Recording Useful Content when Reading for Your Thesis or Dissertation
A primary reason why many PhD candidates take notes is to record the useful content they find in previous publications. Such notes are only useful, however, if they are both accurate and carefully organised. It may seem when you are busy reading that you will remember in detail the ideas and authors you encounter, and in some cases (the sources you rely on most, for instance) you will, but after fifty or a hundred books and articles on similar topics have run under your eyes, they tend to blur, so it is essential to record your notes in a clear and organised fashion that caters to your human memory. The use of separate notebooks or perhaps paper or index cards of different colours to distinguish notes on different kinds of sources or different topics can be an excellent organisational tool for keeping track of your notes, and different colours of lead or ink can produce a similar effect within the pages of a single notebook.
Notes taken from a source should begin with the necessary bibliographical details, which provide an effective heading for notes recording the information and ideas you find important and interesting as you read that source. If you have a copy of the source (which might already contain bibliographical details), you may simply want to highlight, underline or mark with a relevant word or two in the margin the information and ideas that interest you. If you do not have a copy, however, one of two strategies can be used: if the source is readily available to you, shorthand notes that emphasise the main or most important ideas and act as triggers to jog your memory and help you find the information again will often be sufficient, but if you may not be able to consult the source again, your notes will need to be precise and thorough, recording accurately everything you think you may need. Direct quotation or transcription can be best, although time-consuming, in such situations, and checking your work for accuracy and clarity is essential: you need to be able to read and use the material at a later date with complete confidence. Whether you have continued access to a source or not, the exact location within the source of any information you record should always be noted: this is usually done by writing down a page or folio number, but there may also be column numbers or the paragraphs may be numbered instead (in an online document, for example) or section numbers may be more appropriate (in an e-book without page numbers, for instance).
Although the time needed to take careful notes can seem excessive, accurately and thoroughly recording all the information you may need from the sources you consult makes it much easier both to find that information again and to cite or quote it properly when you are busy writing your dissertation.
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