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.


The Dissertation Planning Map: Moving from Research to Writing

In December, having finished six months of archival research, I decided it was time to get ready to write my dissertation. I was about to leave for Mexico City, and I set a goal for myself: in addition to researching while in Mexico, I wanted to have one chapter drafted and a solid plan for the others by the time I came back to the United States.

I had a chapter outline in my dissertation proposal, but of course, ideas change and develop as the research progresses. So I decided to make a new outline, not for my committee, but for myself. I had two objectives for this outline: it had to help me prioritize my archival research, and it had to help me figure out which chapter I should write first.

It ended up as a big chart that I am calling the Dissertation Planning Map. You can download a blank one here, but basically, it looks like this:


This chart traces out not just the chapter structure of the dissertation but also the work accomplished and still to be done to actually write each chapter. Each row is basically a chapter outline that includes the title, time period covered, research questions, provisional argument/thesis, the chapter’s relation to the dissertation as a whole, the sources to use (whether collected or not), and the secondary literature the chapter will draw from and engage with.

I spent a few weeks coming back to the chart periodically and trying to fill in all of the boxes. Sometimes I focused on a single chapter (row) or took a category, like sources already collected, and filled out the boxes for one column. I didn’t worry about how clever or well-substantiated the arguments were since no one else was going to look at it. I knew that it was provisional, and I forced myself to write something in every box.

As I filled in the boxes, I continued to adjust the chapters and actually came up with a new way to organize several chapters that I had been struggling to untangle. Something about the grid helped me figure out a part of my project that I had not been able to sort out from simply narrating the structure in the dissertation proposal.

From the sources columns, it became very clear that my top research priority in Mexico needed to be gathering sources from the beginning and end of my chronological period—I discovered that I had many, many sources for the period 1920-1950 and not so many before or after.

I also realized that it was the second chapter that would be the best place to start writing because I felt the most confidence in its “provisional argument” and already had most of the sources I would need to write it.

With this preparation done, I arrived in Mexico City knowing what archival materials I wanted to look for first, and after getting settled, a few weeks ago I took the step of opening a blank Word document and putting “Chapter 2” at the top of the page, and I started writing.

After just a few hours of work, I realized that the provisional argument from the chart needed to be modified, but it helped to have somewhere to start. As I continue to write, I also find that knowing what the other chapters will discuss allows me to focus on the current chapter’s argument: when looking at a particular event or source, I know what I do not need to say now in chapter 2 because it belongs in chapter 1 or 3.

Recently, I revisited the planning map after letting it sit for two months. Because I had done some archival research in Mexico by that point, I moved some sources from the “Still Needed” to the “Already Collected” column. I adjusted some chapter arguments. I plan to come back to the map every few months to think through structural issues and record my progress with the research.

In my own planning map as well as the blank one I am sharing, I put some extra rows to fill out later on for conference papers and journal articles. These could be versions of the current chapters or other spin-off topics that do not fit into the dissertation’s structure.

The planning map has helped me keep the big picture in mind as I am combining research and writing. Now I tag sources I find in the archive with the chapter I think they’ll be most useful for. It has made it much easier to give the elevator pitch about my project. Knowing that the project is still malleable, too, takes some of the pressure off: in April, I’ll go back to the chart again, and there will be another chance to make it work better.

Let me know if you like the idea, or if you have other ways to plan that worked well as you wrote your own dissertation.

Planning Short Archival Research Trips, part I

This post is the first in a short series about how to plan for short archival research trips. My last post was on what to do while in the archive, but now I will focus on the many logistical elements that researchers must plan out in order to actually get to the archive!

While some dissertation projects might not require visits to multiple cities, I suspect that most do, and virtually anyone working on transnational history will need to move around quite a bit.

These are some aspects that I found unexpectedly difficult about shorter trips.

  1. Knowing where to start.
  2. Calculating how long to stay.
  3. Finding appropriate lodging.
  4. Becoming a budget travel pro.
  5. Setting reasonable goals for the trip.

I’ll be talking about these challenges in the next few blog posts, and I’ll share some ways to make the process easier.

This first post will cover the first two challenges. The others will be covered in subsequent posts, so check back soon.

After I defended my dissertation proposal and finished my exams, it was time time to begin the research. My proposal listed many cities and archives, but there was no clear analytic or methodological reason to start at any given place. I decided to start close to my home in New York, then travel to relatively nearby Washington, DC, then head farther afield to Texas, and finally go to California. The reason was not methodological, but personal: I wanted to spend the summer mostly at home in New York.

Incidentally, this was a good way to organize research trips for another reason. By starting close to home, I gave myself a chance to make mistakes or learn some crucial information in a relatively low-pressure setting: archives that are relatively easy to travel to are also easy to go back to. This is not the case with far away archives where there is pressure to make each day count and return trips are prohibitively expensive.

Once the order of trips is established, the next challenge is to estimate how much time is needed at each research site. Of course, carefully reviewing finding aids, emailing or calling archivists, and checking the availability of online materials are important first steps. Reading something about the history of the institution where the archive is located can also yield important clues.

But determining how much time to spend in a given city, or in a given archive, really gets easier after actually beginning the research. In my case, things I learned at the first few archives, like roughly how university publications are formatted, or how collections of personal papers are usually organized, or when institutions began to keep data on foreign students, helped me estimate how much time I would need in the next research sites.

However, nothing can guarantee an accurate calculation of how much time is needed. After my trip to Texas, where I spent four weeks and covered exactly what I needed to cover without any dead time, I headed to Los Angeles expecting to have a similar experience. In fact, I finished in half the time I had allotted.

Deciding what to do with extra time was stressful. Staying put would mean time lost, but going elsewhere would be expensive and hard to arrange at the last moment.

In my case, I was able to change my housing reservation in Los Angeles and book new plane tickets to travel to the California Bay Area, and I did some research there I had not expected to be able to include.

The new plans were formed very quickly because they were not actually new. They were plans I had already made but set aside. In my earliest research planning, I cast a wide net, and the “dream itinerary” described in my dissertation proposal included many more research sites than I have the time or funds to complete. But when I finished in Los Angeles very early and very far from home, I had other plans ready to implement, and I could take advantage of the extra time.

As someone who likes to make plans months (and years) in advance, I still think it is worth planning short research trips expecting to make changes, or delaying commitments to housing, plane tickets, and dates for longer than I would otherwise.

Each archive taught me something about what I might find at the others and how hard it might be to find it, and waiting to make plans gave me a chance to learn more from the first archives to make better plans for the next ones.

The next post will cover points 3 and 4 about what to look for in housing and how to travel optimally as a researcher on a budget.