Organisation for PhD Success: Reading & Referencing

A few weeks ago my lovely friend Lyuba sent me a message on WhatsApp: “How do you manage a bucket of readings? Do you use mendeley?” The conversation that ensued after this initial message was a few days of absolute organisational-nerd filled glory. Lyuba has just started her PhD at McMaster University, and she’s not the first relatively new PhD student to ask me for advice on how to organise things.

This post will focus on how I track my academic reading, how I make sure I can find papers months later, and how I reference. Later on I have another post planned that will cover task management and to do lists, but I suspect that’s going to take a little while to pull together, so I’m starting with the easier one first!

Tracking your reading

Reading is a massive part of the PhD process. Throughout my first year and into the early part of my second year I read, probably not as often as I should, but wasn’t particularly good at keeping track of what I’d read or what I thought about the studies. That changed in January when I started the #365papers project. I knew I needed to get more organised with my reading, and this was a surefire way to make it happen.

To track my reading I use a simple Word document; the image below shows part of this year’s document.

The table you can just about make out in the image above, is made up of 4 columns; ‘Date’, ‘Number’, ‘Title, First Author, Link’, and ‘Notes’. The ‘Number’ column refers to the amount of papers I’ve read in that month, so that I can easily look back when putting together my #365papers blog posts. Another thing to note is that the ‘Link’ in the third column is always a hyperlink to a full text of the paper – this makes things much easier than if you accidentally link to an abstract and then have to waste time finding the full text again each time you want to refer to the study.

The ‘Notes’ section is the most important part of this document – in it I write comments about the paper, whether I think it’s useful, comments on the quality of it, what I would change if I did the study myself etc. I also include ‘tags’ in this section – these tags help me to re-find papers weeks after I’ve first read them. Tags I use regularly include; ‘recruitment research’, ‘public engagement’, ‘patient involvement’, ‘methodology’, ‘qualitative research’. These are so incredibly helpful when I want to go back and find the notes I’ve written about papers covering different topics.
In the ‘Notes’ section I also highlight sections of text – you can see the yellow areas in the image above. Again, these help to remind me of papers that I’ve read and know I’ll want to refer back to. Usually the highlighted areas are notes to myself, e.g. ‘useful for thesis introduction’, ‘check if this included in systematic review’, or ‘very clear writing style – refer back to when writing up qualitative findings’.

I’ve used this system since January, and I’ve found it so useful – I’m going to start a new Word document in January and keep the 2017 #365papers document for reference, so I’ll eventually have a big archive of all the papers I’ve read. For me, this is a really easy and simple way to track my reading; I have never used Mendeley because it’s not supported by my University, so if anything went wrong with it I’d freak out and not have anywhere to get help – seriously, the librarians at Aberdeen Medical Library are absolute superheroes, and have helped me tonnes in the past with various things. This brings me neatly on to referencing..


Referencing is my least favourite part of academic writing – I don’t mean the whole finding information and referring to it thing, I mean the painful task of formatting the names of authors, papers, journals etc into a very specific format. What I find particularly infuriating about it is the time that it takes, and the fact that I know that no one reads reference lists with as much effort as it takes to write them.

As you might expect, referencing software is one of my favourite things about academic writing. I use RefWorks. It doesn’t allow me to store entire papers, just the reference for that paper (as far as I know anyway..), hence the big Word document of reading I talked about earlier. What it does have though, is folders. These enable me to make buckets of references that I know I’ll refer to in pieces of writing later on, speeding up the process of referencing whilst writing.

RefWorks is the reference software that Aberdeen University uses, so I’ve used the same account since I started my undergraduate degree – meaning that I can track references back throughout every assessment I’ve submitted for the last 7 years. The major perk of using the system that’s supported by the University is that the librarians know exactly how to do just about anything linked to RefWorks. On the very rare occasion that something goes wrong with RefWorks – it’s happened once in 7 years – the support team there are really good. I emailed the support desk a copy of my undergraduate thesis along with a very panicked email because the referencing just wasn’t working, and it was sent back to me the next day with the references exactly where I wanted them.

If your university doesn’t use RefWorks, check what they do support – and go with that. Lots of PhD students I know don’t use referencing software and honestly, I have no idea how they have got this far without being driven insane by the process. I can’t imagine trying to reference my entire thesis by hand; I’d probably need a 3 month extension and then time off afterwards to recover.


3 thoughts on “Organisation for PhD Success: Reading & Referencing

  1. Chelsea

    Great article! I went through a similar need for reference organization after my first year in graduate school. While looking for reference management software, I found Zotero, which I have thoroughly enjoyed using. You can save papers directly from the article online (using a Chrome plugin) and insert citations and a references list using the add-on in Word. The Zotero Standalone software keeps a copy of the PDF of any open access paper and you can add tags or notes to any reference and link related references. I highly recommend it!


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