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    A Blog from GradHacker and MATRIX: The Center for Humane Arts, Letters and Social Sciences Online

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Journal Writing for Graduate Students

The benefits of keeping a daily journal while in graduate school.

September 9, 2014
 
 

Justin Dunnavant is a PhD student in Anthropology at the University of Florida. You can find him on Twitter @archfieldnotes or at his blog AfricanaArch.

As archaeologists, it is customary for us to keep research journals while conducting fieldwork. Earlier this year I found myself excavating in a remote part of Ethiopia, camped out on the side of a mountain. Every night I would sit down for 15 to 30 minutes and write about the day’s work, weather, new foods, and other day-to-day experiences. But in the midst of field research, the journal was not only an opportunity for personal reflection, but a source of data in and of itself. My leather-bound notebook included commentary about excavations, people, and places. I jotted down comments about interesting finds, unsolved questions, and potential research ideas. I even made a few sketches and doodles to help think through some of the more complex problems with which I was confronted. Writing in the journal at the end of the day forced me to synthesize my data and situate my work within the larger context of my overall research agenda. More importantly, I was able to reference my notes when it came time to write up my research and prepare my dissertation proposal. Near the latter part of my time in Ethiopia, I made a commitment to experiment with the idea of keeping a permanent journal when I returned to the States. Since my return in April of this year, I’ve been keeping a daily journal and seen many positive changes in research, health, and overall productivity.

Research

My journal serves as a point of reflection for the articles I read, the writing I complete, and the conversations I have with colleagues and advisors. From these notes, I’ve been able to outline new publications as well as weigh the pros and cons of undertaking certain research projects. Perhaps most important of all, I’ve found myself consulting my journal as I compose grant proposals and research agendas. Looking back on the process, journaling has helped me to understand how much work I can realistically complete in a given day and saved me a lot of time and stress associated with overcommitting myself to too many tasks.

Health

In addition to keeping track of my research, journaling has enabled me to track my progress in a number of other health-related goals. Over the years I’ve found that I’m bad at keeping New Year’s Resolutions but much better at “New Academic Year’s Resolutions”—for some reason, August has always been a better month than January for starting and maintaining new habits. In an effort to get healthier this school year, I’ve started cooking more, snacking less, and staying active. In my journal I keep track of recipes that taste good, healthy snack alternatives, and my 5K training regimen. Since I’ve stopped eating past 9:00pm and started eating breakfast on a regular basis, I’ve noticed that my 5K times have improved and I’ve been able to cut back on coffee while still having more energy during the day. In the past I’ve also had trouble with waking up early and convinced myself that I’m just not a morning person. However, forcing myself to wake up early on the weekends—as well as the weekdays—has made it much easier to maintain the habit of the 7:00am wake-up call.

Productivity

Related to my overall health, I’ve also see dramatic changes in my productivity as a graduate student. Keeping a journal has forced me to establish a regular writing routine. Creating and maintaining a writing routine has been one of the most fundamental pieces of advice promoted in books on writing and completing the dissertation. It helps to build momentum in research and writing, making it easier to push past writer’s block. Setting small goals of a few hundred words per day in a journal can lead to real progress when it comes to writing longer journal articles, grants, thesis chapters, and ultimately the dissertation. I usually begin or amend a journal entry just before I start working on a larger focused writing project to clear my mind of any lingering distractions. As a form of writing yoga, “It is a way to let your mind run around for a little while, after being penned up for so long in the strict confines of the dissertation-style of writing.”

Journal-Writing Prompts

Many people are hesitant to keep journals because they feel they have to commit to writing a lot of words or stick to a heavy regimen. When I began writing, my initial entries were short—no more than a couple hundred words per day. It wasn’t until several weeks later that my entries began to top 400-500 words. Writing journal entries should be therapeutic, not cumbersome, and you should feel no requirement to meet word limits—at least in the initial phases.

The most difficult aspect of keeping a journal is trying to determine what you should write about. There are a number of writing prompts out there, but I’ve found that writing about new habits, goals, and interesting life occurrences is the best starting point. I determined early in the journaling process that my goal was to track my research, health, and productivity. With those goals in mind, I began to track my progress and adopt new habits that worked for me. If you are teaching this semester or working as a graduate assistant, you may want to consider keeping a teaching journal to better understand which lesson plans work and note potential areas for improvement.

Journal-Writing Apps

If you are considering keeping a journal, there are several different ways you can go about it. There are plenty of journaling apps for iOS and Android devices, but many people prefer the traditional pen and pad for their journaling needs. It provides a moment to detach and unplug from the electronics at the end of the day and the freedom to doodle when necessary. If you are comfortable with being more open with your journal, you can turn to the internet and start blogging about your research.

I currently use at traditional pen and pad when writing in the field and the DayOne app for everyday writing back when I’m back at school. The DayOne app sits on my phone’s home screen and my desktop, allowing me to make notes throughout the day and upload a photo for reminders and note-taking. More importantly, the app allows me to tag entries so that I can quickly search for #researchideas, #health, and #productivity. I use my journal to track my study hours, workout routines, and other aspects of my research that I need to more critically analyze. For those who like to keep more private information, DayOne also allows you to protect your journal with a unique password. It should be noted that the one of the major drawbacks of mobile journals is their inability to accommodate doodling and sketching, which I find important, especially for fieldwork.

Do you keep a journal? How has it helped you in your research and as a graduate student?

[Image by Flickr user Abizern and used under Creative Commons licensing.]

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