Developing Ideas for Your PhD Thesis as You Consult Sources
Reading a source that deals with topics and concepts central to one’s own doctoral research and dissertation can be highly inspirational – rather like brainstorming in a conference setting, except that the meeting is between your mind and that of the author whose work you are consulting. You may find that your ideas develop and change as you read, and in some cases new ideas will arise and take you in unexpected directions. Perhaps, for instance, the methodology used in a study you read encourages you to reconsider and refine your own methods, or maybe the limitations or recommendations you encounter in a source inspire you to make adjustments that will allow your work to contribute more effectively to knowledge in your field. It is important to record such ideas and developments at once before they and their details fade or escape your memory altogether, and writing them down can itself be part of the process that develops and refines your ideas. Such writing is a natural and useful part of producing professional scholarly prose and is always worth the time invested, if for no other reason than the fact that writing something down often helps fix the information firmly in the mind.
You can, of course, record your original thoughts about a source entirely separately from the iterative notes that report the content of the source and the critical notes that assess that content and its author. They could, for example, be written in a different notebook, typed into a different computer file or recorded on different (and perhaps differently coloured) sheets of paper. It often proves impossible, however, to separate different types of notes about a single source without writing a good deal more text, and it can in any case be useful to maintain the connection between such intellectual developments and the sources that inspired them, so you may well want to add your brainstorming notes to your other notes on a source. If you do, it is essential that both they and any critical thoughts you have about the sources you read be clearly distinguished from the ideas and information actually contained in those sources. There are several effective ways of doing this: left-hand pages in a notebook might be used for bibliographical and iterative notes, while the right-hand side is used for critical and brainstorming notes; your original thoughts might be recorded on the back of the pages of a photocopied article; or your own ideas might be merged with your other notes but distinguished by using a different colour of ink or enclosing them in brackets. The main goal is to avoid confusing your own thoughts with those of the authors whose work you read, because such confusion can lead to misattribution of ideas as you cite and quote sources in your dissertation, especially if you are unable to access a source again and must rely solely on your notes.
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