Long-term Organizational Tools for Scientists

by Meghan Barrett



Little fish, when organized, scare away the larger predator. Public domain.


A big part of a student’s daily work is organizing their professional life – deciding on project priorities, keeping track of resources, mapping out long-term research plans, and setting appropriate goals. But, as a friend of mine recently pointed out, little in our training prepares us for this critical, but difficult and unintuitive, task. Organizing our professional life can be scary (like a big fish!) but if we focus on putting together all the little moving parts, eventually we can chase away that fear.

Below, I describe tools and share resources and advice related to long-term organization that I’ve picked up in my first three years of grad school. I’ll be following this up with a second post on tools/resources related to short-term (daily/weekly task) organization.

Feel free to add your own tools, resources, and advice as a follow-up post or on Twitter, as this list is in no way exhaustive!

  1. Keeping track of your many, many projects:

One of the biggest things I struggle with is managing multiple projects with different collaborators. Now, what was I supposed to do next? Who am I even working with on this, again? I’d like to refer you to the ‘project planning summary spreadsheet’ shared by Dr. Kevin R Burgio (@KRBurgio) here.

In a nutshell, this at-a-glance spreadsheet keeps track of the status of each project, who you are working with, if the project is waiting on you or someone else to move forward, and any additional notes you want to make (like the funding status of submitted applications). I put the file names (or page numbers, for non-digital folk) of any lab meeting notes in this document, so I can easily navigate to them later.

This spreadsheet also allows me to keep track of new ideas/collaborations – if I talk to someone at a conference and want to remember the idea for later, I throw it on the bottom of my spreadsheet with a brief outline of the idea and the name of the conference.

Personally, I pair this spreadsheet with a notebook where I summarize the details of a research project’s progression whenever I put it down to work on something else or go to the field – this way, I can easily see where I left off (halfway through fixing a finicky methodological issue and can’t remember what I’ve already tried? It’s all there, in brief).

  1. Defining long term priorities:

To know how to meet our life goals, first we must define them. I highly recommend the book “The Professor is In” by Karen Kelsky (@ProfessorIsIn; see her blog here) for academic-leaning folk and the blog “From PhD to Life” by Jennifer Polk (@FromPhDtoLife) for alt-ac leaning folk. At first, I thought I wouldn’t need to read these until I was actually looking for a job – but a mentor advised me to pick them up ASAP. These guides can help you see all your professional options and prepare your CV so you are as marketable as possible for the positions you want down the line. Don’t wait until it’s too late to change your CV to learn how to cultivate the professional image you need!

Ultimately, defining your life goals is personal (and if you feel adrift, it can help to talk it out with your peers, your mentors, and/or a professional) – but once you decide your plans A, B, and C, it’s critical that you research what qualifications those jobs are actually looking for (and what successful candidates did to meet the qualifications). You can try any number of academic job boards, like or Model your CV and your priorities to match what jobs want to see from their candidates. You may even try contacting local universities or companies (or friends of yourself/your PI/your undergrad institution!) to look over your CV and give you feedback on where you’re doing well and where you can improve to get the job you’re looking for. It never hurts to ask.

Finally, a piece of (very paraphrased) wisdom I received from Dr. Lauren Ponisio (@lcponisio) when she was a visiting seminar speaker during my first year of graduate school: if you want to go into academia, make sure your research tells a compelling story. This was valuable advice for me because I’m always getting distracted by shiny new research objects since EVERYTHING IS SO INTERESTING (know the feeling?).

Write down your main research story as one sentence at the beginning of your planner/notebook or on an index card that sits on your desk. When you’re deciding what to pursue, look at your one sentence ‘story’ and see if this new thing fits. If not, you should at least consider saying “no thanks”.

