Why you should keep a PhD notebook

This guest post is by Eloise Zoppos, a PhD Candidate  in the School of Political and Social Inquiry at Monash University who is researching social media use by young adults. In this post Eloise offers some tips for keeping a research notebook.

Recently I had a life – or at least research – changing experience…I began keeping a PhD notebook! By PhD notebook I don’t mean a workbook where meetings, seminars, results and research progression are recorded, I mean a good old fashioned notebook where essentially anything that comes to mind can be noted.

Although this is probably already common practice for most people, for me the lesson to accept and embrace the messy, the illegible and the plain nonsensical was a hard one. However once I began to realize that it’s perfectly okay to scribble, deviate, muse, draw and think (or write!) out loud, keeping a PhD notebook solely dedicated ideas, thoughts and reflections changed my research life.

Here I want to offer some easy tips for other students who may be finding hard to see the benefits of a notebook, and may be finding it even harder to actively maintain one.  So here are 5 tips that I’ve found helpful in making a PhD notebook an effective part of my research life which I hope some of you may find helpful:

1. Use one book for all your notes

If you’re anything like me you probably you have various places where you note down ideas, thoughts and reflections about your research ranging from a formal notebook to pieces of scrap paper that are handy at the time! When it comes to actually embracing these ideas however, having one notebook – or at least having one notebook for each subset of your research – is one of the easiest ways to ensure you can easily keep track of your thought process.

I’ve found that documenting my ideas, thoughts and reflections – no matter how minor – in one notebook has not only helped me to become more organized in the way I conduct and approach my research project, but it also meant that I no longer have to worry about misplacing or just downright forgetting a potentially significant idea.

2. Take your notebook everywhere

When I first began rigorously keeping a PhD notebook one of the first mistakes I made was not taking it whenever I went to work. This of course defeated the whole purpose of having a notebook as I resorted to writing my notes on scrap pieces of paper, which as I mentioned above was not conducive to tracking the progress of my research project. So if you’re starting a PhD notebook or just wanting an easy way to make it an effective part of your research life, then this is one of the easiest things you can do!

3. Avoid using white out or ripping out pages!

When it came to maintaining a PhD notebook one of the hardest things for me was accepting (and embracing) that in this designated notebook the process of writing and the writing itself was allowed to be messy and/or plain nonsensical! At first I would spend time whiting out words and whole sentences either because they didn’t quite ‘flow’ or even because the writing was not neat enough. It even came to the point where I was ripping pages out and yes, in some instances even re-writing pages that were too messy! Not only did this mean that I was not using my time effectively, but also that I was missing out on one of the great aspects of having a notebook; being able to track both the thought process as it happened and the evolution of the research project itself.

I soon began to realise that often the things I disliked and felt uneasy about such as the words that I had crossed out and replaced, and the arrows swapping paragraphs and ideas around, were the most telling of how my thought process and my research project had evolved. And this point leads on nicely to my fourth tip:

4. Hand-write notes

Although most of my writing is done on a computer, when it comes to note taking I almost always rely on hand writing instead. I realise that many readers will not agree with this and that’s fine, however I found that by taking notes by hand I was able to see my thought process as it happened rather than relying on a set of perfectly typed notes.

For me, typing notes on a computer may have been faster, but it was less spontaneous and it became too easy to merely delete something that I didn’t like or something that I deemed as unimportant. I also found that with computer notes I missed the nuances that emerged from various word choices, sentence re-writes and structural changes that were evident with hand written notes. Although this aspect of the research process can be easily overlooked, it can be one of the most formative parts of the research process in the early stages of the formation of the project right up to the stage of writing up the final product.

5. Re-read your notes

The last tip for making a PhD notebook an effective part of the research process is continually going back and re-reading your notes. Although this seems obvious, with the amount of notes you produce (especially when you start documenting them in one book) the number of pages starts to build up. When you start working on something else, it can become easy to forget all the various notes that you actually took. Looking over them when you start on a new sub-project or section, or even just looking back through them every week, can be inspiring, reinvigorating, or may even spark a great idea that you may forgotten about or just didn’t have time to chase up!

So that’s 5 quick and simple tips for making a notebook an effective part of your research life! For those of you who have a notebook or are thinking about keeping one, what are your useful tips for making it an effective part of your research process?

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58 thoughts on “Why you should keep a PhD notebook

  1. Also, use your notebook to record little ideas whenever you have get some inspiration. This prevents me from having to sit down and start working on weekends!

  2. Yes! I would provide the same hints and reasoning based on my research thesis experience. It was of enormous benefit in writing up my methodology in particular, (not to mention contemporaneous evidence when I was randomly audited by the tax office for my education related expenses – nothing like a dated chronological book of interviews, travel and locations).

