Take Note: Building Your Note-Taking Skills!

Have you ever looked back at work from years ago and wondered what “past you” was doing? Or read old code and spent hours trying to figure out what lines and lines of functions without comments are supposed to do? These experiences are sadly very common and can be both frustrating and time consuming to work through. But they can be avoided! This guide reviews why it’s important to stay organized, especially when conducting research, and highlights different tools to aid you in the note-taking process.

The Importance of Staying Organized in Research

One of the most fundamental pillars of scientific research is reproducibility – the idea that any scientific research can be redone with the same data and the same results can be achieved. Reproducibility is so fundamental that the National Academies wrote a report on reproducibility and replicability in science in 2019, including how we can improve these efforts throughout many fields. Reproducibility hinges on accurate documentation and sharing of your findings, but often, months or years pass between the initial design of a scientific experiment and the writing of a publication. And then, a month or two can pass between submission of a paper and the peer-review process. Without proper notes taken during all stages, it’s easy to make mistakes or lose many hours struggling to figure out what you did months or years ago. Keeping a complete and detailed record of your research steps is therefore vital to making science reproducible and has the added bonus of making your life easier down the road.

What Sorts of Things Should I Be Documenting?

Taking notes on your research progress may seem daunting. What should you include? And how much detail should you go into? Here are some examples of steps worth documenting:

  • Say you go on an observing run, and you observe various objects throughout the night. What time did you observe each object? How high in the sky was each object when you looked at it? What instrument was used? Where are the calibrations stored? All of this information should go in your observing log, which will help you greatly when you go to reduce your data!
  • You’re running code, and you find a bug. This bug looks familiar; you’ve seen this before! But how did you fix it…? It can be really difficult to remember the resolution, but if you documented the error and what you did to fix it, you won’t have to spend time scouring StackOverflow again! This tip was one I’ve learned the hard way, by struggling with the same bugs a couple of times before realizing I needed to keep a log of what I did to solve them. 
  • Going from raw data to science products you do analysis with is a very early part of the scientific process, but you’ll need to describe this process months or even years down the line when you write up your results. So it’s good to document the steps you took! 
  • How your code works! Trust me, “future you” and anyone else who uses this code in the future will thank you. This Astrobite has some great information about documenting your code (as well as other tips for writing better code).

These are just a few examples of the sorts of things you can be taking notes on while doing research. In reality, just about every step of the research process has steps you should document. 

Different Tools for Note-Taking 

So, now you’ve decided that you want to improve your note-taking skills, yay! But how will you do it? This depends on how you work best! Below are a few examples of different tools that you can use to organize your notes.

  1. Good ‘ol physical (or digital) notebooks (why reinvent the wheel, right?)

Examples: Notebooks, Overleaf, Google Docs

Back in the day, I took all of my research notes with physical pen and paper. I filled notebooks with meeting notes, scratch math, to-do lists. But, when I started grad school, I went to look back at an old project and struggled to find the notes I knew existed somewhere in the depths of those notebooks. While I loved physically writing my notes, the inability to Ctrl+F my physical notebooks is what led me to move to other note-taking styles. 

Luckily, computers are built to do just that! Digital notebooks, kept in various forms, are searchable and allow you to copy blocks of code, website links, and figures directly into your notebook. Two popular ways to organize your digital notebooks include Google Docs and Overleaf (if you want LaTeX based documentation). These tools are easy to share with collaborators and even include version control (i.e. you can look back at the history of the changes to these notebooks). 

  1. Freeform note-taking apps with tablet integration

Examples: Notability, GoodNotes, OneNote by Microsoft OneDrive, or similar apps for iPads and tablets

Love the feeling of handwriting notes, but still want that searchable notebook? Today, there are many tablet-based apps that allow you to do just that! Both Notability and GoodNotes, two popular apps for note-taking on iPads and other tablets, have the ability to search your handwriting! Both apps offer a free version, but unlimited notes require a fee–for Notability this is now a yearly subscription fee, whereas for GoodNotes there’s a one-time fee to use the app. Another option is OneNote, which is part of the Microsoft OneDrive suite of apps and likely included in your university’s OneDrive license, if it has one. OneNote is both designed for tablet and computer integration, allowing you to both physically write and type your notes in various notebooks. Another important feature of OneNote is its collaborative nature, allowing you to have joint notebooks with other coworkers.

