Lessons Learned from My Master’s, Part 1: Organizing Big Research Projects

One of the big reasons I wanted to complete a Master’s program rather than embarking on a Ph.D. immediately after my undergraduate studies was to get a handle on managing big projects. Everything in an undergraduate program is necessarily limited in scope to either one or two terms, and you don’t have to be particularly organized to get through that amount of time.

At Memorial, the thesis-based M.Sc. is 2 years long, which appealed to me because of the extra time available to get into the nitty gritty of a more in-depth in a research project.

Now that the project is wrapped up, my thesis is completed, and I’m writing the final manuscripts for publication with my committee, I’ve decided to sit down and write up a few things I think are very important!

  1. Keep your hard drive organized.

    Decide on an organizational sturcture for your data files, set it up, and revise it as often as necessary. Don’t have a place to put a file? Now’s the time to take 5 minutes and figure out why, and where it’s home should be. Indexing drives is great, but good organization is better.

  2. Start tracking your standards right away.

    You know later on you’re going to have to report on accuracy and precision, so when you get your data back, start a spreadsheet keeping track of just the standards (name, value, and date they were run) for each analytical method you use. Checking individual runs for quality is good, but having a file like that helps you monitor how the equipment is doing over time as well, so you’re getting more out of it!

  3. Choose good referencing software.

    I used Endnote X3 for my M.Sc., but found that it lacks some functionality that can really help dealing with large projects: namely the ability to highlight and annotate .PDF files. I prefer to read my papers online as it saves paper and makes my library much more portable. However, I’ve found this makes it challenging to keep my thoughts on each paper visible. I’m left with choosing either to append text files to each paper entry in Endnote, or just having a folder filled with notes on papers, neither of which are really satisfactory. Later versions of Endnote now have editing functionality, and Papers (now available for Windows) looks like a great option too.

That’s it for now. Stay tuned for another installment of reflections on my M.Sc. experience.

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