When you are doing any sort of research it is important to keep a log book or journal as a permanent record of what you have done.
Why keep a research journal?
A research journal is a way of remembering what you have done and what you were thinking, what happened, what you concluded at the time and what you planned to do next. Instead of starting your research day wondering where you were up to, you will know immediately and it is much less daunting, especially if you are working on a very part time basis and there has been a weeks break. The process of writing down your thoughts and conclusions will help you develop them. Writing is a different form of thinking and a very valuable one. The process forces you to make decisions about what you are seeing and concluding and helps give your thinking direction. Over time you can look back on your journal and see how your thought process is developing. As you move into different sections of your research, the journal will help you to link your thinking about the new area with other areas, making important new connections that are the basis of the new knowledge you are creating. And when you come to writing up and meeting with your supervisor, you will have an easy resource to refer to. Your final dissertation must explain in detail what your have done, so start keeping a record from the beginning. Your research journal also forms an important legal record of your research and your intellectual property.
How to keep a research journal?
The key elements of a research journal are a place to write and perhaps draw. Each entry needs to be dated. An index or contents is useful to help you find things later.
If you use paper, a bound notebook is useful and in some disciplines may be required as a legal record. Number all the pages and leave the first 6 or so pages blank so you can use them to keep a running table of contents. Make sure your research journal is with you whenever you are doing work on your research, so you can use it to keep contemporaneous notes.
These days I find an electronic notebook the most useful, because I am not doing laboratory based work and my electronic journal is with me all the time on my tablet/phone/computer. Electronic records are easily searchable, allow you to copy and paste into documents you are writing, and are easy to make back up copies of. This is important as your research journal is very valuable and you don’t want to lose it! There are a variety of good, free writing tools you can use. For ultimate portability look for tools that can sync to the cloud. Examples include OneNote and Evernote and there are many others. When deciding on a tool things to consider are how it will be backed up and accessed, whether you need drawing and diagramming tools, whether you will be typing or want to write with a stylus, whether it can incorporate photos or screenshots, what sort of search features it has, and generally how easy it is to use.
When to write your research journal?
You should write in your research journal every day that you do some thinking or work on your research. You may write as you go, or at the end of the session, but make sure you do it!
What and how to write in your research journal
Your research journal is a private journal. It does not have to be neat. You do not have to write in proper sentences. It does not have to make sense to anyone but yourself (although do remember that you may have to make sense of what you have written 12 months down the track!). You can scribble and draw. You do not have to be a great artist. Your writing does not have to be profound. Do not delete entries from your journal. If you change your mind, say so (and why!).
You need to write the date and what you have done. Depending on what you are working on you may also include what you were thinking, why you did something,what you found, what you concluded. Finish an entry with a note of what you plan to do the next research day.
Keep a record of the books and papers you have read, the literature searches you have done (including the search terms you used), your meetings/correspondence with supervisors, discussions you have had with your peers, and thoughts you had at odd times of the day. I also find it useful to note down the filenames of documents I was working on. In my electronic notebook I can even put a link to them!
Its not too late to start your research journal. Find a system you like and will use and get going today!