Saturday, 29 October 2011

Organisation of research projects

I strive for organisation. I don't always achieve it, but I always want it, because it makes life SO much easier! As you can tell, I do this a LOT in the way I plan my daily life- Filofaxes etc- but I also try to do it in my academic life. The major thing for me is organising research projects.

I have to do a lot of research projects, but until recently I hadn't formulated a logical structure for organising them. I had tried to do this a while ago, but this past week I've managed to perfect it! I'm so happy with myself! I have to say, the inspiration came from the method of organisation you use for filofaxes- dividers, with a place for everything, and everything in its place!
First came the realisation of how to organise my folder, then I put my mind to the actual process I should use to be organised in doing the actual research itself.

I have to say, before you start reading, this set-up is relevant for my course, Egyptology, and other evidence-based subjects, e.g. history etc (among others, although I can't think of any more specific ones). This may not work for you if you do a very different course which isn't evidence-based; but you may find some interesting tips in it anyway!

So first, I will explain the lay-out of my research folder, and then the process of researching for different types of research projects.

  • Divider 1 is 'Organisation'- the space for to-dos, list of questions to ask, etc. Subsection 1.2:
  • Divider 1.2 is 'Instructions, methods'- where I write instructions for my assignment, methods and techniques to use in it.
  • Divider 2 is 'Evidence- Dataset/Catalogue'- The most important section- where I will accumulate the evidence I will be using in my research assignment. I will explain why this is so important later. Subsections 2.1 and 2.2:
  • Divider 2.1 is 'Analysis of Evidence'- where I write notes on my analysis of the evidence behind divider 2 
  • Divider 2.2 is 'Interpretation of Evidence/Importance of Evidence'- After I have analysed the evidence, I will write up my interpretations of it here
  • Divider 3 is 'Research'- Where all my notes I make from my research go. Behind the main tab I have lists of books/articles to look at, keywords to search for in the Egyptology publications databases. Subsections 3.1 and 3.2:
  • Divider 3.1 is 'Basic/Background Research'
  • Divider 3.2 is 'Specific Research'. I will explain the distinction between these 2 in a minute
  • Divider 4 is 'Discussion points/Arguments'- I don't know if this is the proper term, but I mean the main topics I will be discussing in my essay; and the notes/evidence I will use to demonstrate/argue these points
  • Divider 5 is 'Plan'- for my essay plan, where everything comes together in an organised and structured way, before it gets written up into my drafts!
Each section has its own divider (cheap ones from Tesco, but pretty colours!), while each subsection is a divider, but I have cut the side-tab off and taped it to the top of the divider to create a top-tab! For quick access within the main section.

So, this folder is how I keep all my notes etc organised which I produce when carrying out the research procedures below. This is the essence to my whole system of organisation: the folder is important for keeping your papers organised in the specific sections, but you have to follow these procedures to be organised in your research to start with.
Different types of assignments require different procedures. The two types of research projects in Egyptology, and in other subjects, are as follows:
Question-based papers
Evidence-based papers
The distinction is as follows: in an evidence-based paper (whether this is an essay set for a student to do, or an article written by an academic), you start off with a specific piece of evidence or group of evidence (dataset) which you analyse and interpret, and it is this evidence which leads on to questions you can address in your research and your discussion. In a question-based paper, you start off with a question (or issue, or statement), and this question itself leads you to the topics you will address in your research and essay. That really is the difference: fundamentally, is your assignment based on a piece of evidence or not? Take these examples: (I'll give examples relating to the subject of History, because more people understand this than Egyptology!)

Did the policy of appeasement cause World War Two, or was the war inevitable?

To what extent did Chamberlain's 'Anglo-German Agreement' cause World War Two?

The distinction between these two questions is on the surface quite slight: both are about the same subject (appeasement), but the first is a question-based assignment- the question leads you to keywords and issues and ideas which you can use to find books, to research the subject, to write your assignment; but the second is an evidence-based assignment- it uses the 'Anglo-German Agreement', the piece of paper which Hitler signed, agreeing to not start a war, as the start of the whole research project, and then you answer the question based on your analysis of this major piece of everything. An evidence-based assignment starts off with evidence, while a question-based assignment finds it along the way. 
Why do you need to know which category your paper falls into? Because the different types of assignemtn uses different procedures. This are the best procedures I have developed for each type of assignment:

