Digital organization. Tips to get [and keep] your computer organized in graduate school.

Image of a laptop on a table. The screen is covered with disorganized notes. Digital organization is definitely needed here.

What is Digital Disorganization?

Digital disorganization is just as it sounds. It’s the failure to organize digital resources (like folders, documents, and email), in a way that allows you to find and open the correct resource quickly, even if you haven’t touched it in months. Many talented and hardworking graduate students struggle to keep up with digital organization. After all, It’s not like most universities offer a course teaching students digital organization principles.

Part 1, File Organization | Part 2, Email Organization | Part 3, Version Control

The Cost of Digital Disorganization

Lost Time

Now, you might think that digital disorganization is simply an inconvenience. Sure, it might take you a few moments to find the file you need, but it’s just a few moments. Right? But how much time are you losing cumulatively? Plus, we already know that switching tasks requires shifting perspectives and slows down productivity. So you might be losing even more time if you’re having to search, identify, and open digital resources while you are working on something (e.g., a spreadsheet with data to incorporate into a report).

Lost Data

There are other risks to digital disorganization. You can have version control issues or misplaced files, and you might even end up having to redo work when you can’t find what you’re looking for. Plus, as good as you might be at finding the files you are working on now, how easy will it be to find an older file you need in a year or two? Digital disorganization isn’t just to help you find files rapidly, but to help you find things long after you’ve forgotten about them.

Lost Productivity

Image of a very messy, disorganized, computer desktop.
Yes, folks, I cluttered up my desktop for you. Never say I’m unwilling to sacrifice for my students!

Finally, if you’re already struggling with procrastination or feeling overwhelmed, the very thought of finding the one file you need in a flood of digital resources might be enough to destroy your productivity. Many graduate students feel an overwhelming sense of dread when thinking about tracking down and consolidating older documents and resources to resume their work.

So, let me save you time, stress, and a bit of mental anguish by teaching you the organization tips I learned when I was a full-time epidemiologist working on 5 to 12 research projects simultaneously. I continue to use them to this day.

Digital Organization: Master Your Digital Clutter

Digital Organization for Folders

Tip 1:

All folder paths should originate from the same place. What do I mean by this? Every place on your computer has a root path that specifies where your data is stored. You want all your work folders to be stored in a single root path. That means not storing some work in the documents folder, some things on the desktop, etc. You can store your personal stuff wherever, but all your work should originate from one place (this makes data backups, a little easier too).

Tip 2:

Keep folder paths to a reasonable length by grouping like with like. Folder paths should rarely be more than 4 – 5 folders deep (i.e., if you follow the longest chain it shouldn’t be more than 5 folders deep, without a compelling reason). When folder paths get excessively long, it increases the click-through time, which defeats the purpose of this digital organization tip.

Tip 3:

Establish a folder naming convention and stick with it. Names should be clearly descriptive but not unreasonably long. The top folder should always clearly identify the project files it will contain. Additionally, avoid naming folders using dates because it’s too easy to forget when you worked on something, making it harder to find the relevant digital resources. An exception to this is financial records where the date is directly relevant to the contents of the files (e.g., 2023 Taxes).

Tip 4:

In the world of digital organization, more is not always better. You should only create subfolders when you have at least 3 items that will reside in the subfolder and those contents are categorically different than the items in another subfolder at the same level.

Tip 5:

The first thing when starting a new project is to create the top-level folder structure. Don’t set yourself up for digital organization failure by saving files to the desktop with the plan to organize them later.


Let’s go through an example of an organized folder structure (shortened for demonstrative purposes):

The image shows an example of a folder organization structure. The top-file level are two folders, coursework and thesis. Coursework is divided into two folders, Statistics and Regression. The statistics folder contains five files. Three word documents labeled homework 1 through 3, an excel file labeled homework 3 testing calculations, and a PDF labeled Stats Syllabus. The regression folder has a PDF syllabus and a word document for homework 1. It also has a folder labelled homework 2, which contains 4 files, including a word document of results and three statistics files (a syntax file, an output file, and a database for homework 2. The top-level thesis folder has one subfolder, labelled Chapter 1 literature review. This folder has 3 example files and a folder labeled Chapter 1 Bones. The three files are a reference library, a document labelled LitReview version 3, and an outline.  The bones file contains two prior versions of the lit. review.

Notice how the top file is named for the project (Coursework or Thesis). You get to decide what you consider a project. For example, you might decide that each course is a project and should be at the top level. This is fine provided it doesn’t lead to too many top-level folders. If you find yourself scanning a long list of folders for the one you are looking for, it’s time to split the top folder into subfolders.