    I did wrestle (and still do) with the balance between notes in the notebook and electronic notes of key academic texts. It seems double handling to write and then type very similar words – in particular important quotes and quantitative data – what was your experience in getting the balance right? I am having a hard time trying to work within things like Evernote and Scrivener, even though I’m used to working almost entirely electronically in my ‘paid’ work.

    This may also seem a very silly question, but was your notebook large or smaller size. I used A4, but it meant I always had to take a bag of a certain size and therefore would sometimes live it behind. I’ve recently ‘transitioned’ to A5 for my next project, but I’m finding it harder to get a sense of the flow of the ideas already. Perhaps it is only me who extensively contemplates such little things though…

    • I know what you mean about format – I think it’s really important. I’ve been keeping notebooks for years and years and I go to great lengths to get unlined paper as the lines annoy me. I went from A4 when I was an architect to the half A4 size (I think it’s B5?) when I became a writer, which fits into my handbag easily. I have a smaller one which I use exclusively for jotting blog post ideas (this means I don’t have to sift through my larger book). Eventually I have settled into the moleskine format – which has a handy pocket in the back and a strap which keeps it closed. I

    • I’d definitely say keep trying with Evernote, I’ve found it really useful if I’ve been out somewhere to type notes to myself on it from my phone. You can also tag different parts with different topics, and it also recognises text – so if you search for a particular word it will find it!

      • Agreed. Phone or iPad make evernote an instant, anywhere note taking app, not just a desk bound web page clipper. I have even made mine public! (see side bar ‘learn with the whisperer’)

      • I have an iPad, but I need to get in to the habit of using it better. Ms Thesiswhisperer, I checked out your public Evernote which made me think I’m using it in too orderly a way perhaps – I need to use it more for random notes and thoughts, and not fully developed tasks (like journal article notes or tagging PDFs).

        This discussion has been very helpful – thanks! Lots of great suggestions below, and a few that might assist me.

    • I too had trouble deciding on the size of my notebook! I began with A5 and found that while it was a lot easier to take it around with me, it was not big enough for me to do some really good ‘scribbling’ because I found there wasn’t enough room for re-writes, arrows, etc. Recently upgraded to A4 and while it is lot heavier and sometimes cumbersome, I have a lot more room to play around with my notes!

      • Im just so glad I am not the only one thinking/worrying about notebook sizes!!! Small one for the honours, now big one for the PhD. Makes me feel like I am grown up!

  3. I started keeping a notebook because I so often had the good ideas on the bus going home after a day’s talking and reading. I’m up to volume 9 now and that has led to a problem of finding these ideas again. In the end I went through the whole lot, numbering the pages and tagging them according to the section of my final thesis they related to. Then I typed that up and sorted the list by tag to make a master list. It took a couple of hours but has saved days and days of “I know I wrote that down somewhere”

    • That’s a really good idea. I do that with my proper ‘workbook’ but not with my notebook. Think I’ll start this now to save time in the future!

  4. I love A5. Perfect bag size. I would also recommend keeping it on you bedside table for those midnight flashes of inspiration.

  5. I think that’s a great idea. I do often have random scraps of paper with scribbles that seemed extremely important at the time, but out of context aren’t overly helpful.

    Also I’ve started using Evernote (thanks to this blog!) which is also good for storing notes online and I can also use it on my phone.

  6. Great idea. The part I am starting to improve on is the reading it over later – I write stuff down but forget to check what I’ve written. If I have a to-do list as part of my notes I draw boxes beside each item to remind me to tick things off. The positive energy reward of the ticking is lovely.

  7. I channel everything I see from scribbled notes on paper to offline notes on my laptop into a non-public blog where everything gets several tags so that I can find it again later. This blog is accessible whereever I am and can get access to the net, so need to carry around the same notebook all the time. And it has full-text search, so it’s quick.

  8. I have a notebook from the Library of NSW bookshop with photos from Max Dupain throughout. It’s my thesis scribbles book. I always write in pencil, not sure why but it just ‘feels’ better. I also often have great ideas when lying on the couch so maybe that’s why the pencil works better!! I love my iPad and iPhone and use them both a lot for research with various tools but I also find my brain thinks differently when I handwrite so maybe that’s just what works for me!! That’s also why I don’t use mind mapping tools on the computer because for me it’s about the creative process that using pen, pencil and paper seems to unlock that makes it work.

      • Pencil sharpening is also a well recognised procrastination strategy, so you’re multi-tasking!

