How to Keep a Research Journal | Lex Academic Blog


Numerous books and courses on research methods emphasise the importance of maintaining a journal throughout the research process. But, for many, especially early career researchers and research students, the research journal remains a mystery. In this blog post, Dr Nicole Brown, author of Making the Most of Your Research Journal, outlines some key tenets of research journaling.

What is the purpose of a research journal?

Although many researchers are advised to keep a research journal, the reasons for journaling are often less well explained. The purpose of the research journal might be to accompany the research journey, but the journal can do much more than that. It can be a brain dump or an emotions dump, it can be a record of achievement, it can be a tracker of research budgets, it can be a career planner. And, indeed, it should be all of that and much more: after all, any form of writing, note-taking, mark-making or record-keeping has its value and plays its role in the researcher’s life.

What should you record in the research journal?

The question of what we record can be answered only in conjunction with the question around the purpose of the research journal. If we use the journal as a budget tracker, then obviously the financial details of any research need to be recorded. If our journal is meant to support our career planning, then maintaining an up-to-date ‘full’ CV is the form that journaling must take. For many, though, the journal accompanies the research process and in this context of journaling in relation to fieldwork, we can identify three different kinds of entries:

  1. Observations and conversations.
  2. Emotions and experiences.
  3. Thoughts and reflections.

Each of these categories represents a different layer of analysis and interpretation. Observations and conversations are at the most basic, descriptive level and merely record and recount facts. Emotions and experiences offer a second layer of interpretation, in that our what has happened and how we felt about it must be challenged and questioned for us to journal about it. The third, and probably most important, level of analysis relates to thoughts and reflections, where the journaler will start to extrapolate meanings and link to readings, thus beginning the process of analysis. In many instances, there will be overlaps between these categories, anyway, but, often, this final, third level remains most elusive and least often used. A good journaler will redress this by emphasising thoughts and reflections.

How should you journal?

The previous two sections hopefully demonstrate that there is no one way of journaling. Therefore, how we journal is as much a personal choice as the what. For me, writing notes and sometimes paragraphs comes naturally, and my journals from fieldwork are therefore very ‘wordy’. However, I also use lists, tables, graphs, mind maps, poetry, and even collages and object work when I journal. Here is an example of how to take systematic reading notes for a literature review. How I record things really depends on the purpose of the task at hand. Rather than fixating on a particular way to record something, it may be more helpful to follow your instincts and try out different approaches. Some approaches may work very well, and others will not suit you at all. At least, with journaling in various forms and formats, you will gain experience and practice, so that in the future the choice of how to record becomes easier.

When should you journal?

Most books and guidance on journaling and diary-keeping suggest that we devote some time each day to our journals. Of course, regularity is helpful in maintaining detailed logs of processes and developments. However, the reality is often that we feel daunted, overwhelmed and pressured by the ‘need’ to create an entry when there is nothing of value or importance to say. On the other hand, there are situations in which we have a brainwave, but we have no journal, no paper, no pen to record it. The trick is to recognise these patterns and to work with them. I know that walking will stimulate my thoughts and problem-solving, so when I do go for a walk, I make sure to take some recording implements. Because I love writing notes by hand, I often have the old-school pen and paper on me, but when carrying this isn’t convenient, I at least take my phone, which I can use to type notes or record my own voice. By listening to and following our personal, natural rhythms, we will journal regularly and meaningfully, and the process is less likely to become a chore and therefore be abandoned.

What is the most important journaling advice?

Research journaling is a personal, and, therefore, incredibly individual endeavour, as becomes evident on this padlet. So, do not let yourself be pushed or pulled into a particular direction, but follow your instincts. By releasing yourself from the ‘should’ or ‘must’ attitude around journaling, you can start enjoying the process, which will result in you journaling more regularly and consistently. The same is true for the form, format and medium of journaling: just because writing a journal entry in full paragraphs works for some, it doesn’t mean it ‘must’ work for you. Maybe you’re more of a mind-map person, a collage person, a poetry person or a LEGO® person. The point is that by forcing yourself to write in paragraphs, you work against your natural preferences and make the process more painful, arduous and frustrating than necessary. The most important advice therefore is let go of unhelpful preconceptions and enjoy the journaling experience.

Dr Nicole Brown is Director of Social Research & Practice and Education Ltd and Associate Professor at University College London. Nicole’s research interests relate to physical and material representations of experiences, the generation of knowledge and use of metaphors to express what is difficult to express, and, more generally, research methods and approaches to explore identity and body work. Her books include Lived Experiences of Ableism in Academia: Strategies for Inclusion in Higher Education, Ableism in Academia: Theorising Experiences of Disabilities and Chronic Illnesses in Higher Education, Embodied Inquiry: Research Methods, and Making the Most of Your Research Journal. Nicole’s creative nonfiction has been published in the Journal of Participatory Research Methods, So Fi Zine and The AutoEthnographer
She tweets as @ncjbrown and @AbleismAcademia