Disclaimer: I use the word data in this post to include everything needed to complete a project, including (but not limited to) documents, pictures, screenshots, experiments, databases, recordings, images, projects, etc.
I've made many mistakes when it comes to managing my files for classes, my research, and my dissertation. I’ve struggled with finding the best way to name, organize, and keep track of everything. And I learned the hard way how important data management is. In this blog, I want to share some of the mistakes I’ve made and give you solutions to avoid them. For additional support, I’ve reached out to my colleague Ashley Hetrick a data management guru and data analyst for Technology Services at Illinois, for some easy, practical advice to rescue us all from tears and sleepless nights.
Horror Story #1: I was working on Chapter 2 of my thesis and had made a lot of great progress. I’d written around 20 pages and was feeling excited about how much work I had completed. Then—out of nowhere—I was visited by everyone’s worst nightmare: the blue screen of death. My hard drive was done. While we were able to recover many files, Chapter 2 was not one of them and I didn’t have a back-up copy.
Solution: Back up your files. It’s really that simple. I always chose not to do it and my excuse was “It takes too long.” It really doesn’t, though. Think about it this way: it takes around two minutes to back up your files, but it could take days to rewrite a paper that has been lost.
Ashley’s advice is to follow the 3-2-1 rule. Always keep at least three copies of your data. Save them on two different kinds of media (so, your laptop AND a jump drive or external hard drive). Then, make sure you have at least one remote copy. The university offers U of I Box, a free service that allows students to save their files in the cloud.
Make it a habit to back up your files at least once a week (if not daily, which is much safer). Consider setting aside time each Friday afternoon to back up your files. You might also sign up for Data Nudge, managed by Research Data Service, to receive monthly data management tips and reminders.
Horror Story #2: I had a little blue jump drive that I took with me everywhere. It had lesson plans, class notes, archival resources—a lot of important stuff. I used it on campus computers. I used it on my family’s computer when I went home on breaks. I took it to Austria with me when I did archival work. It disappeared one day. And I still have no idea where it is.
Solution: I’m not alone on this. I’ve seen jump drives left in campus computers and seen fliers hung on campus bulletin boards promising a monetary reward for the return of these precious pieces of plastic. Rather than taking a jump drive with you everywhere, you might rely on the cloud when collecting and using the files you need. If it is essential that you bring your jump drive with you, consider writing your name and phone number or email address on it so that it can easily be returned. You might also consider keeping it attached to your keyring so that you remember to grab it when you leave your work station.
Need more help with data management?
• Check out the resources on the Research Data Service website, attend one of their workshops, or make an individual appointment.
• If you are organizing your data as part of a grant or fellowship, check the institution’s website for guidelines on curating your data.
• Meet with your adviser or research group to discuss best practices for organizing, storing, and naming your files.
Read PART II: How To Keep Track of Your Stuff or Four Horror Stories in Two Parts
Comic "Final".doc from "Piled Higher and Deeper" by Jorge Cham phdcomics.com / About PHD Comics
Emily Wuchner is the Associate Director for Student Experience at the Graduate College. She holds a PhD in musicology from the University of Illinois, and her work focuses on music and social welfare in eighteenth-century Austria. In her free time, she enjoys boxing, reading, and knitting and crochet.