9 Note-Taking Tips For PhD Research

Effective note taking

Taking notes when writing a PhD dissertation or thesis is one of the most important yet daunting tasks for any PhD student.

How you take notes can either make or break your PhD experience.

Luckily, there are some useful tips from previous PhD students that can make this task easier and simpler and make the writing of the PhD dissertation or thesis less tiresome.

This post is a collection of top 9 note-taking tips that have proved to be most useful and effective for majority of PhD students.

1. Choose a note-taking medium that works best for you

Some people work best with the good old paper and pen, while others are more comfortable with digital apps.

The medium doesn’t matter as long as it works for you.

2. Take notes as you read

Every time you read a material, take notes simultaneously. Do not wait to take notes afterwards as the human mind is bound to forget important points.

The reading should be active rather than passive. Active reading ensures that you critically analyse what you are reading and place it in the larger context of your own research and the research done by others.


Ask yourself questions such as:

How does this material support my own research?
How relevant is it to what I am doing?
Where does it fit in my own paper (does it support my background to the study or fits better in the research methodology)?
How does the material relate to what others have written on the same topic? Do the findings support others’ findings or do they contradict them? If the findings contradict previous research, what could explain the contradiction?

For a PhD student, active reading and note-taking is a necessity because you are expected to contribute to the body of knowledge in your field of study.

3. Include full references in your notes

The notes for each material read should start with the reference in the reference style recommended by your school or department.

Referencing your notes cannot be overemphasised.

This will save you lots of time when you start inserting in-text citations and compiling reference lists or bibliographies in your dissertation. You won’t have to worry about where certain notes came from and will save you the headache of going back to look for the correct reference.

4. Include some direct quotes

Direct quotes are useful in some cases as long as they stand out and are not just mere general knowledge. They may include: statistics or data that are relevant to your own research, some interesting findings from the research or the author’s unique interpretation of an issue, etc.

Always include the page number of the material where the quote was borrowed from. Direct quotes have to be referenced together with the page number.

5. Have a system for differentiating your own thoughts from the author’s writings

This is useful for avoiding plagiarism.

It is advisable to write the notes in your own words as much as possible. But sometimes it is impossible to avoid noting down exactly what is in the material even if it will not be used as a direct quote. This is especially the case if you want to remember some points the author made in the material for future reference without having to re-read the material again.

In this case, you need to put a system in place that helps you differentiate your own notes from the writings of the authors. You can use for instance a colour coding system where your own notes are marked by a colour of your choice, the author’s writings are marked by a different colour and the direct quotes are marked by a separate colour.

If you go by a colour coding system, then having key for the different colours used in your notes will be useful to avoid confusion as you go along.


An example of key for colour codes would be:

Red = own notes
Blue = author’s writings
Yellow = direct quotes

6. Make sure to digitise manual notes

Both pen-and-paper methods and digital methods have their pros and cons.

One advantage of using the pen-and-paper method is that it makes it easier to have clarity of thought. You can also easily add your own comments or insights to the notes.

“Plan in Analog — spend time in analog before jumping to digital”

― Carmine Gallo, The Presentation Secrets of Steve Jobs

The downside to pen-and-paper method is that the notes can easily get lost or rendered useless, for instance, by spillage.

The other downside to pen-and-paper method is the inability to find something easily. It is time-consuming to peruse through hundreds of pages looking for specific things. Whereas in digital media you can easily use the control F function to find whatever you are looking for.

It is therefore important to digitise manual notes using Microsoft Word or note-taking apps

7. Organise your notes by topics and sub-topics

Instead of organising your notes by authors (like we do in annotated bibliographies) or by dates, it is best to organise them by topics and sub-topics.

For instance, have a folder for the introduction chapter and create separate files for each sub-topic under the introduction chapter such as: the background to the study, the problem statement, research gap etc.

Do the same for each of your proposal’s or dissertation’s chapters including literature review, research methodology, results and discussion, and lastly the conclusion chapter.

This kind of notes’ organisation will come in handy when writing the proposal or the full dissertation. It will save you time spent going through the notes looking for notes that fit in each of the chapter and their sub-topics.

8. Integrate note-taking with dissertation writing

What I mean is: do not spend a whole year reading materials and taking notes only without writing drafts of the dissertation (or the proposal).

Always write something towards your dissertation on a regular basis.

As an example, you may decide that every Friday you will write 500 words of your dissertation to start with, and then increase the number of words you write as you progress along. So every Friday make use of the notes that you have made at that point and write a sub-topic of your dissertation.

If in the first year you write at least 500 words per week, you will have written at least 26,000 words of your dissertation at the end of the first year. You will then realise that after a while you are able to write 1,000 words and even more in one sitting. The more you write, the easier the writing task becomes.

Keep in mind though, that whatever you write at the beginning is just a draft that you will revise a number of times before it becomes PhD-standard material.

Another important thing to do when writing the drafts of your dissertation is to build the bibliographies or reference list simultaneously, rather than waiting to do this task at the end of your PhD program. Not only will this strategy save you time and headache but it will help you avoid many mistakes in the referencing at the end.

While building your bibliography or reference list be mindful of the required referencing style and always refer to the referencing style manual, even if you are building it with digital softwares such as Zotero. The digital softwares are not always accurate therefore the human eye is a necessity.

9. Build mind maps as you take notes

Mind maps are visual illustrations of the relationships between various concepts. While building the mind maps, include the sources in the notes for easy referencing.

Sample of a mind map

You can build mind maps manually (using pen and paper) or digitally using available mind mapping tools for the different operating systems (such as SimpleMind Pro for MacOS).

Final thoughts on Note-Taking for PhD Students

Effective note-taking habits and strategies form the foundation for an A-graded PhD dissertation. While some students prefer the good old manual tools, more have embraced the digital world. However, each of these platforms has its pros and cons. The best thing would be to have a blended system that incorporates both worlds. This post provides useful tips for taking notes that feed into PhD research thereby making the writing task less daunting.

Related post

How to Take Notes Effectively using OneNote (A Step-by-Step Guide)

Grace Njeri-Otieno

Grace Njeri-Otieno is a Kenyan, a wife, a mom, and currently a PhD student, among many other balls she juggles. She holds a Bachelors' and Masters' degrees in Economics and has more than 7 years' experience with an INGO. She was inspired to start this site so as to share the lessons learned throughout her PhD journey with other PhD students. Her vision for this site is "to become a go-to resource center for PhD students in all their spheres of learning."

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