Getting through a PhD program...


Hi there! First post here…

I was diagnosed with ADHD in Oct 2017 (at age 49) because I went back to school for a PhD in Special Education. I was having trouble getting through the massive amount of reading (and assaulting my system with way too much coffee!) and I figured it was time to find out if medication could help. After diagnosis, of course, my whole academic and work life made complete sense-- I finally understood why some aspects of school (like semester-long science projects) were really hard even though (I thought) they should have been easy. I was told I’ve got “a lot of great behavioral strategies” and I started taking Vyvanse.

Fast forward to today: I’m almost finished my coursework and am putting together my portfolio (the step in lieu of comp exams in my program). Next up is writing a dissertation proposal (holy cow!!). At this point I’m facing a double challenge being a brain from an older generation… Because the internet and lots of cool technology came along after I finished college, I’m not as tech savvy as other students. And my same-age peers (who are mostly professors now) used index cards, photocopies and filing cabinets to organize their own dissertation research! I need to find a way to organize data and ideas that makes sense to me (I’m very visual and still prefer taking notes in a spiral bound notebook) but that uses technology in a smart way to capture all the details and connections I need to do my research. I know about Mendeley and Zotero, and have ATLAS.ti installed on my laptop. I just don’t really know how to get the most out of these.

(And believe me, if this weren’t a labor of love-- my son has autism and I’m doing qualitative research on special ed teacher retention-- I would be quite content not to put myself through the stress of a doctoral program. But here we are…)

So what technology do you find helpful for organizing big projects?
Do you have go-to resources for learning said technology? (a book, a YouTube channel, etc.)
Anyone in grad school have good tips for managing research data?

Thank you for being here-- I’m so grateful!

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I used Mendeley, but to limited effect. It had way too many buttons, gadgets, and functions I didn’t need, amd finding what I wanted wasn’t easy. Couldn’t even get the reference export to text documents working properly (possibly for using Open Office, some format issue, but Word didn’t work great either), so ended up doing it manually. But I think using a whiteboard to organize things, using post-it’s and magnets helped a bit. When I could take a step back and look at the big picture, it helped tie things together for me.

If you can, try booking a room with a magnetic whiteboard for a few hours, then organize things there, take photos, work on that. Once that’s done, move on to the next part needing organization, get a room again, repeat.:sweat_smile:

Helped keep a visual red thread for me, and rarely ever needed the photos or post-it notes, since once it was in my head visually, it stuck. Still good to keep for reference, though, just in case you accidentally go down a rabbit hole of source research and forget where you were when you reappear, your brain going ‘oh, right… I was working on WRITING something before’…:sweat_smile:



I recommend videos by Nicholas Cifuentes-Goodbody on Zotero as well as on taking notes and tips if preparing large writing projects, on Bette bibTeX etc. lot of good stuff there. For my own researchy notes as well as to get more out of reading I am using GoodNotes (writing things down in my own words helps retain more) + looking at using Mac based apps such as markdown editors or plugins that help with outlining. People are using apps like Evernote or DevonThink for marshaling all their data, adding relevant tags and cross links etc. but I haven’t used them. I tend to just use plain text files using markdown format.



If paper and pen turn out to be your thing, that can work too.

Marodir’s idea of magnetic boards is cool, and another one I have only used small scale apparently did work for a PhD student:

Make a grid with the resource you read named in the left hand column, and on the right, which of your subquestions/themes it relates to (in columns). In the box for the relevant column(s) you can put key words as reminders a to why this resource was useful or relevant.

For a small project, A4 paper is fine, but for a PhD you may want to use a mega roll of paper like they have in school art rooms, or tape big pieces together or something.

You can still use the digital resources for storing more detailed notes, and in any case I would highly recommend entering each resource in a referencing system as you go. I just use the one that comes embedded in Microsoft Word, as it supports APA style referencing (among others) and that’s what my university requires us to use. But I am just a masters student and have not yet had to do anything with more than 30 to 50 resources.

The crucial thing is that you need to find and use a system that supports your thinking, not confuses you or saps your energy. A digital database can do a lot, but my advice would be to keep an eye on the effort required to tame each function, compared with the benefits it would bring you. There is nothing to stop you mixing digital and hard copy methods.

Good luck with it all!



I’d also recommend in every box write down the page numbers for the things you’ve marked as useful quotes, etc… It’s a nightmare trying to find the right page later…:sweat_smile::stuck_out_tongue_closed_eyes:

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I don’t have any advice but I’ve been really nervous about attempting college (in a STEM field no less) and seeing someone going for a PHD is really cool and encouraging.

People keep treating me like I’m crazy to attempt something so difficult for me, like I’m doing something wrong. It’s good to see I’m not alone!

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I don’t think you’re crazy to go for a challenge, and have got pretty annoyed in the past when people have reacted towards me like that (which is… often!)

I still don’t know if i would ever go for a PhD. I am doing a Masters at the moment and still love the idea of doing a pure subject-based masters (this one is in Education, so by subject-based i mean English literature and or language, prob combined). But at the same time I feel like I should learn to produce work without needing to stay up all night.

I don’t know, right now I am having doubts about ever being able to do the grown-up thing and just work, without messing up or getting bored.

I just missed a deadline after all, even though it really felt like this was going to be the one I would be a week ahead of :flushed: (what on earth was I thinking? From always being late to being early, how was that really ever likely? Sigh…)

And today I am only just in time for work, and guess what, I was planning on leaving early. Maybe it’s time I took a stop-the world day? Take time to take stock? Sorry, rambling now. What was this thread meant to be about? :woman_facepalming:

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