Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Proposed method of taking research notes

After several days of thought and input from a friend (thanks hankdmoose), I think I've come up with a good way to take research notes while I work on my PhD (see #4 in Master's as PhD training).

For my master's degree, I made dated entries into a single text document. I thought it would be easy to take notes while I worked since most of my research requires a computer. The text document was right there with all my other windows. What seemed like an advantage turned out to be a problem. My notes document got lost among all the other windows I had open. I also couldn't sketch diagrams, tables, or figures.

These notes were not very useful a month or two after I'd written them, much less by the time I wrote my thesis. It made me exceedingly glad that I did a master's degree on the way to a PhD. If I had used this method for a PhD, writing my dissertation would have been pure nightmare (I mean, more than it will be already).

As a result, I've devised a new plan. I have high hopes for this one. It is more complex and requires more time, but ultimately it should save me a lot of aggravation and time.

For daily notes, I'll use an old-fashioned notebook and pen. That way it will not get lost in my digital mess and I can carry it with me wherever I go. It will also give me tangible evidence of my accomplishments each day, something that is scarce in scientific research. I will use a contrasting color of pen to tag each daily entry with relevant key words so I can easily find related entries. To maintain consistency, I'll keep a running list of tags inside the front cover of the notebook, probably on a replaceable sheet of paper so I can organize them. (My current plan is to make two blocks of tape on the inside of the cover itself and tape a sheet of paper to the blocks of tape. That way the sheet of paper is easily replaceable.)

To make my notes more searchable by keyword, I'll post a weekly summary to a private blog (thanks to mareserinitatis for the blog idea). I'm not using the blog as my main medium because I know I won't take regular notes if I have to go to a web page to do it (much like the problem I had using a text file). The blog will also give me a more concise version of my notes so I can filter train-of-thought ramblings that will undoubtedly show up in my notebook. While I may not be able to easily include diagrams in a blog, I can more easily include actual figures I produce simply by linking to them. If I'm really desperate to include a hand-drawn diagram, I can scan it.

I'm really excited to see how this new method works. I hope it will make my dissertation a bit easier and make my research progress more smoothly. It is one of many habits I need to improve and piecewise progress is still progress.

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