Keep a research journal: it is important

Very few people I come across keep a research journal, they often don’t even know about the concept. I want to share information about what to put in the research journal, and why I think it is important to keep on.

What is a research journal?

It is a record of everything that you are thinking about your research, or what you think at the time of your research. It is everything you are thinking about your research. It is not the place to take notes on your literature, but it is really a place where you can write down things that you are thinking about your research.

It is meant for YOUR EYES ONLY. It is not something you have to show your supervisor, your peers or boss. It is a place for reflection on your research. You should feel free to write what you want, without worry of perfecting the writing, or even worrying about whether the ideas are correct, or valid.

Your journal doesn’t have to be written. You might choose to talk into a recording device. I used to record notes before and after interview in the car on the way to and from interviews. At a later stage, I would listen over these and selectively transcribe the notes into my journal.

What are the benefits?

  1. The practice of writing: It helps you keep writing, which is one of the things many students and researchers find challenging. It is easier to do with a research journal because you know that no one else will look at it, and you know that you don’t need to sure of what you are writing.
  2. Seeing things in writing can help clarify ideas: If you are unsure of your ideas or analysis, it can often help if you try and write it out. Seeing your writing, and sometimes the process of writing itself can help clarify ideas in your head.
  3. It helps when writing up the project: You can use your research journal to help you with writing up your project. If you have a record of all your reasons, justifications and decisions about the project, you can use some of this in your final report/thesis/paper. Research projects can be long, and you might forget a lot of those things, so having it written down somewhere can help at the final stages. Particularly with introductions, and methodology sections.

Ideas on what you can include in your research journal:

All notes on your topic, including:

  • Why you like the topic (could be because of personal experiences)
  • Why you chose the topic
  • Potential research questions
  • Books/articles you would like to read
  • People you want to speak to about your research
  • Things you want to explore that seem beyond the scope of your research, why you want to explore them, and why you think they are beyond the scope.
  • Decisions about narrowing your topic, and why you chose to narrow it in t hat way (could be as simple as “because I was more interested in that”)

Notes that relate to analysis of your research, for example:

  • What you think you will find
  • What you think you are finding (as your research progresses)
  • Any relationships you might be seeing
  • Things that don’t make sense to you
  •  Areas which you find interesting, but don’t think relate directly to your research question (might be something “new”)

 Notes on your method, such as:

  • Thoughts on which methods you are thinking of using
  • Thoughts on your sample, and sampling technique
  • Methodological mistakes
  • Methodological triumphs
  • Justification of your method
  • Reasons for selecting the method/s you did
  • Pro’s and con’s of your methodology
  • Thoughts before and after an interview
  • Personal feelings before and after an interview (because they can affect the information that you collect).

Keep everything in one document, and keep it in chronological order. Use headings to differentiate between topics.

To sum up: What do you put in a research journal? EVERYTHING!!

My research journal read like a diary at times. I even included personal information about what was happening in my life. It helped to keep me writing, and helped me understand why I chose to take my research into certain directions.

Remember that no one else has to see this but you. There will probably be a lot of jargon and rubbish in there, but there will most certainly be some real gems of writing that you yourself will marvel over.

It is never too late to start, so I suggest go open a new document called “research journal” and get typing right now!! If you are stuck, and don’t know what to type, I always used to start with “I don’t really know what to write now, but…”. So go get writing (or talking)!

Posted in Research Design, Research methods, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , | 19 Comments

The Importance of the Research Question (and how to discover yours)

Question marks

The other night, I was having a chat to my father about research and methods. He is an academic in engineering, and very much a positivist. I really enjoy discussions with him about research methods and measurement because he approaches thing from such a different perspective. One of the things I love is that even though we can be talking about the same topic, he will always be asking questions I would never think to.

So the other night, we were sitting outside chatting about methods, and he asked me a question that I had never considered. He asked “how can you have 95% confidence or more in your results, based on the data collected and analysed”? It took me a little while to think over this and answer. Particularly because my brain is not wired to think in these statistical ways. In the end, I told dad that it all came down to a good research design. This was one of the rare occasions that Dad and I agreed. There are many factors that go into good research design, and one of the most important is having a good research question.

All too often I come across students who have collected data, have even started analysis, but still don’t know what their research question is. Unsurprisingly, these students, and sometimes staff, get stuck during analysis. I often wonder how they decided to select their research method, and choose their interview/survey questions if they weren’t even sure what they were looking for in the first place. No wonder people get confused and lost when it comes to analysing data!!  How can you say you have an answer to something, when you don’t even know what the question is?

In the second chapter of her book Handling Qualitative Data (2009), Lyn Richards says three questions must be asked, which are:

  1. “What are you asking?
  2. How are you asking it?
  3. What data will you need to provide a good answer?”

These are essential to a good research design. In her chapter, she drills down and goes into more detail with each of these questions and provides a guide on how to go about answering each one. (If you haven’t read the book and are stuck on research design or coming up with a question, I highly recommend that you have a read of this chapter in particular).

I think coming up with a question is easier than what some people think. I’ve listed a series of questions that I often ask students when they struggle to come up with a research question. If you are struggling with a question, I suggest you try answering the questions. You might come up with a research question after only the first one or two which is fine, but I have a number because sometimes it is more difficult depending on your topic or interest.

Q: What is your research question?

Q: What about [topic] interest you?

Q: What about [topic] do you want to explore further?

Q: Complete one of these statements: “I am interested in” “I want to discover” “I want to explore” (there may be others).

Q: Now put a question in front if it eg: What are the [processes; types; ways]  [topic]? OR: What is the [process; way; type etc] [topic] ? OR How do people [topic]?

By asking a series of follow up questions to your main topic, you can help yourself narrow it down, and formulate the question. Once you have a question, play around with it. Try and phrase it in lots of different ways. See which one stands true for you. It can take time, and you need to be comfortable with it. It might even change during the course of your research.

Even when designing questionnaires and interview guides, the phrasing of a question can make a big difference. This talks about the impact the phrasing of a question can have.

I also suggest you consider your personal relationship with your topic and question. Ask yourself, why this topic? It might be because of a personal experience, or the experience of close family or friends. Then write down why you chose that particular question over the others. No-one has to see the reason. It is just for yourself. You will find that it will come in handy when it is time for you write your methodology chapter.

How are you going coming up with a research question? Do you think it is useful to have? What helped you come up with one?

Posted in Research Design, Research methods | Tagged , , , | 7 Comments