Keeping a lab diary as a theorist

During the first two years of my PhD, I made a lot of mistakes. There’s nothing wrong with that at all: it’s the nature of research and part of the way we learn. The problems start when you keep making the same mistakes again and again… and again.

I fell into this problem particularly when it came to programming. I’d successfully debug a piece of code, but when I got the same error a month later, I couldn’t remember what I’d done to fix it, and so had to waste time debugging it again. Similarly, I would read a paper and make some notes on it, but didn’t keep any record of which papers I’d read or where the notes were, meaning that I’d spend hours looking through my myriad notebooks trying to find the one or two scribbled sentences I knew contained the answer to my current problem. Worst of all, I’d leave the office in the evening and by the time I arrived the next morning, I’d have lost track of what I was working on, getting sucked into emails and side projects instead of getting right back to work on my main task.

Fortunately, a friend of mine had the solution. I’d seen him assiduously writing down everything he’d done during the day in a LaTeX document, thereby avoiding all the problems I described above. Around the start of my third year, I decided to do the same.

I started on paper first, but quickly realised that the scope of what I really wanted to do — essentially create my own version of Wikipedia for my PhD — would best be achieved on the computer. That’s when I switched to using Notion, a truly fantastic tool that I would recommend everyone try. It takes some time investment to use it to its full potential, but I think it’s worth it.

I use Notion for all my to do lists, I have separate pages for each of the projects I’m working on, and most importantly, I have work diaries for each of the projects. As I go through the day, I type bullet pointed notes to myself, so that two weeks or two years down the line I’ll know exactly what I did and why. I also have a separate page for miscellaneous notes, where I write up short definitions or explanations of things I read in papers but don’t understand. I can then refer back to these notes if I come across those terms again.

My Notion home page, containing my to do lists.

Another thing I really like about Notion is the emojis. I like assigning an emoji theme to a project, as you can see in the image below. For example, the distance duality project has a fish theme, as we were originally planning to do some Fisher forecasts.

My project area in Notion.

You can also insert LaTeX equations, code snippets, dates, tables, databases — pretty much anything you can think of into any page. It’s really versatile and basically just fun to use. Best of all, it’s free if you’re a student.

My own personal Wikipedia.

Keeping my work diary has undoubtedly changed the final year of my PhD for the better. I’ve saved a huge amount of time and eliminated the stress induced by my forgetfulness when it comes to programming and reading. The benefit of using a web-based tool was driven home to me when I visited the office to clear out my desk. I couldn’t believe the amount of paper notes I’d generated over roughly two and a half years of PhD. I had filled six A5 notebooks, one A4 notebook, one ring binder and one folder with notes, plus had some notes in a further three A5 notebooks and four A4 notebooks. That amount is probably more than doubled if I include all the scrap paper and scratch notes I’ve thrown away in the same time.

It’s physically impossible to carry around that much paper from job to job, so I’m glad to have transitioned to a virtual note-taking space before I accumulated any more. Of course, I still use pen and paper for calculations and the occasional random note to myself, but 90% of all my thoughts and notes now go into Notion.

Finally, let me say that this is not a paid promotion by Notion! I just really enjoy their product, and think it would be difficult to achieve the same thing with any other web-based service like Google Docs or Overleaf.

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