How to Keep a Research Journal

Keeping a meticulous research journal changed my life.

When I first started out in research, I had no idea what I was doing. I attended my very first research meetings without a single note-taking device. Discussions would go in one ear and exit the other. Although I was already aware that my memory was pretty disastrous, no other thing confirmed this more than recalling zero information only a few minutes after exiting my advisor’s office.

And so, I began to keep a research journal.

After many trials and many more errors, here are some steps I continue to use to keep and maintain a research journal. πŸ™‚

The first step to starting a research journal is finding the perfect journal. There are plenty of options out there and if you’re reading this then you might already have a journal of your own. This is a journal that you will carry wherever you go throughout the duration of your project. So select one that you really like!

It should be sturdy enough to survive angry shoves into your backpack when it’s the end of the day and you still can’t figure out how to format the axes in your subplots.

I’m personally using a basic, Environotes Recycled Spiral Notebook. Although I am not married to the brand, the notebook itself possesses a set of features that I really appreciate. For one, the pages are sturdy enough so that my pen ink does not bleed through. It takes a powerful and clumsy hand to accidentally tear out a sheet. The back and front cover are super thick and strong. Despite its light blue color, the front cover rarely shows scuffs or stains. And more importantly, the sheets are made of sustainable sugarcane fiber, so I feel a little less bad about writing so many notes.

Please note that this is only the notebook I use. Choose a notebook that you will enjoy using. πŸ™‚

Yes, I know. This isn’t your fifth grade English class. Still.

The first page of my research journal is dedicated to a Table of Contents (TOC). The main purpose of a TOC is to give the writer and reader (in this case, probably both you!) an overview of the journal entries. Before I added a TOC to my journals, I used to spend countless minutes flipping through my notebooks trying to find an old note or parameter. Including a TOC in your journal makes it infinitely times easier to locate specific entries and refer to them at a later date.

Table of contents are semi-annoying to maintain on a day-to-day basis, so I usually update them at the end of the working week. Doing it at this time helps me take in and review the amount of work I’ve already done and formulate plans for the following week. πŸ™‚

Don’t forget to number all your journal pages afterward!

Here’s an example of what my current Table of Contents looks like.

Date
Title
Tiny Summary of Contents
Page
7/17/2020
An Introduction to Interferometry
Fundamentals, Questions for Advisor, and Applications
1

The next section of my research journal is dedicated to an organizational legend which details the structure of each journal entry. Thinking about and solidifying the structure early on reinforces consistency throughout journal entries. Some of the things that I include in each entry are the date, a to-do list of the day’s activities, and upcoming group meetings.

This is the perfect place to define color-codes for notes and symbol keys to give your journal additional context when you’re doing a quick flip through. For example, questions I have for my advisor are bubbled in gray highlighter, tasks are accompanied by a box to check off once they are complete, and productivity timers (which I also log) are prefaced by a double slash “\\”.

So far, the best note-taking method that has worked for me is the Cornell note system. The exact format is as follows. Each journal entry comes with a date, a Title (it’s OK to save the title for last!), a thin left column, a thick right column, and a Summary.

The thinner left column (30% of page) is reserved for main points, objectives, and questions. Here, I also like to jot down the bigger picture or motivation for the work I’m doing that day. The much thicker right column (70% of page) is reserved for additional information on the topic, the steps I’m taking or have taken to accomplish the objective (ie., an infinitely long table of all the trials I’ve done in an attempt to obtain a result), and the answers to questions I’ve posed.

At the end of the day, I include a brief summary on what I’ve accomplished, what remains to be done, and how the day’s work fits in to the main purpose of my research project. This gives me a chance to reflect on the journal entry’s contents and evaluate how much progress I’ve made.

My research involves a ton of trials, and sometimes I can spend hours on end tailoring a specific parameter to best match preexisting data in the literature. During days like these, it is easy to lose motivation. Without a concrete sense of how much I worked, I tend to feel like I haven’t really accomplished much.

And so, I decided to keep track of how much time I work. Logging your productivity is incredibly easy if you’re already implementing productivity techniques like the Pomodoro Method. Besides quantifying the amount of time I’ve spent seriously working, jotting down the length of my work sessions helps me keep myself accountable and procrastinate less. Since I already wrote down that I will work for 45 minutes in pen which I obviously cannot just white-out, I’ll simply convince myself to continue working until the time is up.

At the end of the day, as part of my entry summary, I tally up all the timers I noted and write down the time I spent working. Little work sessions add up. πŸ™‚

Maintaining a well-documented research journal can be perceived as tedious, but it is absolutely essential for both early-career and established researchers. It’s never too late to be mindful about your work, implement more efficient note-taking techniques, and keep a re-vamped research journal. πŸ˜€

I got a few questions about electronic ways to chronicle research progress. Although this post is primarily intended towards physical journals, I am planning on doing a post on some programs I use to keep up with research! Subscribe below to be notified when the post is published! πŸ˜‰ ❀

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