Back in 2009 the day, in a discussion on the recently archived Nature Network, I mentioned that I liked to draft blog posts the old-fashioned way. I wrote that “It is easier to get started with a pen and paper than a blank screen.” Whilst then I was talking about blogging, the same applies when I work. If you do research in the lab, you have your lab book, or increasingly these days your electronic lab book. For a desk-based or computer-based job like my PhD, record-keeping is no less important, although if you are lucky it involves fewer stains.

During my PhD I developed a few systems for keeping everything organised. On the recommendation of a successful PhD student, since my MSc days I have used version control for everything, from software development to the thesis itself. I recommend learning version control to everyone. I used Papers for, erm, papers and backed up my entire computer using Time Machine. This latter saved my bacon on more than one occasion.

Through experience, I concluded that the maxim “one line of comments for every line of code” only seems excessive at the time you are writing it. As a consequence the code I wrote early in my PhD is substantially less readable than the more recent work. But commenting your code, and version control, are no good for the random jottings, the thoughts, and the figuring things out. For that I relied on a series of notebooks, which I carried about like a talisman and made copious notes in.

My PhD in notebooks

My PhD in notebooks

To-do lists

To-do lists To-do listsTo-do lists

As Jenny found, these notebooks are a record of the unspoken PhD. I was, and remain, a fan of the to-do list, even when during the PhD my to-do list looked pitifully similar from one day to the next. Looking back on my notebooks, it is clear that progress is inversely proportional to number of doodles in the margins. Stars were a popular choice of doodle.



Athene wrote earlier this year about the wrench that is Jettisoning One’s Past, an activity often prompted by a physical move – be it moving office, house or job. However, as fast as I can turn my back on old notes and notebooks I acquire new ones. A year into my new job I am already on my third notebook there. And away from work, the boy husband, who knows of my love of notebooks, bought me a wedding-Christmas gift in which to note down those happy memories of our honeymoon and the start of married life.

Married life in notebooks

Married life in notebooks

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2 Responses to Notebooks

  1. cromercrox says:

    I do love that snapshot of your notebook collection. I was given a present for Christmas from a friend who knows that I like to write things – and that I should really write less. It was a Moleskine-style A6 hardbound book on which is written ‘Keep Calm and Take A Break’.