Surviving the First Year of your PhD: Tips & Tools to Stay Organized and Productive!

By Victoria K. Malaney, University of Massachusetts Amherst

Starting a doctoral program can be exciting, nerve-wracking, and at times intimidating. It is natural to have feelings of self-doubt particularly in your first semester of coursework. Remember you were accepted and selected for a reason to your doctoral program and you deserve to be here right now during this point in your life. Whether you hold these roles: full-time student, part-time employee, full-time parent, full-time employee, or part-time student it is no easy feat to be a doctoral student. Only about 11% of Americans earn a Master’s degree with even less that continue on to achieve a doctoral degree. No matter if you’re transitioning into a doctoral program after 6 years of time or you recently completed a master’s degree it is very important to give yourself time to figure out your transition to doctoral coursework.

Furthermore, in order to get to the through your first year in your doctoral program it will be vital that you figure out which methods for organization and productivity will be the most effective for you. I have thought about the tips and tools that I continue to use as a full-time doctoral student. By no means what I’m offering in this blog post are the only techniques for staying organized and productive, but having some type of method particularly for the organization of readings and citation management is necessary. The earlier you start the easier it will be to manage all of the readings you’ll digest.

Whether you’re great at APA or a novice, have no fear—being patient and knowing which tools to try and then picking one to use will be life-changing. To begin I will discuss options for choosing your citation management software, followed by note taking, and planning tips for productivity.

Tip #1: Selecting a Citation Management Software

When it comes to choosing a citation management software there are couple of considerations to take into account:

  1. Cost
  2. Space
  3. User friendliness
  4. Creating references lists for research papers

Tool #1

While are many management programs to use which are highly recommended such as RefWorks, Zotero and EndNote, I found the best fit for me was using Mendeley. I was introduced to Mendeley as a second-year master’s student by an English doctoral student at Teachers College, Columbia University. What appealed to me the most with Mendeley was that I use the app that I downloaded on my smartphone (to read on-the-go) and the additional download for my computer was so easy to use! Mendeley also has an internet browser extension that can automatically save articles you find online via Google Scholar, from library research journals, or any article online. Below is a screenshot of my Mendeley desktop with folders on the left column of the courses I’ve taken and I even have a separate folder to organize a literature review that I am working on! Once you upload your PDF documents into Mendeley the software tries to recognize the author’s information. You can also adjust this information by selecting whether you are reading a journal article, report, book chapter and many more!

MendelayExample of a Mendeley Desktop

By having your articles and readings organized in your citation management software the task of creating a reference list is no longer a chore, and with a simple click you can format all of your citations and copy and paste the references according to APA style into your research paper.

Tip # 2: Note-Taking

Depending on your learning style or ability, using a system for note-taking is a personal choice and one that definitely will depend on your own preferences. There are quite a few options for technological apps for note-taking such as Scrivener, Microsoft One Note, and Evernote. If you are a pen to paper person and enjoy writing in a notebook, consider writing with a smart pen or stylus to easily search your notes. Either way figure out which type of note-taking style is the best fit for you.

Tool #2

When it came time for me to decide my note-taking approach during my first year of my program, I decided to use Evernote for many reasons:

  1. It’s very eco-friendly (and it is a plus for me to not have to schlep binders or additional notebooks, which was exciting).
  2. It has a searchable or tag function to easily find quotes, thoughts, or links to content saved.
  3. If you’re an audio-learner there is an option to record lectures that can be linked to the notes you take! See this video or even dictation.
  4. It is very user-friendly since it has a smartphone app, desktop computer app, and is always accessible to you whether you are connected to Internet either online for offline.
  5. Free to low cost options for students for its service/space options.
  6. The app has a camera function which has come in handy for taking pictures of the whiteboard from class or even drawing out conceptual frameworks.

Electronic notebookI have set up my electronic notebooks by class title and during each week’s class I start a new note. I also have used Evernote to outline my papers or keep important quotes. I have found that using Evernote has been super helpful for me in finding notes and ideas that I’ve quickly jotted down. And since it is continually syncing online, your work is always saved, which gives me peace of mind. As I mentioned, note-taking is all related to your personal preferences and I have found it easy to transition to using Evernote each day while working on projects and papers.

Tip #3: Productivity

Lastly, my final tip surrounds productivity and for me the word productivity is a relative term. However, when I think of productivity as a Higher Education doctoral student, I think of it in terms of daily goals, weekly goals, monthly goals and yearly goals. If all of those goals I just mentioned are overwhelming just think of it as tasks that need to be completed. When it comes to accomplishing goals/task (i.e., writing a paper, researching sources, studying for statistics) I am someone who enjoys writing up lists.

Tool #3

While I have just demonstrated why I use Mendeley and Evernote, I actually use a planner to write down due dates and keep track of my to-do lists. I prefer to use the Moleskine Weekly Planner and what is nice is that the planner comes in different colors, can be personalized, and it has stickers!


I enjoy that I can write up my daily tasks, along with having the space to write weekly and/or monthly tasks. Just take a look at all of the space you have to write down and arrange tasks. If you get the Moleskine Evernote enabled planner or notebooks they can work well with note-saving, planning, and productivity as well.

In sum, I hope you found my tips and tools helpful and keep them in mind as ideas to consider. By utilizing these three tips and tools, I have found it much easier to successfully complete my first year and easily transition into my second year of coursework.

Best of luck as you embark on your PhD journey! Questions? Tweet Me @vmalaney1

Victoria K. Malaney is a second-year Ph.D. student in the department of Educational Policy, Research and Administration focusing on Higher Education in the College of Education at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. Victoria’s research interests focus on multiracial college students, intergroup dialogue, race, and student activism. Victoria is a research assistant in the Center for Student Success Research and is a member of Dr. Chrystal George Mwangi’s research team focusing on understanding the racialized experiences of Foreign-Born Black Collegians. She also works in the Dean of Students Office on the Student Life team as a Special Assistant to the Deans advocating for and connecting undergraduates to University resources. Prior to graduate school, for two years Victoria was an AmeriCorps VISTA and VISTA Leader. She also worked at her alma mater, Skidmore College in the Office of Student Diversity Programs. Presently, Victoria is the Chair of the American College Personnel Association’s the Multiracial Network (MRN).


Getting Started with Mendeley. (2014, April 3). Retrieved from

Evernote (2016). Students. Retrieved from

Evernote audio features. (2016). Retrieved from

Mendeley. (2016). Retrieved from

Moleskine. (2016). 18th Month Weekly Planner. Retrieved from



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