How I Research

For all you budding researchers, I thought I’d share with you how I conduct research. It’s very important to establish a good system at the beginning of your studies, and it helps to be organised. I wasn’t a particularly well-organised person until I first began teaching and your life is ten times more stressful if you’re not organised so I adapted pretty quickly.

Anyway, this system can be used for primary and secondary source research. It can also be adapted to suit your particular needs. I like writing. Like, with a pen and paper. But I know that a lot of people prefer writing directly onto a computer so that’s fine too.

Here is my step-by-step guide to researching:

First, I read the material and take notes.

Whenever I come across an important piece of information I write it down exactly as it appears in the source. It’s okay to paraphrase but I prefer to have the exact quote – I can paraphrase later if I want. Make sure to take note of the page number if it is a book or if it’s a diary, letter or some other archival document write down the date of the document, who wrote and/or received it and other important information. This will save you loads of hassle when it comes to writing your chapter or paper later.

All of this note taking is done with pen and paper in my notebook and I keep all the notes for a particular source or document together. The name and location of my source is clearly written at the top of the first page. For example, ‘Nathan Hill Papers, Duke University’ or ‘Ronald E. Butchart, Schooling the Freed People’. Sometimes, to save myself the hassle later, I include the other information that will be needed in my footnotes or bibliography, such as date and place of publication.

Second, I record the important notes into a word document.

This is the most important step but it does not have to be done immediately after the first step. Sometimes I wait a day or two to give my head a break! I’m still working during those couple of days, I’m just doing something different.

I have five running word documents for each of my thesis chapters saved onto my computer. For example, I have a word document entitled ‘Northern White Teachers’ and another entitled ‘Black Teachers’. As I read through my hand-written notes for a particular source, I record the relevant notes into one of the five word documents.

Let’s say I’ve read the diaries of a black teacher. Most of the notes I have taken from these diaries will be used in the chapter about black teachers. Some notes, however, could be useful in another chapter, perhaps if it supports a point I plan on making somewhere else or if it contextualises an issue I raised somewhere else.

As you record your notes into your word document you categorise them. This is the most useful part of the process. So if I’m recording my notes from the diaries of a black teacher and I have a quote which suggests black teachers’ motives, I will put that particular quote under a section entitled ‘Motivation’. This process happens naturally. You don’t need to have created subsections prior to beginning your running document. Then, at a later stage, when I’m in the process of recording my notes from another source, and I come across another quote that suggests the motivation of black teachers, I will put that quote in the same section. Just be sure to clearly mark your source at the end of each quote, otherwise you’ll be very confused when it comes to writing your chapter!

Does that make sense? I hope so! I was kinda hard to explain…

Third, I write my chapter!

This system works very well for me because as I continue adding new sources and new quotes to the word document, my word count increases bit by bit. These quotes are the foundation of my chapter. They are the evidence I need to back up a particular point I’m making. The rest is just filling in the blanks. So by the time I start to write my chapter, a huge chunk of the work is actually already done.

So that’s how I conduct research. Everyone has a different method. I could probably save myself some time by recording my notes directly into my word documents but I find that I get too distracted that way. It’s whatever works best for you! Feel free to share how you conduct research.

Academic Writing Tip #1

I am by no means a superb academic writer. But I hope that by sharing the mistakes I’ve made with with you here, others will avoid making them also.

My first academic writing tip is: Reference as you Write.

This may seem obvious but, unfortunately, I didn’t do it. In History, we use the footnote system of referencing. As I wrote I inserted footnotes when needed but only a very brief citation, such as the author’s name and page number. Sometimes I didn’t insert any citation!!! And that’s something I deeply regret now, namely because I spent two days inserting full references into a 17,000 word document and I’m still not finished. And it’s tedious work let me tell you. So if you’ve any sense you’ll learn from me and not make the same mistake. Thankfully I only did it in one chapter and as I write my current chapter I make sure to insert full references every time!