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Dissertation Help: Why Doctoral Students Should Use Reference Software
Dissertation processes break down when students can’t find or misorganize their reading. Lack of initial organization will result in wasted time during the dissertation process, and time is your most precious asset throughout graduate school. This article covers the initial organization of dissertation reading and writing, while focusing on the most frequently asked question, “Why should I use referencing software?” Although EndNote is the software I use, and therefore know most intimately, any software can work as long as it allows you to do these three things: first, it helps you capture and organize your notes, second, it allows you to cite and build a reference list as you type, and thirdly, that it allows you to change reference styles easily. This article discusses the three attributes of good referencing software along with brief notes on how they will help you in the dissertation process.
Capture and organization of notes
Beginning PhD students rarely understand the importance of capturing every little bit of their thoughts in a database from the moment they start. The notes you take now, about the ideas you get as you read, will be invaluable later. If you don’t start a reference library early in your process, at some point you’ll need to back up and capture the ideas you miss. As a high school student, I grew up in the era when people kept notes on index cards. We trained ourselves to leave the entire reference and then capture every idea we found interesting that we could use in future writing. That same idea holds true today in reference software like EndNote. You’re doing more than capturing that reference and what it reads, you’re capturing your ideas about it.
Because you are using a database, you will have fields, some of which you may need and some of which you may not need for each particular reference type. Be sure to fill out each required field whenever you read an article that you think is worth highlighting. This can be done by electronic transfer, depending on your library, from your library’s database directly to your EndNote file. You may also consider simply typing in the required information, as this is often faster than wire transfer. Never leave a reference without capturing notes about your ideas about the article in the database fields below. Why did you read this article? What did you think was important? What ideas do you not want to forget? Be sure to answer all of these questions before closing any paperwork on your reading.
Citing and referencing as you write
Academic work requires that we acknowledge the other authors whose work we read and who influenced the ideas we are writing about. It is not the same as quoting them verbatim. I suggest you get into the habit of writing what you think from your own point of view, and then at the end of each paragraph, go back to your list of references and acknowledge whose work adds to what you just wrote. If you’re using EndNote, and hopefully other quality reference software, you’ll be able to highlight the references of the authors you want to cite and easily incorporate 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 an author who has written multiple things in the same year, the software will even go back and add the requirement to. or b. after those appointments.
There are times when your references may change a bit. For example, you may discover that you misspelled an author’s name, or that you somehow need to update some of the fields in the reference. Instead of having to go through every document you’ve ever used that citation in, you can know that simply updating the reference list when you reopen the document will make the updates happen. As your academic writing continues for years, this will save you more time than you can imagine now.
Change reference styles easily
Your university requires you to use a particular reference style and to constantly refer to that particular style manual. Your reference software does a lot of this work for you by keeping updates as those style manuals change over time. Keep in mind that you won’t always write in 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. Again, EndNote, and hopefully other reference software, allow you to change the style and then update the document to reflect that change.
There are other specific reasons once you start writing your PhD thesis that you will want to have everything you read captured in a reference software. As an example, a comprehensive database will allow you to easily categorize your reading into topics for your lit review and write each topic area in your own voice. Ways you can use referencing software during the dissertation or thesis writing process are covered in other articles. Meanwhile, in short, a beginning PhD student will save many hours of time by starting early on using reference software to capture and organize their notes, cite and reference what they read as they write, and allow them to change reference styles easily.
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