Evidence-based assignment:
  • Write down the instructions of your assignment, and make sure you understand them (Divider 1.2)
  • Collect (print out/photocopy) and file your evidence/dataset (Divider 2)
  • Review the evidence/dataset, so you know what sort of topics, issues you will be addressing, keywords to look up etc-->
  • Using keywords etc, make a starter bibliography (using whatever bibliographic database/catalogue is relevant for your course). (Divider 3)
  • Do basic/background research on the general subject and the piece of evidence/dataset in general using these books you have identified in your bibliography. (Divider 3.1). (This is different from specific research- basic/background research is to give you knowledge about the subject in general, so you know enough about the subject to interpret the evidence, and understand the arguments of scholars who have written about this subject).
  • Analyse your evidence/dataset (Divider 2.1)
  • and interpret it (Divider 2.2)
  • Use the background knowledge you have gained, and your interpretation of your piece of evidence/dataset, to develop the main discussion points/arguments you want to discuss in your paper. My lecturer says that an assignment between 2000 and 5000 words should only have 3 discussion points- she wants depth of argument and quality, not quantity (too many issues covered) that doesn't discuss them in enough depth or quantity. (Divider 4)
  • Then, do specific research on the piece of evidence/dataset, and your discussion points- specific research is what goes into your paper, whereas basic research just fills in the gaps in your brain! (Divider 3.2)
  • Write this into your plan (Divider 5)
  • And develop your arguments, by doing more research, and keep writing this up into your plan, and round and round again!
Question based-assignment:
This is somewhat easier because this is what undergraduate students are used to doing.
  • Write down the question (and instructions) and make sure you understand it/them (Divider 1.2)
  • Once you understand what your question is asking of you (you know keywords etc), use keywords to make your starter bibliography (using a database etc) (Divider 3)
  • Do basic/background research on the general subject from the books/articles in your starter bibliography (Divider 3.1)
  • Summarise the main themes/issues you have learned from your basic research
  • Start making your evidence/sources database (evidence you find along the way, that is important for answering your essay question- this is continuous, do it every time you find a piece of relevant evidence, whether in your basic or specific research) (Divider 2)
  • Then analyse and interpret this evidence, towards answering your question (Dividers 2.1 and 2.2)
  • Using your basic research, your summaries of the main themes/issues, and the patterns/interesting features you have found during your analysis/interpretation of the evidence/sources you have found, make the (3) discussion points/arguments you want to make in your essay (Divider 4)
  • Do specific research on your discussion points etc (Divider 3.2)
  • Write into your plan
  • Develop your discussion points etc

I hope all this makes sense! If you have any questions or want me to clarify anything, just ask me in the comments!

Have a great weekend :)


  1. What is your specialty within the field, if you don't mind me asking? I've always had a passing interest in the Ancient World, partly because one of my research intersects with cultures in the region. Coptic iconography is fascinating. The Faiyum Portraits in particular are amazing. Not only for artistic/historical significance, but because they humanize the Ancient World. For me at least, the FP depicted the faces behind the historical facts.

    Anyway. So sorry for the long comment. I sort of get nerdilicious when it comes to academics ;oP It's great that you're doing Egyptology. It's such an interesting, vibrant, useful field. Useful in that we must reflect upon the past to have a future.


  2. Hi Leilani! Thanks for your comment,it's nice to hear that other people have an interest in the ancient world too! My speciality is in the First Intermediate Period/early Middle Kingdom, which was the period after the Old Kingdom, when the pyramids were built! not many people know much about Egyptian history, so I feel like I have to explain... :)

  3. Geeking out you do work with the Dialogue of Ipuwer? What are your thoughts of it supporting Biblical accounts of the plagues?

    The Ipuwer Papyrus is so fascinating, and I feel like it is still so relevant even with modern application.

  4. That is actually my lecturer's expertise! His name is Roland Enmarch, he did his PhD on it! I am focussing on the First Intermediate Period from the archaeological/non-literary texts (i.e. funerary texts, diplomatic evidence, graffiti, not literature) point of view, but hopefully in my PhD I will look at the First Intermediate Period from all perspectives, including literary texts like Ipuwer! But I haven't done much on Ipuwer so far!

  5. Lucky duck! Outside of Egypt, the U.K. probably has the best Egyptology programs. In the U.S., I know that Brown has a great program (a former visiting Professor, Nicola Denzey, teaches there), but I'm not sure about the rest. At Harvard, Egyptology is lumped under Near East.

    Have you gone to Egypt yet?

  6. Yes, I went there last summer and it was fantastic!! Egyptology at Liverpool is brilliant, but unfortunately there aren't many unis which do it here (only Cambridge, I think maybe Oxford, University College London, Swansea and dear old Liverpool), but Liverpool is second only to Cambridge :) When the new people in my MA class introduced themselves, they all said they came here because Liverpool is known to have the best Egyptology MA! I love it, it's brilliant!! Brown does sound great, I would love to go there, but yes, Egyptology is being gathered more and more under the umbrella of 'Ancient History' or 'Near East'; fortunately it stands on it's own two feet here! :)

  7. Thanks for such a brilliantly-detailed post! I'm doing an Honours research essay this year (10 000 words), and I think I'll be referring back to this post often.