Why bother with a research journal?

The short answer is: A research journal helped me form raw ideas about my research into coherent findings, and it helped me to solve analytic and logistical problems without requiring input from any other human being. It reduced my anxiety and bolstered self-confidence.

When I say research journal, I’m not talking about a notebook, research log, or day planner. These things are important and worth keeping, too. I have a notebook for jotting things down during meetings and making to-do lists. I take citation/indexing notes in the archive (in Word documents). I use my Google Calendar to keep track of where I’m going each day. But my research journal has a separate function.

The research journal basically externalizes my internal dialogue about what I am seeing in my sources, how I am spending my time, and how I feel about the process. As time has passed, its scope has gone beyond just the archive to include goals, writing projects, and professional development.

Over a year ago, when I finished exams, I was a little overwhelmed by the research work ahead of me. I sought advice from a colleague who had already finished her dissertation, and she suggested that I keep a personal journal about my research. At first, I was skeptical. While I had journaled in high school and college, I’d lost the habit since then. But I decided to take the advice, bought a bright yellow notebook, and started writing. I chose to write by hand to help me focus more.

In the months since, I’ve filled three and half of those notebooks with entries written in many cafés, libraries, and airports around North America. The content and tone of the journal have changed over time. My first entries were dedicated to reassuring myself that I was going to be capable of carrying out my research. Once I got to the archives, most entries began with a litany of complaints about being tired and having a sore neck. I wrote about what I was finding in the archives: a story I liked, a trend that I was noticing, or a new hypothesis that was coming to mind. Some of these ideas have never gone anywhere, but most of the things I’ve written or said aloud about my dissertation ultimately have roots in the journal.

I also wrote about what I thought I should do next or how I should approach a body of sources that different than what I was expecting. Often, I felt a little anxious when tackling these topics, but writing my way through them yielded a plan and with it, a sense of purpose and calm.

Now that I am writing chapters and preparing for another round of fellowship applications, my journal is helping me think through ideas about the chapter structure (sometimes it is easier to think about structure in an unstructured way as opposed to the grid format I blogged about a few months ago). My journal also serves now as a low-stakes place to pitch and retool my big arguments.

To be honest, I don’t read back through my journals very much. So far, the act of writing seems more useful than the written product. But it is good to know that they are there in case I need them.