    • I agree – could never get into computer mind mapping tools either. Not sure why, maybe because I see the computer now a space for ‘hard writing’ rather than the stages of thinking/writing before that and it’s hard to get away from that

  9. I would add a sixth point.

    6. Type up your notes (at regular intervals) into Word. It’s a lot easier to read.

  10. Great post! I have a little addition to it:
    Like Jennie Swann noted: the organising of a notebook can take a couple of hours, but I found something for that: I use Atoma notebooks!
    It is a belgian brand of notebooks that works with the binding principle of ‘rings’ and paper curved around it, so you can take out pages whenever you want to and put them back in an entirely other place.
    You have them in all shapes and sizes, with lined paper, or other rulings. They’re fantastic! They saved me a lot time tearing out pages and rewriting them to keep everything organised. I put the website in the ‘website’space because I don’t know whether it is allowed to “advertise” in the Comment-section, which I am not!:)
    I just wanted to show you an example of how the system works. It’s just that in highschool we were obligated to use these notebooks and I’ve been hooked ever since.
    You can find them now in cheaper and ‘fake’ versions, which work just as well, is my experience.

    • Great idea! Mine are all different, depending on what was available when I ran out of space. I pretty soon changed from A4 to A5 though – easier to carry in a handbag. I prefer the ones with an elastic band, to hold the bits of paper I inevitably end up with at seminars etc.

    • Oh love that! I used to have diaries like that when I was younger, but never would have thought of using one for a notebook. Would be a lot easier to organise notes under themes/projects using a notebook like that.

  11. You’re preaching to the converted! :) When I did honours the co-ordinator gave everyone a notebook, and told us to use them for musings, research notes, random ideas that don’t initially seem connected (but which eventually prove vital), and everything else research related. I’ve kept it going, through honours, masters and now PhD, and don’t go anywhere without my notebook.
    I still hand-write everything before it’s ‘good enough’ to go into the computer, and although it’s a habit my supervisor would like me to break, it’s how i work best.
    I love my notebook :)

      • Both handwriting and pencil seem to help me capture nebulous ideas. I’ve even found my handwriting slants in different directions depending on how sure I feel about what I’m writing!

    • Wish someone had told me to start a notebook back in Honours, that would be great seeing and reflecting on your progression through all that time!

  12. I love my notebooks. I’ve already been through five of them, and i’m only half way through my candidature. I like to use a nice moleskine, since the paper seems to soak up new ideas. I have started writing a little preface and end reflective page in each notebook. When I finish a notebook, I go through it with a different coloured pen and write little comments about goals i’ve set myself and ideas i’ve had.

  13. A professor of mine once suggested that I leave the first ten pages blank for a table of contents. Once a week I look back through my notes from that week and jot keywords, concepts, diss sections, etc on the table of contents. I used to lose notes in my moleskine all the time, but the table of contents fixed that problem.

    Thanks for the post!

  14. I do this! I am only at the beginning of my PhD. I did it for my honours year and found it a nice way to reflect on my ideas as they emerged. That was the reason I started one for my PhD but its more valuable than originally thought. Also another tip – get a notepad with no lines. I am teaching myself to be more visually conceptual and without lines to follow (which scared me to no end at the beginning) I find I draw more and place ideas into conceptual (spider) diagrams and the like. It works!

    • I like that idea – I think that will be my next challenge (once I manage to stop whiting things out)!

    • I did this for my honours too – no lines meant I was more likely to draw maps and make conceptual leaps. No lines, good thick paper that could take a bold black pen without bleeding through.

  15. Thanks for this post – I’m starting my phd in July and with a two year old and a six month old, I’ve had my eyes peeled for the best ways to be efficient and manage my time well. It also inspired me to write my own phd notebook post :)

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  18. For my birthday, my beautiful partner introduced me to Livescribe and their magic pens.
    http://www.livescribe.com/au/

    Everything that I write in my Livescribe notebook also ends up as a _searchable_ archive on my computer. Better than that, the pen will also record conversations (I always ask permission first). I can tap on any word in my journal, or on the computer version, and hear exactly what we were talking about when I wrote the note.

    How brilliant is that!

    The Livescribe pens are a bit thicker than normal pens. They have a recorder built in, as well as a tiny camera that films what you write. You recharge them when you sync with your computer via USB. Their journals are very nice. They have a tiny (invisible) grid of squares on each page, which is how they do the text recognition on your handwriting. They have a set of control (Record, stop, playback speed, etc) printed on the bottom of each page.

    I spend a lot of time talking to people, one-on-one, about their research. I find that most (but not all) people are quite happy for me to record the conversation when I ask. As one of our journalism lecturers pointed out, it helps me to be more accurate after the conversation is over. If people are at all wary of it, I just don’t record the audio.

