I want to write-up, but Academic Research has re-wired my brain!
March 16, 2012 9:35 AM   Subscribe

The way I research (academic or otherwise) is increasingly incompatible with the tools I have. Reams of handwritten notebooks, and hundreds of word docs vs a highly tagged website only add to my self-created confusion. I'm drawn to Tinderbox software as a possible solution, but as an adamant PC user I'm locked out. How do you order your research? / How to write-up my PhD now my brain is fried?

I'm over halfway through a PhD and finding the writing up difficult, mainly because I have to store so many disparate notes and references in my head (having located them in said notebooks, word docs and all throughout my website).

My PhD is kind of experimental, in that the thesis component of my work will also be submitted as the portfolio (practice-based research).

It means I not only have to write up research, but write into my research, if that makes sense.

I say this, not downplaying the enormous amount of creativity and effort all types of PhDs require. I just think I'm at the stage where my research notes are killing my thinking.

Basically, I feel like hyper-connected culture has rewired my brain to such an extent, that 'traditional' gathering-up-research methods are failing me.

Please advise!
posted by 0bvious to Education (10 answers total) 27 users marked this as a favorite

Also, write more papers, at least two a year. Really helps the mental organization, I find.
posted by bonehead at 9:45 AM on March 16, 2012 [2 favorites]


It's meant more for writing novels and stories, but I think the organizational tools would work for anything.
posted by empath at 9:50 AM on March 16, 2012 [1 favorite]

Evernote seems like a good option. I especially like that it's keyword searchable and that you can email things to it to add them.
posted by ashirys at 9:53 AM on March 16, 2012

Nth Scrivner.

Also John Creswell's methods textbooks have awesome ideas on how to integrate past findings/lit review in a meaningful way. I'm using it to teach from and I found it inspiring?
posted by k8t at 10:06 AM on March 16, 2012 [1 favorite]

Best answer: You are presenting the problem as a technical problem, and hoping for a technical solution. But the core elements of the problem you are having are ones that I think anyone writing a PhD-length document has, to a large extent regardless of technology, and I don't think the solutions are primarily technical. Basically, the "traditional gathering-up-research method" has never really been appropriate for writing a PhD, even before the internet.

First of all, you need to be getting things down on paper and then revising. I think it is exceedingly rare that the first few passes for the organization of any document of this length match the final output. Maybe you aren't doing the following (it is a little hard to tell how much writing has happened), but it is very common for students to think they need to plan everything perfectly and then write it all down. This is wrong. Writing is a process, sometimes lengthy and never-ending.

Second, you need to develop some mental structure that you impose on your research. This can sometimes be developed using tools like evernote or whatever, but I think the issue is largely orthogonal, and there is no particular technological solution. What are the core big-picture questions your work is addressing? What are the answers you are giving? What are the central hypotheses in the existing literature, and more importantly, how does your work address these hypotheses? These are the kinds of questions that you will need to answer, most likely in consultation with your advisor, in order to impose structure on what you write.

In the vast majority of cases where a student has done a lot of research but can't write, my experience is that a major factor in the difficulty is that they are trying to just channel the existing literature, rather than get clear on their own claims/priorities and how to structure the arguments for those claims around the existing literature. And one very good way to get clear on this is just to start writing something, anything, about your own hypotheses etc. Inputting everything into the ultimate note-taking/organization software is rarely, in my experience, either necessary or sufficient.
posted by advil at 10:11 AM on March 16, 2012 [24 favorites]

I am using microsofts oneNote to manage some big research projects. You can mix lots of different things in one file without the strong serial nature of a word document. So I take notes as I am writing code or gathering data, then copy in output, graphs, links etc.

On the advice about writing I came upon this (from the historian Page Smith) the other day:
Begin to write early in your researches. Only by so doing will you know how to shape and direct your researches. My rule of thumb is to do a third of my research before I begin to write, a third while I am writing, and a third when I have finished (to see if there are any loose ends to be tied up).
posted by shothotbot at 10:39 AM on March 16, 2012 [3 favorites]

Best answer: I use Tomboy notes to keep track of my notes about articles. Very rudimentary, but works well for me. I put the complete correct citation as the linked headline, and notes can be grouped by key subject and searched for key words. Did this through all my MA classes and now I have a searchable database of every article I have read for class, plus any I used for papers, or just found interesting.

Notes can also be hyperlinked using the citation where useful.

It doesn't have much function, but is kind of a computer version of the old cue cards way of sorting out my ideas. Sometimes searching for a keyword brings a surprising group of articles together, which sparks ideas.

I am just trying out red notebook as a daily research journal. It generates a word cloud, I can tag it, or search words. Can't say much on that one yet.

Both are very very basic, which I like, because I don't end up spending time on features that don't add anything. It's just my response to the article, the citation, and quotes I may wish to use later, all pre-cited, and ready to drop into articles.

Ok, I think i have to get back to my papers. 8*]
posted by chapps at 1:20 PM on March 16, 2012

If you're drawn to Tinderbox, you might also be interested in DevonThink (also Mac only). Here's an example of how one writer uses it.
posted by fjord at 1:28 PM on March 16, 2012

Best answer: For the PC, Zoot can do much of what DevonThink does on a Mac.

For the writing part, I am partial to tree-based organizers like TreePad or MyNotesKeeper. They allow you to keep the various parts of the very long document you are working on immediately accessible for purposes of review and cross-reference.
posted by megatherium at 1:43 PM on March 16, 2012

Best answer: I think Advil's advice is excellent.

I felt like you when I got to what I thought was the "writing up" stage of my dissertation. I had 500 pages of notes in text file; eight binders full of annotated print-outs of journal articles, conference papers, etc; and many more scraps of paper with "READ THIS" scribbled on the top of impenetrable diagrams that made no sense to me anymore.

I struggled for ages to cajole this stuff into an outline, and then... I gave up.

I sat myself somewhere away from all my notes and tried to write the introduction just purely out of my head, with no opportunity to look at my notes and printouts or at the literature again. It wasn't a great introduction, but it was fundamental to shaping the rest of the diss. Only some of the stuff I had read and thought about before was still there in my head, but I had to trust that the important stuff had remained and that my brain had only dropped the more peripheral material.

I ended up writing most of my first draft that way in the end (except the literature review, which I could only do with my source materials all piled around me for constant reference). Outside of the lit review section, when I got to something where I had a tickle in the back of my mind that I had read something relevant, I wrote a note to myself in the document like, "XXX LOOK FOR THAT NOTE I MADE LAST YEAR ABOUT YELLOW THINGS" or "XXX DIDN'T SMITH 1980-SOMETHING SAY SOMETHING ABOUT THIS??" and I came back to those notes later and tracked down the relevant material. Sometimes then rereading those relevant materials meant I then wanted to significantly alter the direction I was going in that chapter/section, but that's okay. That's what revisions are about.

In the end, "writing up" wasn't a single final stage, it was more of a new way to engage with the research all over again and approach the same questions (and sometimes new ones) from a more "owned" perspective. I feel like that final year was a series of cycles of "write-research-read-research-write-research-read-research-write" etc before I finally finished, but I think that's exactly what a (non-hard-sciences) PhD is all about.
posted by lollusc at 7:59 PM on March 16, 2012 [9 favorites]

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