I'm starting my third official semester as a graduate student but there are still a few nuts I haven't cracked yet. I'm starting to wonder if they're worth cracking or if I'm just worrying too much.

What I've been doing

Note-taking strategy. For both reading and classroom lectures, I still have (I think) a shockingly lazy attitude to note-taking. One of the issues is that this curriculum relies more on project-work than tests; I've only had one major test so far in about 6 classes. For the rest, class participation and assignments provide the grade. So notes are best used for specific assignments, as potentially interesting "just-in-case" reminders, or pearls of wisdom. I also note any books or authors the professors recommend.

I've tried mindmaps, Cornell notetaking, blank sketchbooks, and looseleaf. None of them have really done the trick. I was in awe of a fellow student's rigorously maintained class notes using Microsoft OneNote, in which she kept all of her class notes since starting her degree, making them instantly searchable and sensibly organized. She also kept all of her citations in her RefWorks area, so that when it came time to write any paper, she could search through her accumulated references for keywords of interest. Made me feel like a proper novice. After I described her methods, my advisor said, "Hm. She needs to be studied."

(I later learned that this student was a high-scorer on the GRE Quantitative, and that made me feel better. As I was a high-scorer on the Verbal, my brain is just naturally wired differently.)

As with most notetaking, though, I think it's the act of writing things down that is probably more important than the notes themselves. I have had no need to go back to any of my notes. I am, in fact, more likely to keep the course reading list, as they are fantastic compilations of references I could never dig out on my own. And I have, in fact, gone back to them on occasion.

Researching and Writing Papers. I have a paper coming up and don't really know how to attack it. DTSSTCPW? Zotero? Study Hack's simple or complex paper writing strategies? I wrote two big papers last semester, my first real papers since starting the program. For the first one, I used a modified version of the notetaking for research found here (scroll down to the bullet point, "Use a system"). For the second, I used Zotero.

My file management for the first paper was horrible: I'd actually lost track of PDF'd articles I could have used. I had stacks of paper. My notes following the above advice were OK but not great. I also dug myself into a hole by spending a month trying out stuff like CiteULike, looking at research organization programs, and not doing the effing readings. Can you say "wake-up call"? For my second paper, it was all online research that I saved using Zotero, but I missed the ability to move things around and see everything at once, and I continually lost track of web page titles and stuff. So, not much better.

Reading. If there's anything I can do, it's read. The question is, how closely do I need to read. My 752 class last fall had a heavy reading schedule, with the class time really only focusing on one of the articles, or on a particular aspect of the topic. The reading provided the background and context for the lecture. I found that by mainly skimming through and reading the bits of interest to me, essential phrasings or ideas would stick in my mind long enough to make the in-class connections and make my usual over-the-top verbal contributions, and that tended to be enough.

I'd read something and think, damn, I should blog about that. And never did. Also, I had the feeling that I was really skimming the reading and not really connecting the dots. (This was compounded by rough seas at work and a brutal schedule that left only the minimum amount of time to do my required reading.)

One of the advantages of a college education is, as I read somewhere, you have the opportunity to read profligately. I won't be reading this widely and this quickly again. I need to immerse myself in this literature as the whole field is new to me.

What I'll do this time

For my classroom notes, I use a large ruled Moleskine Cahier notebook. I'm not going to worry about following a particular style of notetaking. I'll just write down stuff that I think is interesting, pertinent to an assignment, or memory-worthy. The key will be to review my notes after class, update them with fresh thoughts, and correct my horrible script so I can decode them later.

The trick in keeping up on the readings is to do some reading every day and, if possible, reduce the number of other tasks and distractions that steal the time that the reading requires. I'm going to use the Moleskine notebook to keep my notes on the assigned readings. By doing this, I can write down my own thoughts and opinions, track what I found most interesting, and I can refer to the notes during class discussions. I like the simplicity of keeping the class and reading notes in the same book.

The nice thing about these notebooks is they're lightweight and I can slip them into a folder or envelope after the semester is over, if I want to keep them.

I'm using a simple 1" 3-ring binder with multiple tabs to segregate my syllabi and assignment sheets. I thought I wanted 2 separate small binders for each class, but decided to have one binder and use the tabs. Fewer things I have to remember to carry.

For in-class stuff, I have Pendaflex file jackets for each class to hold the current week's readings and a standard accordion folder into which I dump the previous weeks' readings. At the end of the semester, I'll sort through the accordion folder to see if there's anything worth keeping and then recycle the rest.

I have a short paper coming up soon, and I'm going to go 100% on Cal Newton's simple version of paper research. I'll fire up a Google Doc and start a continuous revision draft as explained in this article by UK coach and author Mark Forster.

Citations are not fun, but if I write them down correctly once in the approved format, then all I have to do is retype them. No big deal.

And what's your goal again?

The overarching goal is to make my academic life (and thus, my larger life) easier to manage so I can accomplish what I need to do without having to think and re-think and second-guess my strategies every damn day. I have task management systems and processes at work to get me through the workday, and I want similar systems that will help me through these new challenges. The aim is to do as little thinking as possible about how I will do these tasks, so I can spend more time thinking about the tasks.

So my sub-goals are to track incoming information, sift and disburse that info to where it'll do the most good, manage multiple projects, and to do so in as relaxed and easy a manner as I can manage.

Michael E Brown @brownstudy