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?