    I generally don’t record the audio from group meeting. It is too hard to get individual permission from each participant before the meeting starts, and I am not willing to record without permission.

    Either way, though, I still end up with a searchable archive of my notes, which is probably the most valuable feature. I once spoke to a post-grad who withdrew half-way through her candidature, after her notebook was stolen (along with her car). She was doing interviews in a politically sensitive topic. All of her contacts were in that notebook. Without it, she didn’t know who was who anymore. (Since then, I’ve been advising people to photocopy their notebooks from time to time, and keep them somewhere safe.)

    I don’t listen to the audio recordings very often. It is slow, and most of the time my notes are adequate. The times when I do listen, though, they are a life-saver. Usually, I have forgotten to note down an action-item, or have not taken down enough detail for my notes to be useful. This is particularly true if I am coming back to something weeks later and am looking at a squiggle that says “Methodology. Who, how, what? Scale.” I can go back and work out what I was actually talking about. Lovely.

    They are pricey, though.

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  22. I am one of those person who always jot things everywhere and could not find it or worse-never come back to it anyway. I have also tried this method of having just one notebook for everything and I find that it get messy after sometimes and would not bother to have look at it again and yes, after several volumes of it you will find it hard to find the idea that you want. So what I do now is I will bring notes/note pad whatever to anywhere, and make sure I’ll retype it on the computer and I even do more writing while recopying. This way I can find my notes easier and it look nice as well.

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  24. I’m a techno-geek at heart, but I love hand-written notes. To be quite honest I’d be lost without my iPad as a result. It’s my electronic notebook, and I use an app called Notability to keep track of notes – written, typed and audio. It’s fantastic.

    I’ve combined this with Google Sites and that way I’m addressing my own personal need to have something that searchable (similar to Jonathan O’Donnell. It forces me to look at my notes, tidy them and upload them. Usually forcing a review period. While at the same time, being creative with handwriting and picture taking. So far it’s working, but I’m only 5 months in and still a newbie compared with others on this site. It’s working for now.

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  27. Thanks for this inspiring post. In the past I used a lot of different note taking apps (from Evernote, TaskPaper, TiddlyWiki, MediaWiki, National Velocity etc.). However, I was never completely satisfied with either of them and thus I switched too often. Switching the app can cost a lot of time: from moving items to learning the new software.
    Right now, I am using a simple text editor – it has less features and i way less functional, but on the other hand you do not have so many distractions in terms of formatting.
    I will definitely try out the paper method. My actual plan is to take notes on a white piece of paper (I know, you recommend a book), but it is not always possible to carry a book with you.

    I think might work if I keep track of the date, and then I will file the paper in a file folder at the end of the day, additionally I will put a page number at the bottom in case the pages get messed up or so. Also, a review of your notes at the end of the day might be a good idea – a review where you reflect and write the major points in neat way in a word processing app.

    Another advantage of single paper sheets is that you can use a document scanner to archive your notes more easily

      • Do you mean with the special recording pen? I had one at work a few years ago and had mixed feelings – i you found it pretty functional etc. I’m sure the technology has come along quickly so I’m curious to try it again.

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  30. I could not agree more with the advice in this post. As a chaotic researcher my salvation was starting notebooks as an undergrad. They were all shapes and sizes to start with but I settled on an A5 spiral bound black plastic back notebook purchased for the UK readers in W H Smiths. I have since found a much cheaper version in Sainsbury’s. I started with notebooks, lecture notes and reflective diary, big mistake. Since I started using a standard format combined with my beloved writing implement a Pilot G-2 05, my note taking has been transformed as has my handwriting. I have followed the same formula thro my MA and now with my PhD. Tip’s, I number the pages, only right hand pages (odd numbers) this saves on writing. I write notes, thoughts and diary entries randomly, often breaking in the middle of one note to start another. I link the notes using the page numbers. I write an index starting on the back page and working backwards. This is better than trying to guess how many pages to leave at the beginning of a notebook. I use a highlighter to colour the tops of the page for a long note that has been split into sections, makes it easier to find pages. I also use the very small Post-it notes to create index tabs of keywords. I date every entry. Notebooks are identified with a consecutive number ie PhD 1, 2, 3, with the start and finish date for each notebook. Notebooks are my one concession to being organized. Reading back through old notebooks can be a real eyeopener, particularly you rediscover an inspirational line of thought! As for other organisational tools. I use Microsoft OneNote, the screen grab tool is particularly useful for capturing pages from Google Books as is the “copy text from image” tool, this an OCR facility. I also find Zotero indispensable. Great post, very helpful as are the comments.

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