Organizing Your Files for Research

This is post #3 in my miniseries on organizing for research (in case you missed them, here’s post #1 & #2). I don’t know about you, but it took nearly 10 years of being in higher education for me to develop a digital filing system that actually works for me. A combination of things (the year 2020, nearing my dropbox limit, and restarting a research agenda) conspired to force me into figuring out how I actually wanted my digital files to function. I discovered that I had saved student work from years and years ago (before I switched from giving feedback via track changes to giving it inside my institution’s LMS). I had a mountain of redundant files. Some were TBR articles I kept forgetting I already had, but most were assignments or lesson content I had recycled from one semester to the next. I had research notes scattered around in different formats and different places. In short, it was a mess. Perhaps you too are struggling to find a system that works for you (or maybe you already have your shit together in which case, I applaud you). What follows is some general advice, mainly for academics, about organizing digital files for the purposes of research (we might tackle teaching files in a forthcoming blog).

Step 1: Declutter

As with traditional organization advice, it is best to start revamping your digital files by decluttering first. I began by deleting things I *knew* I wouldn’t ever look at again (like the student work files from 2009), and then I started looking for redundant files. Word searching the files was helpful here especially for files I knew I had copied over and over into different years/semesters (e.g. “Citation Chasing Activity.doc”). In some cases, where I knew there might be multiple versions, I left it alone so I could come back and determine which version I wanted to keep. For articles I had downloaded, this decluttering process took longer because I had no standard file naming system. In some cases the articles were named whatever their download file name was and in other cases I had changed the file name to something I thought would make it easier to find (ha). In this case, organizing the research into files and then using a standard naming convention helped me see where I had redundancy.

Step 2: Organize

For me this is where advice on digital file organization usually breaks down. They always advise to create some kind of tiered system, but WHAT system? What system of files and subfiles makes the best sense for someone like me (an academic)? I absolutely love it when other academics share their actual file nesting system so I can see clearly how they intend to use it. So that’s what I’ll do for you. First, decide what “main level” folders you want to see every time you go where your files are housed. In my case, these are “Research and Writing,” “Teaching,” “Academic Work 1999-2010,” and “Resume/CV.” For clarification, “Academic Work 1999-2010” contains all the digital files I have from high school through graduate school coursework sorted by year and class. This is not something I reorganized, but I did shift it into its own folder so it wasn’t cluttering up my current work files. For now, I’ll share how I structure my “research and writing” folder since it is the main one pertaining to research.

Screenshot of Research, Reviewer, Writing Subfolders

“Research and Writing” has the following folders inside it:

  • “Research” which leads to subfolders titled with the research areas I’ve worked on over the years. Within these folders I have notes, articles/books, and any data I collected for these various research areas.
  • “Writing” which leads to: Blog, Conferences, Grants or Programs, Published, and WIP (work-in-progress) subfolders. Within these folders are CFPs, Drafts, Acceptance letters, Style guides, etc. Anything related to my writing projects.
  • “Reviewer” which leads to files pertaining to my limited experience with reviewing peer publications.

The idea is that this file structure reflects my ideal workflows–ideas from conferences/grants move along through Research and WIP until they land in “Published.” I create new files for every draft so that I maintain a record of anything that I create from abstracts to finished papers.

In “Resume/CV” I have every job application material I’ve ever used in subfolders. I mainly use the CV folder to find my master Curriculum Vitae to update it. If I need a shorter version for a grant or something, I just create a new version in the folder for that grant so I can always look back and see what I submitted for a particular opportunity.

I came to this file structure after a lot of thought about how my work actually….works. It might seem counterintuitive to separate Research and Writing, but it just works better for me this way. By the time I’m working on a WIP, I (for the most part) don’t need to have research papers open because I’ve already made annotations of the ideas. Plus, I just like the streamlined look I can accomplish in the folders when “research” and “writing” are separate.

Step 3: Maintain

This is the hard part for any type of organized system. Occasionally I catch myself just throwing files into this beautiful arrangement, but I’m still too much in love with it to let it get entirely out of hand. I now save research articles with the following naming convention: YEAR_AuthorLastName_Title. There are other options out there, but this one works best for me. I also schedule regular (semester end or yearly) sessions to go through and clean up anything I missed, create new folders if needed, work on another chunk of file renaming in a particular subfolder (bit by bit I’ll get everything to match one day).

I want to conclude by urging you to find a system that works for you: your brain, your workflow. As long as it facilitates your research, writing, and thinking, then it’s good enough.

Do you use a file system to organize research and writing? How do you organize it?

Stay tuned for more posts this year about teaching, research, and academia. Feel free to follow me on Twitter: @litambitions and Instagram: @ecacademic (where I really nerd out about planning). You can also follow this blog (see the email subscribe button on the home page)ALSO, I am happy to announce that I recently launched a biweekly podcast called Vita Abundantior in which I conduct interviews with awesome women and ask them how they go about living such abundant lives (avail on all major streaming platforms).

One thought on “Organizing Your Files for Research

  1. Pingback: How to Prep for an Academic Conference | Tawnya Azar

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