PhD Student Reporting What It's Like to Use a Zettelkasten for Classes

This is a recent highlight from the forums: Jeannel King reported how the Zettelkasten Method and preparing for a PhD at university work together.

This is the first semester where I’m using my Zettelkasten for my courses (PhD program in humanistic psychology, creativity studies specialization). Now that I’ve got some reps under my belt, here’s how it’s working so far:

Feeding My Zettelkasten

  • I typically read in the mornings before the day starts. I take fleet notes as I read. (Oh my, do I now love taking fleet notes!!!)
  • Then I let those fleet notes sit while I work on other stuff throughout the day.
  • In the evening, I’ll review my fleet notes with Archive open and a stack of physical note cards. (I use both physical cards and Archive.)
  • With a bit of distance from when they were taken (hours), I’ll look for the things that speak to me or that I want to share with ZK on a Dear ZK card.
  • I’ll write up my physical cards as if they were postcards to my ZK (introducing the subject from my reading, then expounding on it with my own thoughts).
  • I use my Archive and physical ZK to find where these new cards build upon existing ideas for where to add them into my ZK brain.
  • The completed card goes into Archive (this system REALLY works for me).

Being Fed By My Zettelkasten

  • I’ll look at my writing topics and needs for the week in my courses.
  • I’ll open Archive and search for tags related to the topic (plus a few random searches just to see what novel ideas want to show up)
  • I’ll pull the physical cards that seem relevant and physically play with them, laying out possible ideas for my paper/discussion on my desk.
  • I’ll land on an order with the physical cards and pull the digital content - included my references which I already listed on my zettels - into a draft Word document.
  • I let it sit for a bit and come back to it for more edits. If other ideas want to pop up from my Zettelkasten, back to the Archive I go.
  • When it’s ready, I submit it as appropriate and thank my Zettelkasten for making it SO. MUCH. EASIER OH MY GOODNESS!!!!

Seriously. It’s like Ahrens said in How To Take Smart Notes: with a Zettelkasten your paper is basically written as you read. All you have to do is pull it forth when it’s time.

If you are a student and are wondering if it’s worth starting a Zettelkasten - it is!

Update 2022-08-25: Check out the follow-up two years later!