How I use Papers: From Graduate Student to Profess...

How I use Papers: From Graduate Student to Professional

A few months ago I had to find a file for a weekly meeting I attend at work. Unfortunately, I couldn’t remember where the file was on my computer. It was one of those cases where it could have been in several folders. It fit just as well within “Marketing actions”, “Branding”, or “Presentations”. I caught myself in a moment of wondering, “how come I never used to have this problem before?” First, I could blame the growing pile of documents I was managing since starting my new role in January of this year. Then I realized it wasn’t only due to the growing number of documents, and perhaps a slight lack of efficient indexing on my Mac, but the reality was I had completely changed my workflow. It had regressed.

A few years ago, when I was midway through my PhD studies, I started using Papers to bring some organization to my stack of research articles. Once Papers2 came out in 2011, I switched to Papers2 and I joined the Papers team (not quite in that order). This usually draws some questions, but the full story of how I joined the Papers team has been published on Benchfly. The entire reason for me to use Papers to begin with was because I couldn’t really find articles I downloaded three months ago, and I kept losing track of which publications I filed in which file. Does something on the topic of behavioural tracking in modelling fetal alcohol spectrum disorder (FASD) fit just as well in a folder called “FASD”, or a folder called “FASD” within a folder called “Behaviour”, or in a folder I named “Behaviour tracking”. When I started using Papers my articles could live in several collections named in much the same way, without duplicating content on my hard drive. Typically however, Papers is seen as an app for researchers. Without realizing it, I had changed my workflow without even thinking about it. New colleagues were sending me reports and presentations, and slowly those moved from my downloads folder to a collection of dedicated folders on my hard drive. Only when I started to wonder where in the world I put file such-and-such I recognized that I had crippled my own workflow since I left the research bench.

I decided to try Papers again, this time as a professional. Of course Papers was first designed with (Life Sciences) research in mind. Having said that, an app that supports over 85 different document types (think invoices, quotes, musical score, database files, etc) can work for pretty much anyone who has many files.

Before I archived (and kept) my graduate-school-period library in Papers I took a screenshot. This is how I used to use Papers:


After making creating the backup of my old library to an external drive, I deleted it and started with a fresh library into which I imported all my work related documents. Now, this is how I use Papers:

Napkin How I use Papers for work

Collections & Keywords

You will notice my entire library is based on two large ‘master collections’. The top one, called “Christine”, contains nested collections that organize my personal files. I started slowly migrating some of my personal administration over to Papers after I really liked how it was working out for my work related documents. The second main folder is the work collection, called “Papers”. This collection also contains a mixture of smart and manual collections that keep my work related documents organized.

While I have smart collections largely based on a mix of keywords, I also file documents in manual collections. Many documents live in various collections at the same time, allowing me to easily find them again. When I am looking for a presentation I may check in my presentation collection to see all PowerPoint files I have, but if I remember a presentation in the context of a specific event I may also find it in the events collection. While invoices can be filed under just ‘invoices’, it is also practical to refer to them from an event collection, where I keep all documents related to the event I am attending. How you organize your library of research, or of work, is ultimately very personal. Papers works for me at the office because between keywords, collections, and a good search function I never lose a document.


I sometimes come across a file and I may not remember who I collaborated on it with. This can be important when I want to follow up with a similar project. Instead of looking through my email for hours to locate the original conversation, I keep a note in the inspector window with some files. An example is also in the screenshot above. While this particular note is not exactly exciting, some of my notes help me remember who to contact again in the future when I need to launch a new project. The note is kept in the inspector, and not in the actual document, so I do not need to worry about it – or remove it –  when I share the document with colleagues.

 Napkin How I use Papers at work - references

Reports, Presentations, and Media

There are quite a few reports in my life, and a large number of image files and other media (For example, the videos I create for Papers). When I quickly need to find a certain document type, I can also navigate my library based on this concept by looking at the document type first. Papers is really great to organize all kinds of reports, and I can create a smart collection to filter the different reports into different collections, if I’d want to. I always have access to the actual file, which I can share by email, or print without even having to open it in Word. Typically I am working on several documents at once, so keeping them all open in tabs is very handy. Keep in mind you cannot edit Word documents in Papers, you would have to open it up again in Word. I usually have tabs open with articles, documents to reference, while I work on a separate item either in Word or PowerPoint.


I label certain entries in my library with colours so I can easily spot them again. Usually, I do this for documents I use often, but sometimes I colour code old documents in gray when I still want to reference (so not archive) them but that are no longer actively used.

In short, I had a fairly inefficient workflow when I started graduate school. Switching to Papers helped me be more organized, and more productive, as a researcher. After finishing my PhD and moving away from bench work I went back to having a basic workflow that stopped working for me once my document library grew too large. While Papers was designed, originally, to help researchers be more productive, going back to Papers now that I exchanged the lab bench for a desk, works just as well (maybe even better) for me.


Christine Buske is a former academic who left science at the bench, and now considers herself a woman in tech. She is a frequently invited speaker, and enjoys talking about career transformation (particularly leaving academia for the business world), tech, issues around women in tech, product management, agile, and outreach. She is a proud Canadian resident, and qualifies as a "serial expat".


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