My research diary: recording the twists and turns of a part-time doctorate

This post is by Dr. Julia Everitt (@juilaeverittdr) a Research Assistant in the Centre for the Study of Practice and Culture in Education (CSPACE) at Birmingham City University.  Julia has worked in education since 2001 including FE colleges and schools.  She moved into a research position in higher education in 2014 and worked on numerous short-term temporary research contracts before she secured her first full-time position in August 2017.

The complexity of research and personal life

Undertaking research is complex, messy, and not as linear as suggested by the timeline of activities we outline in project Gantt charts. During my doctorate, there were twists and turns as I made decisions around which literature to include and which theoretical approaches to apply. There were also the actions that arose from discussions with my supervisors and my response to the dilemmas, in negotiating access to research sites. Alongside my doctorate, my personal life was complex and messy – six years is a long time and during this, we moved to an unmodernised house and lost close family members to failing health and then bereavement. I used a research diary to record all of my reading, thoughts and decisions – the diary stored them in a central location where I could return when working on my doctorate amidst this complexity. This blog explores the idea of a research diary and its usefulness.

What is a research diary?

Silverman (2000) advocates the use of a research diary to record:

  • Research activities with dates
  • Your reading
  • Details of data collected
  • Directions of data analysis including ‘special achievement, dead ends and surprises’
  • Your reactions
  • Your supervisors’ reactions and suggestions

I had used a research diary during my MA dissertation and decided to continue with this for my doctorate. I started my EdD in January 2012 and between then and when I handed in my thesis in May 2017, I completed four research diaries, using A4 hardback-lined books.  Since then I have completed two more diaries, which makes seven in total.  I used the four diaries during my part-time doctorate for the following:  

Literature themes and visual interpretations: I explored 100 years of education policy through an online archive and textbooks that I could not afford to buy, so I made detailed notes in the diary. I also created visual interpretations including mind maps of themes from policies and timelines from key periods. I was able to revisit my interpretations as I read other literature to synthesise and make connections.  The notes are in date order, which makes them easier to locate. I would also annotate printed or PDF copies of articles and reports, then record my notes in reference software (e.g. Mendeley), but I would use my research diary to record my thoughts.

Emerging theoretical frameworks: The older policies have illuminating language including reference to social change (e.g. slum clearance) and I started to read sociology textbooks to make sense of this.  I made notes and visual interpretations of theorists’ views of society. I noticed the explicit and implicit use of models within the literature, which I drew into the diary or stuck in a printed version. These were my early noticing around the use of Bronfenbrenner’s Ecological Model of Development (1979) from the literature. I did not know that this would ultimately feature within my thesis – it was an early noticing and my diaries capture how this unfolded. I used images to understand and discuss the ontological and epistemological decisions that I made and represented these in my diary through an image around paradigmatic decisions that went into my thesis.

Supervisor interactions: I would take my research diary to my supervision meetings and draw on it to discuss my progress. I would share my thoughts, the models I had located or visual interpretations of theories. I tried to record the notes of supervision meetings but I found this difficult during the meetings so I would do these after. I would print out email feedback from my supervisors and stick them into the diary. This was useful as it records the discussions and decisions from these interactions.

Learning from events and networks: I attended events, workshops, and conferences run by professional associations (e.g. BERA, SRHE), doctoral colloquiums, symposiums at my own, and other universities. I created visual interpretations including mind maps of theories for instance Bourdieu’s habitus, capital and field to develop my own understanding. I attended events around viva preparation, publishing, academic writing and have revisited these notes at different time points. I would also make notes/thoughts of presentations about my research and capture academic details for future contact.

Methodologic dilemmas: It took a year to collect the data from my case study schools and I recorded the dates and attempts to access, the action I took and thoughts. I drew a mindmap of the planned and unplanned events, which delayed access to schools, an image that I used in my thesis. As I think about sharing the aspects of my journey, many aspects could be blog posts or journal articles from these diaries.

Analysis: I printed NVivo coding structures and captured this development in my diary. I coded the literature in the diaries with post-it note tabs as I undertook a content analysis of my interviews and moved back and forth between the literature and the data. As the literature was recorded together this made it easier to code than the individual items.

During my part-time doctorate, I found the use of a research diary to be helpful to record all of the twists and turns. My seven diaries are numbered and in date order so I can go back to any point easily to find my interpretations of an article, policy or theory. This is helpful when lives are complex when we are juggling work, a part-time doctorate and personal life. Therefore, when the time slot arises to continue this work – the research diaries make it easy to pick up where I left off the last time.

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