Skip to main content


As I enter the fourth—and probably final—year of my PhD training I feel empowered. I have the experience and knowledge to get clear answers to questions of everyday lab life.

The importance of data organization has also been elevated. I have begun synthesizing my work into a story. Imagine a jigsaw puzzle: I scatter my data on a table and work to align the pieces into the picture that I’ve held in my mind’s eye. My aim is to identify the gaps in the picture so that I can go back and build those pieces (acquire that data) and complete my project.

But there are thousands of pieces. And they are tiny. And they fall off the table and get lost in the wind-swept mess of my notebooks, binders, and desktop folders. A missing piece of crucial data must either be found or re-obtained: and there is nothing more disheartening that repeating an experiment because you lost your results.

Organization takes a great deal of effort and time. After a long day I’ve frequently felt the urge to leave my notewriting to the morning. Do Not Do It! I’ve come to adopt the following tenet: my work is fully contained within my notes. It I have not written it down then I have not done it.

I use a few tricks to organize my data. First: I use nested folders that begin with broad project scopes and then narrow into specific research questions.

Data > Mice > Genotype B > Bone Marrow Analysis > Progenitor Analysis > Etc.

Second: date everything. Date the folder of the experiment. Date the file. Write the date at the top of the excel, word, powerpoint, etc. Add the dates when you’ve made additions or edits. Then, when you need to recall an experiment, you can search your OS for the date and you’ll find your result.

Finally, don’t be afraid to change your system if you’ve found a better one. For instance: I’ve recently adopted a new method of writing down the date. And hence, of naming all of my files.

As a Canadian I became accustomed to writing: Day – Month – Year. Since each category increases in scope, this made more rational sense than the Imperial Month – Day – Year. But there’s an issue: in either system the folders are not ordered in a logical manner.

Old Systems







And then I saw a better way: to write Year-Month-Day. Suddenly, all files are ordered according to their creation date. Finding my data has become much easier.

New System






I was hesitant to adopt the new system. I knew it’d mean my older files would remain named by the former system and that potential problems with the duality could ensue. Yet I weighed my options and decided that the benefits of the new system outweighed the costs. I made the change a few months back and have no regrets.

A final thought on the importance of organization and planning. I matriculated to IUSM on 110813. Eight days earlier, NASA launched Juno: a craft that plotted a course of 1 740 000 000 miles to Jupiter. Imagine the organization required to make that happen: any miscalculation or deviation would be catastrophic. I am certain their mission planners organize their files using the Year – Month – Day method. And as a result, Juno will arrive at Jupiter this evening. The firing of its thrusters to enter orbit will be the best fireworks show on this July 4th!

The views expressed in this content represent the perspective and opinions of the author and may or may not represent the position of Indiana University School of Medicine.

Stefan Tarnawsky

MS4 MD/PhD Student. Going into Internal Medicine; interested in Heme/Onc. Bread baker, bonsai artist, aspiring astronomer.