Dissertation Advice: Take Notes

Previously, I’ve written in this blog recommending that graduate students give some thought to the importance of reading, writing, and attending defenses. For all of these activities, you will need to take notes. If there is one thing I wish I would have known more about when I began graduate school, it would have been how to read and take notes well!

I have been agonizing over note-taking for as long as I have been in school, but my note-taking as a graduate student began back when I was working on my M.A. at the University of Kansas. Here is a screenshot from one of my first efforts at note-taking in September 2005.

At the time, I was taking notes in Microsoft Word, printing them out, and then putting them into folders using the Noguchi filing system. The notes aren’t terribly bad, I suppose, but they could have been better. The citation style is incorrect, you get no sense of what the overall argument is, you have no idea how the book is structured, I didn’t include any page numbers, and there is no sense of me actually engaging with the text. It is just a summary of what I read.

Here is the same 2005 note that was considerably revised on February 9, 2009 for a course with David Leheny, and modified again sometime in 2010 or 2011 when I was drafting my dissertation.

It think it is much improved with the proper citation, a clearer sense of the author’s main argument, and details about the book that I simply didn’t even know to look for back when I first read it in 2005. The note-taking program shown in the screenshot is nvALT on the Mac, but I’ve also got English-language templates for Evernote available elsewhere on my blog.

Of course, after a few years of making these notes you’ll have hundreds or even thousands of them to draw upon when thinking about your own research. I recommend organizing these notes into relevant topics for courses, general examinations, and sections of your dissertation. The more “hooks” that you create to connect what you have read, the better.

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