Keeping Dissertation Research Organized

 Cover of "The Research Process"

The Question: For a paper as extensive as a dissertation, how do you organize all your files? Today this process may be harder (in a way) than it was before the Internet. I have to make sure that my laptop and iPad share the same software and that I can get access to everything I need from both. I am not only talking about files, but knowledge gained each day as I discover which keywords work, which don’t, etc. I don’t want to waste my time tomorrow searching with a keyword I used today. I also have to be careful not to get distracted with the vast array of information out there. So I to know how to conduct an effective search.

The Situation: Today I’ve been doing research for the last … 6 hours. This is preliminary research: I look back at several journals (1950-present), type in key words, and try to glean something useful. Often, I will get thousands of results, which shows me that the keyword wasn’t a good one. I also get frustrated because I think “how do I know how to search if I don’t know what I’m searching for?”


1. Finding the right keywords: Figuring out keywords can be a drag. The problem is that when you are in a certain mindset, it is hard to think outside of your normal vocabulary to one that might be a “hit”. I have found that to become better at choosing keywords (especially for a long-term project) you have to keep track of what you’ve already done and make sure you don’t make the same mistake twice. I am NOT good at doing this, thus the graph I created today. I have to figure out a way to organize my thoughts.

Here are a few ideas about keywords that I’ve gotten from other sources:

The Keyword for Dummies book

A blog about blogging and keywords

A book on Internet Research

2. Organizing notes as you go – both hard and soft files – and choosing the right software for the task: Here are some notes I took today. It doesn’t look like much, but I’ve sat here for hours! The fruits of my labor are about 20 new and relevant articles that I can use for my research. The articles are stored on my computer and in Dropbox (an online free storage cloud – I highly recommend it) and on an external drive. The problem with my notes is that they have no rhyme or reason, no organization. This is a mess and I need to FIX IT.

Chaos Notes

After going over the notes above, I wrote in comments that organized what I was trying to gather into sections: Date, Journal, Keyword Search, Results and Thoughts, Additional Notes or Links to Great Sources.

Card Catalog

Card Catalog (Photo credit: Reeding Lessons)

Below is the draft of a table that I think may work. But with research, you never know until you try it for a while. When I was researching for my comprehensive exams, I bought a journal and wrote in it each time I researched. The problem was that soon I had so many sticky notes that they became useless and not enough pages on which to expand my ideas. I gave up on the paper journal.

In the table below, I have the date, the sources I searched that day, the keywords I used and their results, and my thoughts, linked to my Dropbox folder for that particular day. This has made me reorganize Dropbox – so now I have a file called “Dissertation Research” and then each Journal, and then the day I researched and the articles I found that day. I am not sure how this system will work but am going to give it a try. I’d love your feedback.

E. Jamison/Dissertation Research Notes

Date Journal Keyword Used Results of Keyword Additional Notes/Links to sources from search
January 3, 2013 English Journal Advanced Placement Testing 145 results. Found 20 articles/saved to files. Dropbox Jan. 3, 2013 Research Files
        There are great articles in this folder. The articles range from 1950’s to the present, and some of them even talk about the history of testing. It is important that I read each one of these.
  College, Composition & Communication (CCC) Beginning of AP Program 49 results Dropbox CCC files Jan. 3, 2013
        Only five articles, but there might be something of worth here.
Jan. 4, 2013        
Jan. 5, 2013        
Jan. 6, 2013         
Jan. 7, 2013        
Jan. 8, 2013        
Jan. 9, 2013        

3. Knowing when to stop researching and get to the reading: Although it can be frustrating and slow, I love to research. And I love to blog. My problem is that I have to know when to stop all the researching and blogging and when to just read, take notes, and write. This is a problem I see in my students as well. They will tell me that they’ve “read so much but don’t know how to synthesize what they’ve read into a coherent paragraph”. I know. One of my mentors told me that if you have no idea what to write, you haven’t read enough.

So what am I doing to remedy this? I carve out certain hours in the day just to reading and taking notes. During this time I am not allowed to check Facebook or WordPress. Tomorrow I will do this at the roller rink again (I am taking my son and a friend there from 3-6PM, just enough time to read a few journal articles and take some notes). I will also create another table for note-taking. Any ideas? I’d totally welcome them so I don’t have to recreate something.  


dropbox (Photo credit: Sean MacEntee)

4. Finding an effective online tool to organize bibliographic information: This has been challenging. You’d think that with all the apps out there that finding the PERFECT tool would be a no-brainer, but apparently it is not. For the past couple years I have used, Dropbox, and College memberships to databases like JSTOR. If you know of any better ones, I would be interested in hearing about them. really IS easy! With each project I “save” I enter as many sources as I want, with annotations if necessary. Often, Easybib can find the sources and can plug in all the source info with just a keyword or two, so it’s really easy. And FREE. that’s what I appreciate. I guess what I haven’t found is that perfect online filing system. Sure, there’s the cloud technology, etc. but I need help with filing. I didn’t inherit the file gene. So far I haven’t found a site that makes organizing files effortless.

So what is my main point here?

  • The time to start organizing your research isn’t after you’ve spent a year researching. Start organizing right away. Keep track of every source (easybib) and make sure to save all your files in multiple places (God forbid you lose something from your hard drive!).
  • Test different software that works for you. The Internet should make a lot of tasks easier. If you are having a hard time, that particular program probably isn’t the one for you.
  • Take notes when you read. Annotate on the margins, summarize in a brief paragraph, and synthesize multiple sources in a page or two. Blogging is great for synthesis; when we blog, we pull together all the information we’ve learned and hope to present it in a coherent way to our audience. That’s our goal as researchers and writers.
  • Create a system for your note-taking. Make it easy to go back and read your notes.
  • If it doesn’t work try something else. Researching is a skill, and if you aren’t naturally organized you may have trouble. Keep trying new ways to get your material together. But whatever you do – don’t let it get out of control. That is too stressful and will waste a lot of your valuable time.

I am learning as I go, so any feedback would be greatly appreciated. If you have any sources to add to this post, please place them (with links) in the comments and I will put them in this post with a link back to your blog.

5 thoughts on “Keeping Dissertation Research Organized

  1. I just found your blog!! THANKS. I am planning on reading it tonight. I have an idea for the question you asked about organization today – not my idea but a friend of mine who finished his dissertation. I would be happy to email it to you or FB or something so I can copy and paste it.

  2. Thanks for the great tips. I need help in organizing and sources by categories. How can I save just part of the article’s discussions or statistics with the citation for reference in my dissertation?


  3. Thanks for this very informative blog. I have to begin research but can’t seem to come up with a good organizational system without spending an enormous amount of time which I don’t have. I will definitely try yours. Would kindly share Heidi’s idea that she emailed to you.


  4. Pingback: Keeping Dissertation Research Organized | Ponderings of a Perpetual Student

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