Docs, zaps, and rows – starting the #PhD

Been a few years in the making but I’ve started as a part-time PhD student at University of Melbourne researching engagement profiles and learner analytics. Before I get into a study period I like to get set up with a group of tools and a workflow that let me know I’m in study mode, and hopefully aid the process at the same. Embarking on a 6-year project has led me to infer I need a little bit more structure than in my previous studies – for example using reading logs to remember what I’ve read rather than rely on my brain, which I need to keep free for research or ordering coffee.

I had a simple set of criteria for the tools:

  1. Should be cloud-based (or syncable) – I don’t always use the same laptop
  2. Mobile app preferred particularly for notes and ideas which I may have on the go
  3. Free wherever possible
  4. Very little setup or admin.

The first 2 years in my case are a literature review leading up to confirmation so I’ve devised the following workflow across a range of different platforms:

Blank Flowchart - New Page (1)

Overview of tools

Automating some flow

To ease this I implemented a few Zapier zaps to automate a few steps on the project management side (indicated with the yellow numbering):

  1. When a new database search record is added this creates a Trello card in “Done” column
  2. When a new reading log is added this creates a Trello card in the “In progress” column
  3. When a new document is created in the “Ideas” folder of Google Drive the idea appears as a Trello card in the “Backlog” column

These reminds what I’m up to, to pick up ideas later, and allows me to add time to the card so I can keep track on whether I’m using my 20 hours a week productively.

Manual steps

Some manual steps I need to include to maintain the flow are:

  • creating a Google Doc with a new reading and linking to Airtable record (copy & paste) – this will then automate to Trello
  • move Google Keep ideas to a Google Drive folder for them if they are ready
  • maintaining Mendeley – there are some quirks with duplicates and auto-detection of PDFs
  • managing other tasks in Trello

Project Management – using Trello

For Trello I have set up columns similar to an AGILE workflow with a “backlog” for ideas I may follow up, a “to do” list of tasks I need to do, and then “in progress”, “done” and “submitted” in case I am waiting on feedback. I have a final column for ongoing tasks against which I need to log time but they don’t transition. I don’t maintain a full list of readings but rather use the automated Zapier scripts above to add cards when I log new activity.

PhD Trello


Literature Management – Airtable & Mendeley

For Airtable I use two key tables recommended from a consultation with the librarian. The first logs searches that I will use when working with databases to avoid repeating searches and to help narrow down the field during the later stage of literature review. The second is a reading log which I use to map reading to my initial frameworks, for example which of the research themes and areas of engagement does the literature address. I have a third table to keep track of methodologies and analytic techniques which I can map to readings. Other tables are used for referential data to populate fields in the main tables.

PhD Literature Review



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