By Claire Aitchison

What’s the use of journaling during doctoral study?

In this blog I wish to explore the value of other kinds of doctoral writing; that is, the musings and note-taking, the random jottings and scribbles, that sit aside from the major task of thesis writing. I am concerned with what might be called journaling or diary-keeping, that is, writing NOT necessarily undertaken with an explicit intention (at least at the outset) to become part of the published thesis or journal paper.

Quantitative research often requires the keeping of careful notes and records in official Lab Books—but here my focus is the less formal, non-compulsory note-taking associated with qualitative research. From my experience, journaling is commonly advocated in qualitative research and is associated principally with two functions: data collection and analysis, and for diarising the PhD journey. Both can be generative activities, enriching understanding and interpretation of the research. The objective of the former is to enhance the data collection and analysis through keeping notes and reflection. The latter is more personal, involving perhaps more psychosocial motivations, and the benefits may be less easily predicted or defined. Mary-Jane Ward wrote about this function (rendered through blogging) in one of our earlier posts.

Journaling about data

Qualitative methods texts frequently recommend students keep a diary associated with data collection as a place to record research observations, notes and reflections. In my own doctoral research, following participant interviews I often sat in my car jotting down notes. Some of these were straightforward observations, others were opinions, or half-baked ideas, propositions, explanations and/or suppositions about what I’d heard or how I’d been affected. My notes often included personal emotional responses: did I believe what I’d been told? What wasn’t being said? How much rapport had been established? What was my gut feeling?

Some of these notes were brief dot points, others were more extensive narratives, sometimes I made sketches or mind maps trying to identify connections between an individual participant’s responses and what was already at issue in the literature. I mostly wrote by hand. I recall these as energised writing activities: I was trying to capture the immediacy of the experience and document raw thoughts, inspirations and feelings before they left me.

At the time, I wasn’t sure these musings would come to anything, and certainly many scribbles were never more than that—however, I came to realise that in my research I could validly incorporate some of these notes…

Journaling as data

Early in my longitudinal study, because I was really struck by the state of one participant’s home, I noted the worn couch, the rough and ready state of the kitchen and broken floorboards. As I interviewed more people in their homes about their choices and beliefs, I realised more strongly the importance of recording these observations as data. My recordings about the materiality of people’s lives enabled me to compliment the self-disclosure participants gave about their economic wellbeing and to make more nuanced evaluations in my discussion and analysis. This early note-taking ended up being significant for my thesis, and yet at the time I had no idea if, or how, it might be relevant.

Journaling and thinking

So, some spontaneous recorded observations and reflections may become useful as data or for driving and refining data collection, but I want to argue that even where this doesn’t happen, or the research approach wouldn’t accommodate the incorporation of researcher observation, journaling can be beneficial in other ways. In the example I gave, the job wasn’t done simply by recording observations—these notes spurred my thinking which then required me to do more reading, more observing, noting and thinking. I needed to consider how strong this link was across the data sets and over time, and to (re)consider how well my theoretical framework could help account for the connection between economic circumstance and choice-making. It became a central theme and theoretical anchor (but you’ll have to read my thesis to see!).

From journaling to writing: turning ramblings into text

The fourth way that journaling can help is for the development of writing skills—especially the critical reflective writing that is foundational to an authorial voice. Regular diary/journal-writing develops writerly skills and cultivates a critical, thoughtful frame of mind.

In his last published essay, Deliberation (1979), Roland Barthes reflects on his own journal-keeping as a staged process, beginning with “when I write the (daily) entry, I experience a certain pleasure: this is simple, this is easy. Don’t worry about finding something to say: the raw material is right here right now…” (p. 479). This initial carefree journal/diary style reminds me of Elbow’s “freewriting” (1973). In a second phase, Barthes describes returning to the diary entry the next day as the critic attending to the writing, impatiently reworking and improving the text, moving it from journal style to something more palatable. We have written about these separate functions elsewhere. In the third phase—months, even years later—Barthes describes “a kind of narcissistic attachment” to his writing rediscovered. But still he asks, “Is it worth the trouble?” of keeping a journal, since this act necessitates secondary ones to transform the journal notes into something publishable. In the essay, ultimately Barthes concludes that indeed the journal gains its value through the process of transformation from those early scribbles into some other kind of text: “a labor at whose end it is indeed possible that the Journal thus kept no longer resembles a Journal at all” (p. 495).

Do you think it is worth the trouble of keeping a journal?


Barthes, R. (2018). Deliberation. In A Roland Barthes Reader (ed.) Susan Sontag. pp 479- 495. London: Vintage Classics Penguin Random House.

Peter Elbow (1973) Writing Without Teachers, Oxford: Oxford University Press.