Getting a Grip on the Chaos


Herman Lelieveldt's series, "The PhD-Doctor," offers Ph.D. students hands-on advice on how to tackle the hurdles and challenges of their Ph.D. projects. It is based on excerpts from his book Promoveren--Een wegwijzer voor de beginnend wetenschapper. You can also read this article in Dutch.

When writing essays and papers at the earlier stages of your university career, you were probably able to rely on memory and a stack of memos. Writing a dissertation, however, requires a much more solid approach to organising your material. In this article I'll first discuss a couple of tools that can help you structure your knowledge, such as tables of contents, mind maps, and path diagrams, and then give some recommendations for the physical and virtual storage of your information.

Organising Your Knowledge: Tables of Contents, Mind Maps, and Path Diagrams Of course, writing memos, papers, measurement reports, and chapters will take you a long way in making sense of your research. Still, there is a serious drawback to all these written materials and that is that they have to be read. It will really help if you have some way to visualise your results, enabling you to literally see in the blink of an eye where you are heading, what the weak spots of a certain theory are, or how your fieldwork or experiments are progressing.

My first suggestion is to start working on a provisional table of contents (TOC) as soon as you get started on your research project. The TOC provides the framework for the project: It shows how you will present the results to the reader. As such it forces you to always keep the end result in mind. Your first TOC will, of course, still contain a lot of open ends. So far so good; that very fact will help you focus on those parts of your project that still need a lot of elaboration.

In addition to the really short outline that a TOC essentially is, it is wise to make a more extended TOC that connects your research plan to your writing plan. Such an extended TOC not only contains chapter and section headings but also gives brief summaries of the argument that is developed in each of them, theories that will be covered, and empirical tests on which your results will rely. With such an extended TOC in hand, it is much easier to keep track of all the themes of research and to see if certain groupings of themes really make sense or rather should be rearranged.

Mind maps are a second way of organising the dissertation material. Although a small cottage industry has developed around Tony Buzan's brainwave, the mind map essentially boils down to the idea that ordinary texts force people to think linearly, whereas in reality their thoughts develop in all directions. Instead of writing a text, mind map aficionados start out with a single word or concept on a preferably-very-large piece of paper and simply engage in a brainstorming session that is as unrestricted as possible. By using arrows, words, pictures, and colours, thoughts and ideas around a common theme are literally envisioned. This may make it easier to connect ideas that at first might seem unrelated or to come up with a full assessment of the problem that you are studying.

Path diagrams are a third way to visualise parts of your work, by forcing you to specify relations between concepts. Put each concept in a box and build a (causal) model by connecting them with the appropriate arrows. Such diagrams can not only help you build your own theories but are perfect as well for outlining the often complicated and maybe elusive arguments scholars may make. When nailing it down in a path diagram, you may often encounter inconsistencies or outright contradictions in what, at first sight, read like a theory that seemed to make perfect sense.

Saving Your Data: Databases and Folders

We've all seen those romantic pictures of eminent scholars, half-hidden among stacks of books, papers, unfinished sandwiches, and cups of tea. Obviously they would not have risen to such prominence if they could not find their way in such a haystack. Still, most of us would indeed get lost and need to organise our stuff from time to time, because otherwise we will get stuck.

In many cases the physical appearance of too much stuff will at a certain point invade your mind and start bothering and distracting you. This is the perfect moment for a little cleanup operation. The first rule is to dare to throw things away: What you have not needed for months, you will probably never need again. Otherwise, put them away in drawers and file folders, but make sure that you have some way of finding them again. You will note that organising your messy physical workplace will often also clear your mind and give you new energy to tackle the work at hand.

Special attention needs to be devoted to organising your literature. In addition to noting the basic details of a publication, abstracting it and linking it with key words are invaluable tools when it comes to getting your references lined up for use in articles. Software packages such as Endnote and Procite offer an excellent way of storing all these records and of including them in papers at the touch of a button. Such automated referencing systems are much less error-prone than entering references manually. Moreover, these programs come with referencing styles for thousands of journals, which will save you hours of work in adjusting them to a journal's specific format by hand.

Electronic Files

Computers have become indispensable workhorses for any Ph.D. student, not only for writing the manuscript but also for analysing data, communicating with colleagues and friends, and searching the Web's innumerable databases. Despite the advances in computer technology, everything that is stored electronically is vulnerable. Viruses, fires, theft, and crashes are particular enemies of computers and their files and can destroy months or even years of work in a couple of milliseconds.

Backing up your data is an essential antidote to all these threats. This is most easily done by storing the data on the university's computer network, because in most cases these systems are backed up every night. (But do not count on it: Check with the computer system administrator!). Even if you do this, you should also back up your data from time to time on CD-ROM and take it home with you, just to be sure.

When deadlines are tight, backing up the most essential stuff every day and taking it home with you is essential. It is the only way to be able to move quickly to another location or computer to get on with the work. One quick safeguard is to e-mail the latest version of a paper or data set to yourself so that whatever happens, a copy of it is in your mailbox and can be accessed from any computer with an Internet connection.

Nonetheless, despite numerous precautions, things will go wrong and most of the time it will be your own fault. After a long, tiresome day toiling on an extremely difficult part of a paper, the program asks you if changes need to be saved, and in a sudden blackout you click "No." A day's work has gone up in smoke.

Now, resist the temptation to find the nearest bar and get drunk; instead try to restore the damage as quickly as possible. Immediately type or write down as much as you can remember: You will notice that by doing it straightaway a surprisingly large part of the material, and at the very least the structure of your argument, will come back to you. The longer you wait, the harder this will be and the more frustrating the whole endeavour will become.

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