Workflows: “Welcome” to Graduate School

The Problem of Information Management


Perhaps I made a mistake not getting a Master’s degree before I applied for Ph.D. programs in history. Perhaps I made a mistake in not taking substantial time off after I got my Bachelor’s degree. Perhaps, even, I should have considered more lucrative career options — in translation work, public relations, marketing, etc. Nevertheless, here I stand, I can do no other: in the fall of 2020, I will begin my third year in the History Ph.D. program at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, working with Prof. Joshua Cole, author most recently of Lethal Provocation: The Constantine Murders and the Politics of French Algeria (2019, Cornell University Press). With the fall, “hell year” will commence: the year of my cohort’s preliminary examinations (elsewhere called comprehensive exams, or “comps”).

Usually, each doctoral student is tasked with devising three extensive “lists.” Each “list” relates to a “field,” wherein the student in question works closely with a professor to hone a list of 100-800 (yes it does vary this widely) books and articles to be read and commented upon over the year. At Michigan, a fourth “field” technically exists, but students have the option of “coursing off” this list; i.e., taking two graduate level seminar courses in a particular subject area—this is done to avoid being examined in this fourth field.

My three fields are

  • Modern European history (main field),
  • Early Modern European history (distribution field), and
  • Global Comparative Race and Migration (third field)

The field I “coursed off” was on Critical and Queer Theory, which emphasized the scholarship of Michel Foucault.

Overwhelmed and Afraid

I first visited Ann Arbor in March 2018 for the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor History Department’s admitted students’ weekend. The department paid for my flight from LAX to DTW. They also paid for a chartered SUV from the airport to the hotel and back again. Finally, they paid for a stay in a historic hotel near campus. I knew Michigan was the school for me after meeting with my future advisor and other faculty during the visit. Over the weekend, I met with older graduate students and other members of my cohort—and I was overwhelmed and afraid. Was I going to make any friends? How was I going to get through a Ph.D. program that may as well take seven years to complete? What about depression, anxiety, and risks of substance abuse that graduate students face?

I moved to Ann Arbor in August 2018. My dad flew with me and helped me move in. An older graduate student helped me find my leasing agency; a couple of trips to Ikea later and my apartment eventually became furnished. I shipped my belongings (mostly books) from Los Angeles using a moving pod, which was absurdly expensive. Out of transparency, I must say that moving would have been impossible without my parents’ emotional, financial, and even physical support.

When my first classes began in the fall of 2018, the first feeling I remember distinctly was profound, frenetic anxiety. I was drowning in a sea of information. How was I going to remember the names of all these books? of all these historians? The only exposure I’d had to the academic game of posturing was my reading in critical theory (Foucault and Lacan) as well as the historiography of the French Revolution. That was it. No E. P. Thompson, no Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie, no A. J. P. Taylor, and certainly no Fernand Braudel.

I had to learn how to deal with a flood of data coming my way, dropping into various inboxes: digital, mental, and analog. Moreover, I needed to learn how to stay afloat amid this flood. This meant becoming intentional about my workflow. My saving grace actually came from techniques I began developing in high school and which refined further in college. The tool I’d found the most useful was (and perhaps still is) the note-taking software Evernote. Its companion application, Scannable, has saved me from so much grief.

But before I get carried away, let me explain…

I take “fleeting notes” on yellow legal notepad paper. Scanning these notes into Evernote through Scannable, and having them become (if imperfectly) searchable through the application has been a real gift. Other times, I take notes directly in Evernote. I organize each course and topic in its own designated notebook. I don’t often make use of the software’s tagging system—but this could change in the future as my information architecture continues to evolve.

An Organized Life

The way one chooses to organize their life — not simply one’s reading notes, essays, pedagogical materials, etc. — matters deeply. A disorganized and haphazard approach to information management does not mean that a scholar will produce bad work. But it does entail countless wasted hours and lost resources that may never resurface after a particular encounter with a piece of information. In my third year of graduate school, with so much information to comb through, I can scarcely afford wasted time. Thankfully, it’s the summer and I can afford to “waste” time on blogs like this.

If you commit to scheduling events in a digital calendar (like iCal), and if you commit to inputting your tasks into a task management software (like Things 3), and if you log all of the books and articles you come across in a citation management software (like EndNote or Zotero—I use both), and perhaps also keeping a paper record of everything too, I’m convinced you’ll be better off.

If your working memory capacity (WMC) is maxed out because you’re worried about doing certain tasks or are worried about attending a particular event, rather than actually doing said tasks or actually attending said events, you’re exposing yourself to needless anxiety. Freeing your mind and your WMC requires an intentional relinquishing of the little things. It also requires acknowledging that an accumulation of many little things amounts to a big, nasty thing.

The key to any conversation about information management, in my opinion, begins with understanding the architecture of information storage—either through an analog catalog system or through a digital information management system/software.

I use Dropbox to store all of my files relevant to my education. These files include PDF documents I’ve received, Word documents I’ve produced, among a bevy of other media forms.

If you look at window to your left, you’ll noticed how I’ve gone about organizing the “parent” or “top level” architecture of my files. This folder, appropriately, is called “School Work.” Before I’m judged for neurotic archive fever, I was fortunate to find a stack of work that I’d done in middle school, and figured that digitizing it would be fun.

Once the “top level” architecture of your information management system has been established, “children” folders or “sibling” folders, linked either directly underneath the “top level” folders through a coherent system or via alias folders should be created, too.

In this image, you can see that the “child” folders have been arranged chronologically. All of my work for a particular year is included under a particular folder. An obligatory “miscellaneous” folder where as-of-yet uncategorized but still urgent documents sits comfortably under the much more substantial children folders. Once you’ve established the beginnings of a workflow, avoiding information overload becomes substantially easier. Every relevant document goes into a folder, every note pertaining to a class goes into its respective Evernote notebook, and all fleeting notes should be scanned into either/both venues.

Always, always, always, always—I repeat—always, make notes of books and articles that others (especially professors) mention in class or in passing. Catalog these references in Zotero or EndNote. If/when you’ve skimmed the text, make a note (either in Zotero, EndNote, or Evernote) that you’ve done so, including the date of completion, with any relevant observations or highlights. In your first one or two years of graduate school, this practice will serve you extremely well for preparing for preliminary examinations.

In my next piece, I will focus on what life in your 20s and 30s means in academia. This piece will focus on what the problem of “Time Management” can mean in neoliberal institutions.

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