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Our guest blogger this week is Dr Amanda Lee. Amanda is a senior lecturer in Business & Management at the University of Derby, with a professional and academic background in Human Resource Management. Her research encompasses individual and organisational effects of remote working practices, managerial control and surveillance, the changing nature of professional and academic identity, ethnography and qualitative research methodologies. Find out more about her research here. She is Senior Fellow of the Higher Education Academy and Chartered Fellow of the Chartered Institute of Personnel & Development.

By Amanda Lee

PhD candidates are frequently encouraged by supervisors and researcher developers to maintain a journal during their studies. For doctoral writers, this can feel like an imposition on their time and effort, especially if that writing is unlikely to be used for the thesis itself. In this post, I’d like to explain how and why this process is so valuable, so that you’ll have some evidence to put to sceptical PhD writers.

When I think about why I first started writing my research journal, it was because I thought I had to. It was something that was encouraged and seen as integral to the personal development of doctoral students. So, to begin with, it was a bit of a chore, but it didn’t stay that way for long. Now I look back on it, keeping a journal was one of the most fulfilling, creative, useful and productive things I did during my doctoral studies. What started out as my own personal notes, observations and musings became integral to my PhD. It helped me identify my philosophical position, theoretical framework, the direction of my research and provided rich insider insights to the case study I was researching. It helped me to develop as a writer, encouraged me to be reflexive, provided the contextual underpinning for my research, aided the analysis of my data and contributed to publications. It convinced me of (and crucially during my viva demonstrated), the value of auto-ethnographic accounts. Personally, it also served as a safe place I could go to and write about the inevitable highs, and all too frequent lows, of doctoral study.

Photo by Jess Bailey on Unsplash

Billings and Kowalski (2006) suggest journaling stimulates increased personal awareness in respect of individual beliefs, values and practices, as well as those of others with whom we interact. They track the emotional and intellectual journey of the researcher and provide insights into how we learn and evolve over the process of conducting research. This facilitates understanding of how the different contexts in which we live our lives come together to shape various aspects of the research process.

My research journal (which in the end comprised three volumes), was completed over six years, between 2010 and 2016. In writing this blog I went back to my early journal entries, and what was obvious looking back was how my writing changed and evolved over time. In the beginning, my entries were very descriptive, for example, stating what I had done, summarising what I had read and recording supervisory meetings. However, there was some evidence of me trying to organise my thoughts and ideas, especially in respect of pinning down my overall research aim, which, incidentally, took me almost two years to settle upon. Six months into my PhD, I received the devastating news that my director of study, i.e., my supervisor,  was migrating to Australia. This was a bolt from the blue and I felt incredibly let down, but it was also the time when my journal really started coming into its own. It was a safe place where I could just write down how I felt and ponder what on earth was I going to do now? At the same time, it also helped me rationalise what was happening and I discovered the cathartic power of writing. I began to think about the opportunities a change in supervisor could bring. I began seeking out potential new supervisors, outside of the comfort zone of my own institution where I was studying at the time. I recorded all of this in my journal.

Twelve months into my PhD I managed to secure a new supervisory team at a different university. This was another turning point for me. My new director of study was so excited when I told her about my journal and she encouraged me to think about it in a completely different way. Up until that point it had been something personal, just for me, more like a private diary, but now I was opened up to the possibilities of ethnographic and auto-ethnographic approaches to research. This is best illustrated through a couple of journal entries I made at the time:

I am an organisational actor embedded in the context of my research. Not to take advantage of this could be a missed opportunity and the closeness of my involvement can be used to strengthen my research.

Taking an ethnographic approach makes it essential to reflect upon the process of research, and a section on reflexivity should be included in my thesis. I notice myself how this journal has changed in nature and is no longer just a collection of my notes or observations. I am also recording my thoughts, feelings and ideas.

As a result, I avidly started reading papers and books on ethnography and expanded my journal to include photographs of my everyday observations and experiences, copies of email conversations with my supervisors and other artefacts. I also started making audio recordings, which helped me to capture my thoughts, feelings and observations “in the moment”, which was sometimes more convenient than writing it down. My primary data collection phase spanned 18 months, and during this time my journal also doubled up as a field diary, as well as somewhere to record and track my thoughts and ideas on data analysis.

If you have made it to the end of this blog, you will have gathered my enthusiasm for journaling. These days, I always encourage my own students to have a go. If you haven’t tried it before with doctoral writers, please do; if you have, keep going – you already know it will be worth it. There are so many ways candidates can record information from hand-written notes, typed memos, audio and video recordings, blogs and so on. As well as our ever-present mobile phones, there are many other digital tools available for note-taking, such as diary and journal apps. But don’t underestimate the power of the note book and pen at the bedside for those eureka moments when you wake up in the middle of the night!

Do you have experience of doctoral research journaling? We are keen to hear about your insights into this element of doctoral writing development.


Billings, D. and Kowalski, K. (2006) Journaling: A strategy for developing reflective practitioners. Journal of Continuing Education in Nursing. 37(3), 104-105.