Keeping a research journal can be a very powerful research tool. Many great minds and historical figures used to journal, including Albert Einstein, Marie Curie, Charles Darwin, Thomas Edison and many more. 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 one.

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 doesn’t need to writing, you can draw, sketch, paint anything!

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)!

I’d love to hear about the benefits you have found with keeping a journal, or even the types of things you include in your journal.

30 thoughts on “Keep a research journal: It is important

  1. I’m in the fourth year of my PhD and my research journal has more words than my thesis (over 82,000 words so far). It has been a really important place to reflect on my personal journey, as well as the academic one. I write about the things I’m doing to explore my topic beyond the narrow confines of what is required by the thesis. It is a useful record of where I have been and how I am progressing. Often chunks of it become blog posts, and some paragraphs have been copied into the thesis. It will possibly become a book of its own one day. The happier I am, the less I write, so it seems to be a place where I let out stressful stuff too. Re-reading it at intervals is encouraging, because I can see that I’ve come a long way. I highly recommend keeping a research journal or a personal diary for all the reasons described in your post, but also for your own sanity.


  2. I have done this for projects in the past and it is SO important for projects that often get backburnered. With a journal, you can pick up right where you left off!


  3. Yes. This is really applicable to any walk of life. We are such wordy, intellectual creatures. Anything we do is enriched by a steady discourse with ourselves that we can easily keep in a pocket. Thanks for this reminder!


  4. A really great post! A research journal is also a great place to keep track of research databases and archives you have searched and keywords you have used in your searches.


  5. I’ve been trying to keep a research journal, but I have trouble with keeping it with me. I have a handwritten journal, but often my thoughts come at times when I don’t have a spare hand to write. I could use a recorder, but that eliminates the advantage of having everything in one place. Any ideas on how to integrate the two?


    1. I suggest you simply transcribe as soon as you get the chance. I used to transcribe first thing the following morning. It was a great way to get my head back into the research space.


  6. Great post! I have kept a journal since university for just about everything, but for some reason it took me a long time to apply the concept to research.
    My life journal is handwritten, but for research I find it easier to type things up. I use Evernote, which can handle audio recordings as well, doesn’t require an internet connection, and allows for tagging.


  7. As self reflexive journaling is a method of qualitative research, if I list this method within my research proposal, will this constitute my journal being part of the research data, thus owned by the University and able to be read by my department et al? If yes, would this mean two journals are kept? Thx!


  8. I loved this post. Do you have tips for going back to find things? I’m afraid if I hand write on my remarkable that I will lose things in the mass of words I will write. Do you often reread or have organizational ideas for making the journal easy to search?


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