Ph.D. Project Management Hacking

By Rebecca Fleeman

Do you ever feel overwhelmed with the myriad of projects, to do’s, and random thoughts floating around in your head? As graduate students, we often feel like circus performers, spinning plates on several rods all at once. We are constantly balancing our time and efforts between experiments, meetings, studying, communicating, applying for fellowships, and planning our futures. One of the many under-appreciated skills gained in a Ph.D. is project management. We have to be able to switch gears seamlessly from one task to the next, keep a manageable schedule, and maintain a lab notebook of everything we do.


Figure 1. PhD student trying to balance everything in life, school, and lab all at once. Photo credit: Rebecca Fleeman

This overwhelming task of project management intensifies in difficulty when we do not have a central application for keeping all of our notes and tasks. Most students use a number of resources to help them plan. When you add up Outlook, Google Calendar, Slack, Word, Excel, Google Drive, Notes, Box, Drop Box, OneNote, your lab notebook, the million scraps of paper you have scattered around the lab and your home, and more, it adds up to a mess. When our work is a mess, it is nearly inevitable that our brains will start to feel scattered in a similar way, leading to exhaustion from simply trying to keep things organized.

A year into graduate school, I began to feel the weight of this disorganization and was desperate for a way to integrate my thoughts. Enter Notion. Notion is a FREE all-in-one workspace. Great for project and task management, Notion allows you to keep track of both lab and personal life. Once you create your relational databases, you can simply wait for to do lists to roll in and let you know what to do as you cruise on autopilot.


Figure 2. PhD student trying to balance everything in life, school, and lab all at once. Photo credit: Notion (

Figure 2 shows an example of what a page in Notion might look like on your desktop or phone. The reason Notion is superior to other task management apps, is its ability to have what are called “relational databases”. Picture an excel spreadsheet of all the papers you have read. You have a column for title, author, year, journal, and notes. What do you notice? The notes sometimes get carried away in one column. Maybe you add another note column of “important experiments”. Then you feel the need to add another column of “key findings”. Then some of your rows are huge, six-line long descriptions, while others are a single word. Your database begins to become disorganized and unreadable. Now, what if we had a relational database? Here, you could create an Excel-type spreadsheet, but instead of having a miscellaneous “notes” column, the row line for the paper is clickable. Clicking that row will take you to a page on all your notes from that article. Not only that, within that page, you can link it to similar articles! Notion allows you to create roadmaps and connections that enable you to better recall and comprehend important information.

As a to do list app, Notion also is kicking butt and taking names over apps like Microsoft To Do, Wunderlist, Todo-ist, Evernote and Google Keep. You can create another Excel-type database, but then, Notion allows you to view the information in a board, gallery, list, calendar, or table. This feature can help make your daily tasks more understandable when you have categories of tasks. For example, I categorize my tasks by mice, cells, general lab, personal, and extracurricular (Figure 3). In my main database for tasks, I put due dates and categories for each task. That way, each morning, I just have to open my home page called “Rebecca’s Master Workspace” and Notion fills my board with my categorized to do’s for that day only (Today Tasks) and also for tomorrow only (Tomorrow Tasks dropdown [hidden]). You can see the arrow to Tasks in the top left of the board. That shows that this is a relational database to my main Tasks page.

LTS notion

Figure 3. Screen shot of what an example Notion Home Page can look like. Photo Credit: Rebecca Fleeman’s Notion

My final favorite feature of Notion is that it is so customizable and creative. You can see that my home page has rainbow colors, a confetti background, and a brain icon. All of these are custom that I chose. Waking up each morning to this home page makes me excited to start the day and check things off my to do list. I often use the cover photo option when I write notes on a paper I just read so that when I open my notes, I see a key figure of the paper and it reminds me of the findings I read. If you like things simple and greyscale, there is always that default. However, for those who are constantly doodling in notebooks, Notion is a perfect transition to organization with all of the custom options for page colors and images.

Without going into too much more detail, Notion has many other features that make it ideal for being your all-in-one app. I track all of my workouts, update my recipe box, keep a database of all my networking contacts, have calendars set, maintain my thesis literature review, as well as track all of my meeting notes in the app. It is great for brainstorming work, school, and personal projects as well as for understanding each category of tasks you need to complete in a project.

There are many apps out there for getting and staying organized, but I think Notion is particularly great for Ph.D. students. Because of how this app has changed my life, I wanted to tell others about it. I believe I will be a lifelong user of Notion as it will be a great platform for me to transition into post-graduate life and stay on top of my career. If anyone is looking for how to get started using the app, some great resources are YouTube Channels including Thomas Frank, Ali Abdaal, Marie Poulin, and Notion’s Official YouTube channel. Happy project management hacking!


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