An Ode to Taking Notes

One of the most daunting things about starting this PhD is deciding how I will compile the enormous amounts of notes I will likely need to write 100,000 words. It was quite an overwhelming concept, and after I had a rather blatant stress-dream in which random members of the Department of History kept giving me extra jobs to do and silencing my protestations with cheerful reassurances of my capabilities, I decided I had to come up with a ‘system’.

I spent the evening googling note-taking systems and research diaries to try and find something that suited me and the work I need to do. There’s a fair amount out there about science-based PhD work, so I had to be careful to focus more on managing the type of archival research that I will be doing. I discovered that using a bullet journal would be really helpful, but I’ll blog about that another time. For note-taking, I found Dr Ellie Mackin Robert’s tutorial videos to be absolutely what I was looking for. For one thing, I could really relate to her efforts to juggle academia and parenting, and her videos show that these two parts of your life will constantly affect the other. Her youtube channel will guide you around various aspects of beginning an academic career, and her note-taking video is a brilliant and comprehensive way to actually see how systematically compiling notes will help keep your focus on your research and stop you flooding yourself with random post-its with half-formed ideas on them.

Here is the note-taking system in a nut shell:

  1. Use an index. When you begin a new notebook, keep the first couple of pages free for an index. Take the time to number your pages throughout the book, so that when you begin a new book or article, you can fill in your index with a brief title and page number. You’ll save yourself a lot of time riffling through notebooks finding your thoughts on that article you read on the train a few months back. When you’ve finished the notebook, write the names of the books/articles etc that you’ve written about on the front cover.
  2. Use one specific notebook for a key text. My thesis is on the GFTU, and there is only one book that has been written about them so far. I have to go through this book with a fine tooth comb, so I have one notebook for this one particular book, and the index details which chapters I am going through at which pages. I have a key for points that I want to stand out, and you can customise this for whatever your research needs are. I think this key is a good idea for each notebook, but you’ll need to figure out what you want to stand out. Keep space reserved for adding to it as you go along. Here is the Key at the beginning of the notebook, and the symbols in action in the notes. I like to underline direct quotes to stop me accidentally stealing someone else’s words, and to keep track of other historian’s opinions and conclusions so that I can be aware of this when I come to pull together the original sources for myself.








3. Fold the pages. I haven’t run this past Dr Mackin Roberts yet, but I’m going to go ahead and call it The Mackin Fold. It’s a simple yet effective technique that helps me focus when reading back over my notes. Folding the page down the middle to create two columns means that the information on the page is just a little bit more focused, and each point is easier to glance at or skim across. This might not work for everybody, but it really works for me!

I thoroughly recommend you watch the videos Dr Mackin Roberts as put up about note-taking for research, using a bullet journal, and just about every other topic she covers actually. her video spells out this technique much more comprehensively, and it’s very useful to have it visually explained. I found her attitude to her work life and health really inspiring, and I’m very grateful to be able to adopt her research methods and use them in my work. And follow her on Twitter too!

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