Dissertation Help: Why Doctoral Students Should Use Reference Software

Dissertation processes break down when students cannot find, or have poorly organized their reading. Lack of beginning organization will result in loss of time throughout the dissertation process, and time is your most precious commodity throughout graduate school. This article covers the beginning organization of dissertation reading and writing, while focusing on the frequently asked question: “Why should I use reference software?” While EndNote is the software that I use, and therefore know most intimately, any software might work as long as it allows you to do these three things: first, helping you capture and organize your notes, second, allowing you to cite and build a reference list while you write, and third, allowing you to change reference styles easily. All three attributes to good reference software along with brief notes as to how they will help you in your dissertation process, are discussed in this article.

Capturing and Organizing Notes

Beginning doctoral students rarely understand the importance of capturing every little part of their thoughts in a database from the time they begin. The notes you take now,on the ideas you have as you read will become invaluable later. If you don’t start a reference library at the beginning of your process, at some point you will have to back up and capture ideas you have lost. As a secondary student I was brought up in the times when people kept notes on notecards. We were trained to put down the complete reference, and then capture each idea that we found interesting and might use for our writing in the future. That same idea holds today in reference software such as EndNote. You are doing more than capturing that reference and what you read, you are capturing your ideas about it.

Because you’re using a database you will have fields, some of which you may need and some of which you may not need for each particular type of reference. Be sure to fill in each necessary field every time you pick up and read an article you find worthy of note. This can be done by electronic transfer, depending upon your library, from your library database directly to your EndNote file. You also might consider simply typing in the information needed as oftentimes that is faster than electronic transfer. Never leave a reference without capturing notes about your ideas on the article in the lower database fields. Why did you read this article? What did you find important about it? What ideas do you not want to forget? Make sure that all of these questions are answered before you close out of any documentation on your reading.

Citing and Referencing While You Write

Academic work requires that we acknowledge the other authors whose work we have read and who influenced the ideas about which we are writing. This is not the same as quoting them verbatim. I suggest that you start a habit of writing what you think from your own point of view, and then, at the end of each paragraph, going back to your reference list and acknowledging whose work added to what you have just written. If you are using EndNote, and hopefully for other quality reference software, you will be able to highlight the references of the authors you want to cite and easily bring that group citation into your writing. The reference software should also simultaneously start a reference list and keep it alphabetized for you. This step alone saves you hours and hours of work. When you have one author who wrote several things in the same year, the software will even go back and add the requisite a. or b. after those citations.

There are times your references may change a little. For instance you might discover that you had spelled an author’s name wrong, or you somehow needed to update some of the fields in the reference. Rather than having to go back through each document in which you have ever used that citation, you can know that by simply refreshing the reference list when you open the document again the updates will occur. As your academic writing goes on for years, this will save you more time than you can now imagine.

Changing Reference Styles Easily

Your university requires that you use one particular reference style, and to constantly refer to that particular style manual. Your reference software does much of that work for you by maintaining the updates as those style manuals change over time. Keep in mind that you will not always write under the same style because academic journals use several different styles and you have to make your writing match the needs or guidelines of the publications you write for. Once again EndNote, and hopefully other reference software, will allow you to change the style, and then update the document, to reflect that change.

There are other specific reasons once you start writing doctoral dissertation that you will want to have all of the things you have read captured in reference software. As an example, a complete database will allow you to easily sort your reading into topics for your lit review and write each topic area under your own voice. The ways in which you can use reference software during the dissertation or thesis writing process are covered in other articles. Meanwhile, in summary, a beginning doctoral student will save themselves many hours of time by starting early to use reference software to capture and organize their notes, cite and reference what they read while they write, and allow them to change reference styles easily.


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