  1. Computer-based note-taking apps

Examples: Notion (my personal favorite!), Obsidian, Evernote

The last class of note-taking tools I want to highlight are digital note-taking apps. These are primarily apps for typed notes, and many go beyond being simple notebooks by allowing you to integrate other sorts of productivity products directly into them (e.g. adding due dates and calendars, embedding a Google Doc into a notebook, etc.). Like the tablet-based apps, each of these apps has their own strengths and weaknesses. Obsidian, for example, is a markdown editor (with easy inline LaTeX!) that allows you to see an interwoven web of your research projects with tags and connections between projects. Notion, on the other hand, is a more structured platform, with many built in templates for managing projects and keeping to-do lists, as well as support for collaborative notebooks and projects. Another great thing about these apps is that their free versions are quite good, although some institutions do offer free education plans with additional tools. Personally, I love the ease of organization that these apps allow and have recently moved my research notebooks and to-do lists to Notion.

If you want to get started with these apps, I’d recommend reading through some of these nice introduction blogs: Notion, Obsidian, Evernote.

Customize It – Do What Works for You!

Ultimately, how you choose to take notes is an inherently personal choice, and what works for your friends and coworkers, may not work for you! My friends and I all use different note-taking methods, including many of the tools listed above. Your note-taking and organizational habits will also likely change with time (mine did!), but no matter what you decide to start doing now, taking good notes will help you succeed in whatever career you choose. “Future you” will be so happy you started getting organized today!

Astrobite edited by Sahil Hegde 

Featured Image Credit: Tirachard Kumtanom (Pexels)

About Megan Masterson

I'm a 4th year PhD student at MIT studying transient accretion events around supermassive black holes, including tidal disruption events and changing-look AGN. I primarily use multi-wavelength observations to study from the inner accretion flow to the obscuring material in these transients. In my free time, you'll find me hiking, reading, and watching women's soccer.

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  1. I think the best way to take notes in the classroom is word-for -word paraphrasing. The material appears the same on the test.

  2. This is a remarkably interesting article which cover a topic at the exact center of many rumblings, for me.

    As scientist, I realized many years ago than taking note on my work would translate in a more effective way of working. Just in the process of writing down what I’m doing, I clarify my mind and unexpected connections comes to mind. Not to say, that my neural memory is so “problematic” that I risk forgetting even important part of work done, if I do not write down anything about it almost immediately.

    As digital enthusiast, I tested in years many softwares for taking note. Includes Evernote, OneNote, and Notion, to stay in the list you choose (I do not consider Google Docs or OverLeaf good for taking work notes, meanwhile they are excellent for preparing and sharing documents).

    I stayed a good amount of time with Evernote. This is increasingly heavy application, not good anymore for me (besides this, they force you tu buy a rather expensive subscription). OneNote is free but it also seems heavy, for what I need (it always depends on what you are doing: my daughter uses it with delight by iPad and Pencil).

    I tested Notion, it’s attractive, but ultimately the wiki structure confuses me, so it ended that I spent lot of times trying to figure out the best way to organize contents, connect one page to the others etc… and this distracts me from work 😉

    Obsidian is still a mysterious entity, to me. I read many good things about it, but I still must understand its logic.

    At the moment writing, I’m happy with a clean and lightweight app called (btw, this is NOT advertising) upNote. Far lighter that EverNote and OneNote, with less capabilities of course, but with the exact capabilities I need for taking work notes. And, as the other more famous solutions, is available for all major desktop and mobile OS.

    Thanks again Megan, for your interesting article!

  3. Thanks for writing about Note-taking. I’ve known about Obsidian for a while, and I think it’s really cool. All that’s left for me is to make taking notes a habit.

  4. A free, open-source alternative is zim wiki. Another unconventional but powerful option is treesheets.


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