At a student seminar early on in my PhD process a professor urged us to keep a full series a notebooks: a ‘field’ journal (for detailed empirical observations); a ‘daily diary’ (to record dates of interviews, libraries visited, time and money spent); a ‘theoretical’ journal (for reviews of papers) and a ‘personal’ journal, (for musings). I was fascinated by such systems but was never terribly systematic myself. My own set of journals morphed into one morass of reflections-reviews-visits-musings-discussion notes. This meant that my fertile imaginings could run freely (which allowed me to range far and wide), but my ad-hoc approach also had some serious shortcomings (which I will come to another time). The notebooks, though, were (and still are) a reminder that researching is intimately entwined with writing. Buying a good notebook which feels ‘writer-ly’, allowing the physical expression of words, habitually reflecting, reworking words and idea-thoughts freely, scribbling and all for my own satisfaction….to allow this was a significant breakthrough for me (the engineer) on my PhD journey.
When I took breaks from studying for family it was easy to forget how far I had come and the notebooks were my reality check. When I was struggling with low energy, they reminded my of my reasons for starting and when I felt completely blank, they were a source of inspiration. Before I had a PhD proposal, a registration, a supervisor, a PhD desk or an office I had a restless mind, a notebook and a pen. That plus a coffee shop and a clear half hour was all it took to get started.