PhD Diary – March 2021

One of my earliest anticipations for the PhD was that there was going to be a lot of reading. While there is a large amount, it is not as much as I thought there would be. I always had this belief that doctoral students become an encyclopaedia in their area of study. Now undertaking this process myself, it is clear that is not the case. There is this innate desire when approaching a new topic to read as much as you can. To build up this reservoir of information, from which to create theories or test existing ones. Taking that approach risks getting buried in reading, not understanding the question you want to answer and vice versa.

It is far more reasonable to frame your reading in the context of building a network or web of knowledge. Each source you read is a node of information, but it is up to you to connect them together to construct the network. When reading, asking yourself where it fits within your network helps place research within wider contexts, helping identify gaps in literature. The quality of your research is far more important than the quantity. Which brings up a key consideration; how do you organise your research?

For me, this realisation came when reflecting at my method of managing references. I used the Mendeley Reference Manager software as it was something I was familiar with. The benefits of being able to import a PDF and make annotations, highlight, and write notes was useful. Yet, I found that I could not visualise connections between different pieces of literature. This was especially prevalent when reading studies that touch upon many themes. I kept building this large collection of literature and struggled to organise it in a way that made sense to me. That was when a fellow PhD student nearing the end of their studies brought up using NVivo as a way of organising literature.

NVivo was something I was familiar with as I utilised it for my undergraduate degree. My dissertation involved analysing around three hours of interviews, so I needed something that allowed me to pick apart the themes. I used little of the software features outside of highlighting and attaching themes to text. Because of this, I never considered using it as a reference manager. Also, NVivo was not built for the way I intended to use it, as it focuses on qualitative & mixed method data analysis. All that aside, being able to make themes and attach quotes from literature to them, establishing relationships between themes, create mind maps and memos, explore which files connect to each other in the larger network meant that I could organise literature how I saw fit. No longer would I fear the dreaded “Where was that one quote? That would be perfect here!” moment.

What works for one person will not work for another. For some, a granular and logic-based approach like NVivo is exactly what they need. Others may prefer using Zotero, EndNote or Mendeley, which allows grouping literature into collections and has features like web integrations or making citing references easier. I still have a backup Zotero library that contains all my references for easy bibliographies or sources that do not work in NVivo. The main takeaway from this is that whichever you choose, what is important is organising it in a way that allows the most efficient construction and change of your mental network. Knowing where things fit in your network makes constructing new knowledge far easier.

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