Tracking Research Progress – Research Journals

By Mohamed Omar

As a graduate student, research can often feel daunting. One of the most common stresses is the feeling of little progress over long periods of time, as if one is getting nowhere. This can spiral into a lack of motivation and enthusiasm, which ultimately sets one back. How can such a rut be avoided?

One great tool to consider is a research journal. Writing a research journal is straightforward: at the end of your day, simply write a synopsis of the day’s research activities. This includes:

1) Writing results you have come up with, regardless of your opinion of its worth.  Strong research is often the culmination of many small ideas.

2) Listing conjectures you have thought about. This gives you concrete problems to work on in the days to come.

3) Writing a synopsis of discussions with professors or other graduate students.

4) Reflecting on a talk and its connections to your problems.

The benefits of a daily journal are plentiful. By maintaining the journal, you develop a chronicle of your thought processes over a long period of time.  This makes the big picture clearer, and adds a strong sense of direction to your research. On a microscopic level, viewing the daily entries once every few weeks gives you a concrete map of the progress you’ve made. Besides the tracking benefits, keeping a daily journal makes paper writing easier, you’re results are already written! All in all, a daily research journal is an effective and constructive addition to research.

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6 Responses to Tracking Research Progress – Research Journals

  1. Kareem Carr says:

    This seems like a great idea. It would be particularly useful when you make a wrong turn in your thinking and you want to go back to a previous iteration of your ideas. A common problem for me is I am usually better at remembering my current thinking about a problem than my past thinking about the same problem. A written record like this would be really useful in such cases.

    Do you have any tips about how you organize your journal? Is it electronic or paper? Do you have a particular format with a few fixed sections that you fill out or is it free form?

  2. Vishal says:

    Indeed, to echo one of Kareem’s thoughts, are there are any free electronic (perhaps web-based) math-journal-writing products around? For instance, we have the popular CVS that’s used for keeping track of software development. Perhaps, maintaining a math journal may have requirements not very different from the ones necessary for software development! Just a thought.

  3. Omar says:

    My journal is currently electronic. I write one .pdf every day or two. I use a standard template with 3 sections:

    1) Results/Work Done – This includes the whatever theorem/lemma I happened to prove/disprove, connections I have made in literature, etc.

    2) Computations – This is where I write up examples I’ve been playing with and the data that has come from it.

    3) Future Work – I write down what I’d like to do in the future to extend what I have seen in 1) & 2)

  4. Gourishankar says:

    This is an excellent idea for an undergrad student like me specially when i’m doing summer projects. The project write up will then be very easy to make at the end of the summers.
    Thanks !

  5. Ben Braun says:

    I would suggest going one step further; keep a binder with ALL your work, even scratch work. I started doing this in my third year of grad school, and now (in my 2nd year tenure-track) I have filled 4 three-ring binders with my research notes. I just write on whatever paper is around, then three-hole punch it and stick it in the binder. Every once in a while, I go through the binder and write a “table of contents” so that I can easily look at the beginning and see what is in there.

    One thing that I didn’t realize as a graduate student was how many projects start early and take a long time to come to fruition. Doing this can help keep ideas alive for a longer period of time, at least for me.

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