  1. Prepare for future challenges:

Other resources I’ve found helpful are ‘Career Advice for Life Scientists’ Volumes 1-3 and ‘The Adjunct Underclass’ by Herb Childress. Reading about what I’ll need to know when I get where I hope to be has helped me figure out what skills I should be practicing and acquiring now to meet the challenges I’ll face in the future. These books, among others, conversations you have with your mentors, and reading the words of other professional scientists as they discuss the issues faced in their field, can all help you see what you’ll be up against when you get to the ‘next level’, so you can start preparing now. Don’t be afraid to ask about what’s waiting for you at the next step so you can make an informed decision about if you even want to take it.

  1. Mapping out your long-term goals:

There are two strategies I know for organizing to reach your long term goals:

  1. Dr. Kelsky’s 5 Year Plan – this at-a-glance document helps structure your big picture tasks at the yearly level. You can read about it and see an example here and here. Like your ‘research story’ this is a great thing to print out and tape above your desk at work; when reviewing new ideas, ask yourself where/if they fit in (or how they’ll impact) your five year plan. The best part of the five year plan is that it’s short, so it doesn’t feel overwhelming to generate – and it’s easy to change, like a flexible career path should be!
  2. Individual Development Plans – One thing the IDP does really well, that the five year plan does not, is make you focus on your skill development explicitly, and your strengths and weaknesses. Instead of being concerned with tasks and ‘CV lines’, IDPs are about personal/professional growth and can be particularly impactful if made and reviewed with the help of a mentor.

I recommend sharing these documents with your advisor if you feel comfortable (or with another mentor you trust if not) to get their perspective on if these goals are achievable and will put you on the best path to success. Both of these documents are only useful if you keep looking at them and revising them.

  1. Organizing your papers + automatically generating citations:

Now where did I put that paper I read last April… I don’t remember the title or the first author, but I really need for this grant I’m writing? I imagine this problem only gets worse the longer you’re in science. We need better ways to organize our PDFs over the long haul than the downloads folder on our computer, with 36-character indecipherable file names.

I wasn’t made aware of tools for organizing your PDFs/literature (and automatically generating citations at the end of your papers!) until late in undergrad – but wow are these tools helpful for PhDs reading hundreds of papers a year. You can tag with your own keywords to help you search your library, organize by project, share with others, generate citations automatically in Word (really helpful when you switch where you’re sending your manuscript and they require a different citation format), and more. Plus, they’re often free and always a huge time-saver. Check out: Mendeley, EndNote, Zotero, and more.

Bonus – organize your Mendeley/EndNote/File Storage System using the same headers/tags as the project names in your spreadsheet from #1 so you can always find the literature you need. With both file storage and project planning, being organized earlier than necessary helps – i.e., start this when you have only one project and you’ll be glad to just add on instead of trying to remember all the details after you’ve become overwhelmed.

  1. Reminders for Upcoming Deadlines:

One of the toughest things for me is remembering one-off, annual deadlines (committee meeting, conference abstract, grant deadline) in the midst of the mayhem. Of course, I always remember when I’m at the conference this year – but remembering to reapply next year is tricky! Well, why not set up something now, to help you remember later?

Kelsky’s five year plan document is good for this because you can see what you applied for at this time last year at a glance. Something I use in tandem with that document is Google Calendar updates. I set the reminder for one month before the current conference deadline (two months before the current grant deadline), and have it read “Look at application for XYZ Conference”. This automatically reminds me of this upcoming deadline, sparking me to look online for further information  and put the task on my to do lists. You can use these reminders for any regularly scheduled task at any timescale, freeing up mental energy for other things.

My next post will follow up on this with more tools and resources for short term time management now that we’ve tackled some of the big picture stuff. Please, please share your tactics and resources with us on Twitter!

Author Biography: Meghan Barrett is a graduate candidate earning her PhD in Biology and her MS in STEM Education. She studies insect neuroanatomy at Drexel University and enjoys a brief spot of science communication on Twitter, @Bee_Bytes, and on her website. She is a member of the editorial board for Rapid Ecology.

3 replies »

  1. I can’t believe how helpful this post will be for me! I’ll start my PhD in september and I’m trygin to organise everything before so I won’t panick! Thank you so much for sharing !