3. Easier Dissertation Research – the System

This is the third article in the fourteen-part series ‘Dissertation Writing from Start to Finish’. For the full list of articles click here

In this article we’re talking about research, a very important part of the dissertation-writing process. This article will focus on setting up your system for capturing your thoughts and readings. The next article in the series discusses some useful resources for doing your research. 

The research process is a bit like planting a forest. You have trees of knowledge that spring up, some more prominent than others, some in clusters and some isolated. The trunks, the main ideas, go up big and strong, and branch off into smaller and smaller ideas and offshoots. 

Sometimes branches of separate trees touch, which can be very exciting — look for these connections because they can be important. For example, and quite simply, when researching my English dissertation I noticed that Ishiguro’s first three novels were all 1st person retrospective narrators. This ended up providing a frame for the first chapter of my English dissertation (see page 7).

Preparing the ground – setting up the system

What I always did was to make a big document with a list of all the articles I had read to date. I would put the article title, and the reference, and then I would put key quotes below, with my thoughts in a bullet point beneath the quoted paragraph. 

I made my research document in google docs, which is brilliant because you can create custom styles for headings (which you select using keyboard shortcuts – ctrl + alt + 1/2/3/4… for ‘heading 1/2/3/4…’), and then make a table of contents at the top which allows you easily to structure your reading. See an example here, which you can also use as a template. I also put a table of contents in my final dissertation.

Having a big document also means it’s really easy to word search (ctrl + F) for relevant material because you think ‘I know I’ve read something using these words’ and you can filter through to find it almost immediately.

When you’re making notes from articles, be sure to include your own thoughts in indented, italic text just below — this will really help your future self understand what you were thinking when you actually read the article.

Similarly, I always used to put “KEY” (‘K’ ‘E’ ‘Y’) next to the really good bits, so if I was scanning through or looking for something in particular I could do a keyword search, literally, and find the bits that I thought were most relevant.

You can use other software for collating the best bits from your reading. Some good ones might include: 

  1. Mendeley – I’ve heard Mendeley is brilliant, and it does clever things like make your bibliography for you. Make sure to get the chrome extension. 
  2. Notion – You could set up a page in Notion that does the essentially the same thing thing as Mendeley. This can be more personally customised, but won’t have Mendeley’s special features. I would use the resonance calendar template and adapt the tags. When you want to find something about a particular area you can simply filter by tag, or use the word search bar. Make sure to get the chrome extension.

Whatever method you use to capture your thoughts and reading, make sure you’re able to browse through it easily, and make the more important bits more visible. This is really important because it means that when you’re scrolling through you refresh your reading after you’ve read it, and it may become relevant in another context. A good system should encourage you to make connections between different areas. 

Working documents

When you’re working on your diss, it’s usually too cumbersome to have a single, giant document with everything you’ve written together. You want to break it down a bit so you can work on just one part at a time. I would therefore recommend having the following, separate documents:

  1. One document for each of your chapters (you can combine this later);
  2. A miscellaneous document where you dump all the extra ideas, paragraphs and half-sentences you’ve written but that you can’t find a place for yet; and  
  3. A ‘Notes and Reading’ document with useful quotations from your source materials, and your thoughts on them, as discussed above.

Now for some actual research….

I hope this has been helpful and given you ideas for the system you’ll use to capture your research. The next article in the series discusses some of the key resources you might find useful in doing your research; find it here.

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