Next, notice how the statistics course has only one subfolder. That’s because none of the assignments have 3 or more files to create a subfolder. The two files for Homework 3 are kept at the same level, with the same prefix to ensure they are listed next to each other when the folder is sorted by name. Meanwhile, for regression, Homework 2 is given a subfolder because there are 4 related files.

Finally, observe the folder named Bones nested in the Ch1_LitReview subfolder for the thesis. A Bones folder is a folder where you store old files. Keeping old versions in a separate file can help prevent accidentally working in an old version. You can keep a bone folder in any subfolder, it’s an exception to the 3-file rule.

One last tip on folder structure, I always keep a “Clutter” folder on my drive. It’s where I stick the random files I don’t know how to classify or am in too much of a rush to spend thinking about it. It’s like the kitchen junk drawer. I save it at the top level of the drive I am storing my digital resources in. This might be your desktop or it might be somewhere else, but it’s always on top of whatever location is being backed up.

Digital Organization Backup

Speaking of backing up, there is no excuse not to be backing up your files. It’s easier to do than ever! But I know of graduate students who have lost huge swaths of work when their computer crashed and burned. Please save yourself this pain. One of the students that this happened to still hasn’t regained their dissertation momentum. Don’t rely on after-the-fact recovery services. As my student learned the hard way, they may not be able to get your work back.

There are many automatic solutions to backup your data (I am not going to go into all of them). You can get an external hard drive and set up a backup schedule for the folder/drive you keep your work in (there is where keeping them in one place helps), or sign up for an online backup service.

But, what if you sync your work to the cloud? Isn’t that a backup? The answer is, it depends. If something happens to the cloud storage, let’s say they are hacked and the data is deleted, will that deletion sync to your computer too? If so, that’s not a real backup.

Here’s my system for backing up my work. I am from an age of manual backups and unreliable computers so I am admittedly paranoid. But, the hardest part of this is the setup, which isn’t that difficult.

First, I installed the Google Drive Desktop App and connected it to two Gmail accounts (my work Gmail and a backup data Gmail*). For the work Gmail, I chose to use mirrored settings, which store the files separately on my computer and online. This setting automatically syncs when I am logged into Gmail, so if something were to corrupt the data on one end or the other, that corruption could be mirrored in both files. That’s why I consider this a temporary backup.

I have the Data Gmail set up differently. The Data Gmail is set to ‘stream,’ which means the files are only stored online and accessed by my computer remotely. Then, I scheduled an automatic backup every two weeks using these steps. This means my data is stored in three different locations, two locations that are up to date, and a third is an ‘Oh shit! I’m desperate‘ backup.

I recommend, as a student, you schedule your ‘Oh shit!’ backup to occur more frequently than every other week. The majority of the work that I produce has additional backups, like this post which is also saved in WordPress, synced with GDrive online, and has automatic file recovery in Word. However, back when I was a student or if I was still producing the volume of output I did when I was a full-time Epidemiologist, I’d be doing daily backups.

*You can choose different settings (mirrored or streamed) at the folder level within a single GDrive. You don’t have to use two separate Gmails to set up the two types of backups. I do because of storage sizes and because having the backups on two different drives makes me feel safer (I secretly hope they are on different Google Servers and I will be less likely to have them both affected if something happens at Google).


Once you have a structure and strategy for digital organization, it becomes easier to make the behavior automatic. But, that doesn’t mean you’ll be perfect. Organization is a process that you must maintain. That doesn’t have to mean you have to spend a lot of energy maintaining it, that would defeat the purpose. Rather, it means setting aside a bit of time to handle the odds and ends that don’t make it into the system.

In a rush and save something to the desktop? Have a random document you weren’t sure where to store so you just stuck it in your documents folder? These things happen. And once a month, you should be taking time to clean up any digital disorganization. Stop reading and do it right now! Set up a recurrent, monthly appointment with yourself to organize all the miscellaneous files and keep that appointment religiously. Oh, and make it an hour so you can spend 30 minutes on files and 30 minutes on the email strategy we’ll talk about next time.

That’s all for today, but if you have other good backup solutions or tips for folder organization, do your fellow grad. students a solid and let us know about them in the comments!

Part 1, File Organization | Part 2, Email Organization | Part 3, Version Control

Wishing You the Best in Your Academic Success,
Dr. Cristie Glasheen, Your Graduate Student Success Coach

All for Free!