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How do you write and organize research notes?

  1. Jul 30, 2015 #1
    I think this is the best forum to post in, if not, feel free to move it (maybe career guidance?).

    Over the course of my undergrad/grad studies I have found that I never look back at notes that I take. This is almost certainly a problem -- not in that I get all my info from books, but rather that I have trouble collecting information in a useful way. So my questions are twofold:

    (1) What materials do you use to take notes and organize information? Do you use compost books? Binders? Do you have a filing cabinet with related printed publications, or do you read them on an iPad? Do you keep all of your calculations and personal research on paper? How often do you use them?

    (2) How do you actually take your notes to make them useful? Do you separate your practice calculations from your informational notes? Do you avoid making calculations in notes and just highlight the steps, or do you have full-fledged pages of math that you actually review and reflect upon?

    Anything that you find useful in your research may be useful for me :)
  2. jcsd
  3. Jul 30, 2015 #2
    The best recommendation I can give for organization is to write physics/math/research notes in a sketching notebook. With no lines, your diagrams are neater, and it's easier to read. I also have my neatly organized notes front-to-back, then have scratch paper/math/homework back-to-front.

    I do have a friend who numbers her pages for notes and then makes a table of contents. It's very nice, but also takes some time.
  4. Jul 31, 2015 #3


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    Compost books for everything. For class based notes I don't use any calculations. My notes are normally cutouts of the professors handouts mixed with hand written notes that elaborate or clear up a concept. For lit review I do basically the same process, cut outs of papers glued in some kind of order that seems logical to me mixed with my handwritten notes. I don't always use them right away, but I do defer to them at times to remember or relearn something I forgot. Lab/research journals are different. I typically keep the calculations far away from any data, and write down every detail I can think of, no matter how important or seemingly unimportant, in some chronological based format.

    I'm not sure if your note taking is hurting you, the simple act of taking notes seems to help with the retention of information. At least for me. However, in lab journals organization is key-especially in lab journals-lest ethical concerns be raised.
  5. Jul 31, 2015 #4


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    Organize information? Who does that?

    Seriously, I think this is a really great question. I often struggle with keeping things organized myself.

    Some random things that I find help...
    1. I try to keep a specific notepad for each project and just about all my scratch goes onto that notepad. Sometimes I'll used little sticky tabs when I have something that's particularly useful or when I find myself continuously returning to a particular page.
    2. Always write down a the reference for any little point that you record. It's incredibly annoying when you go to write up your work and need to re-find a piece of information that you need to cite.
    3. Write as you go. I tend to start writing papers early. As I figure out what I'm doing, I write down the methods. As I do a literature search, I write out an introduction. This helps me to organize information related to the project in a coherent way and minimizes the amount of time needed to write the work up after the fact.
    4. A habit that I picked up from a colleage is to number things in electronic files. I don't know why this works by if I have seven PDF articles that I've downloaded related to a specific topic and I number them I find it's a lot easeir to remember them - even if the numbering system is chronolgoical in the order they were found.
    5. Lately I've been using OneNote and my new surface as a replacement for pen and paper. It has a lot of advantages, but you never have to wait for a pen an paper to turn on or install updates.
  6. Jul 31, 2015 #5


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    I LaTeX all my class related and research related notes. This makes it much easier to read, organize, and edit as well as distribute; I would highly reccomend using LaTex for notes. It also becomes, at least for me, much more efficient in terms of speed than written notes after getting used to it.
  7. Jul 31, 2015 #6
    And for LaTeXing notes, I highly recommend overleaf, a site where you can edit documents online and share them easily.
  8. Aug 3, 2015 #7
    Thanks for all the great responses. I like the idea of using compost books as subject books, my only issue with them is that they are so small in page size. I tend to use up a lot of pages really quickly. Maybe I'll find a good notebook that I like so I can buy a bunch. I'll give a sketchbook a try, though they generally seem to be expensive.

    Sometimes when solving problems, I find that dividing the paper into two long half-pages helps me to conserve space (like this: [ | ] ). I saw another student do this once, and it seems to really condense derivations/problems into a small enough space that you can review a whole problem with minimal eye movement and page turning. All of this assuming that you can fit your notes/equations on a half page.

    I'm also thinking about setting up a filing cabinet in my room so I can store useful papers, notes, calculations, etc. by subject. I tend to have a lot of interests, so maybe storing my references and learning materials by subject will help me to choose a PhD topic by virtue of what I have the most work done in.

    Thanks for reminding me of this. I think this advice is particularly useful.
  9. Aug 3, 2015 #8
    I haven't looked into this much, but I've been told github is a very useful site for storing, distributing, displaying (as resume link) and updating your work.

    Also, I might as well include this link in the thread. If you're into computational physics, you might find this stack exchange post to be really helpful. It's a shame that the website doesn't allow for helpful discussions (the thread got closed for not being 'on topic', but it still has some great responses).
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