog or Digital Work Log?

A first choice to be made when writing a work log is whether it should be written the old school way, on paper, or digitally. Before I bought my iPad, I wrote most lecture notes and calculations on paper that I kept in binders – and that now take up a couple of moving boxes in my apartment! With the iPad I happily started My Digital Workflow, and I therefore naturally chose a digital work log.

If you prefer paper over a computer or tablet screen, you should certainly write your work log on paper (for instance, in one of the the popular and celebrated Moleskine notebooks), the important thing being to write the log one way or the other.

My own recommendation is to try to write it digitally since it enables you to write things down everywhere and at anytime – on the computer, on the tablet and on the smartphone. My own experience, as mentioned in the initial paragraph, is that the log is not highly important in the beginning of a Ph.D. project, so should you start digitally (or on paper) and not like it, you still have plenty of time to adjust your technique for writing the important parts of the work log.

Simplenote: A Simple Way of Writing a Digital Work Log

As mentioned in My Digital Workflow and in Living Digitally, I use Simplenote a lot, both in and outside of work, and here I will focus on my use of it for writing a work log. I mainly use Simplenote via its web interface and iOS apps, but a long list of third party apps and software exist for using Simplenote. So whether in an Internet browser, on the desktop of a computer, on the tablet or on the smartphone, Simplenote is accessible.

I like Simplenote because it is dead simple: You write notes without any fancy formatting, and these are all stored in one long list. Simplenote does not have any text formatting options; no font size adjustment, no bold or italic face, no text underlining, nothing at all. It is all about writing the notes and not spending time or energy on formatting these.

Likewise, Simplenote does not have any folder system; notes occur in one long list, with the last edited note at the top by default. Again, as for the lack of text formatting, the spirit is to focus on writing notes and not on making a folder system for archiving. The search engine is therefore important, and it searches efficiently in both text and tags of all the notes, making (at least for the number of notes that I have) a folder system dispensable. It should be mentioned that it is possible to pin notes to the top of the list, and notes that I access often are this way kept at the top.

In conclusion of this section, Simplenote is a simple, digital tool for writing all sorts of notes, including a digital work log. Its minimalistic interface makes it ideal for focusing on writing.

Simplenote: Publish Notes and Markdown

The main features of Simplenote were presented in the previous section, and in this section I elaborate on some additional features of Simplenote, namely sharing notes publicly and text formatting of notes. Initially, I didn’t use these features, and as explained in the previous section I mainly use Simplenote since it is simple and allows me to concentrate on writing the notes and nothing else. If you don’t think you can use a tool without a folder or archiving system and without text formatting readily available, Simplenote is probably not for you – which the additional features described in this section probably won’t change.

When writing a note, you may share it publicly by (in the web interface) clicking the three dots at the top of the note and select “Publish…”. Once you do this, a box will appear in which the public link for the note is available (see the pictures above). Anyone with this link will be able to see the note, and you may thus share it with collaborators, supervisors etc. for them to read your note.

If you want others to be able to edit a note, you may include their e-mail address in the “Tags” line; this will send them a link to a version of the note that they can edit. I don’t use this feature myself, but it might be useful for others.

When I make a note publicly available (for example, to share it with my supervisors), I prefer that the note has a clear and easy-to-read layout. As mentioned in the previous section, Simplenote doesn’t have text formatting options, but it supports Markdown, a lightweight markup language.

Clicking the “circled i” at the top of note, brings up a box in which Markdown may be enabled for that particular note. Once this is done, “Edit” and “Preview” panes become available at the top of the note; the Markdown edited note is written in “Edit”, while the resulting Markdown formatted note is previewed in “Preview” (see the above pictures). Markdown supports different levels of titles, bullet and item lists, text formatting and a lot more, and notes may thus easily be given a crisp look with a little bit of Markdown code (see, for example, this cheat sheet for the basics of Markdown).

Simplenote and Evernote: Backup with Simple-For-Ever

As explained in the previous sections, I use Simplenote a lot and therefore rely on my notes to be consistently saved and synchronized to the Simplenote servers at all times. I also use Evernote for saving all sorts of things, and I recently started synchronizing my Simplenote notes to a notebook in Evernote.

Different services exist, and I use Simple-for-Ever which has synchronized my notes impeccably so far. It merely produces a copy of my notes in an Evernote notebook, and I cannot edit the notes in Evernote and have that synchronized back to Simplenote. So the service is just a backup of my notes, in case something unexpected should happen to the Simplenote servers.

Get started Writing a Work Log!

Whether you are a Ph.D. student or someone else working with complex tasks, I encourage you to start writing a work log, on paper or digitally, as soon as possible. It is a solid basis when you later have to write an article, a report, a dissertation or when you have to prepare a presentation of your work, and it facilitates continuous reflection of your work in progress. So get started writing a work log!

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