Wednesday, August 24, 2011

The Three Cycles of My Research

I've noticed over the past year or so that my work on research projects goes in cycles.  There are three basic cycles: Research, Background Reading and Output.  These aren't the only areas of a research project but when I get deep into research I tend to lose myself in these phases for quite a while.

Here's how I would describe what the mean:


This is the chase.  I've got my mind on a specific goal.  Usually I'm chasing after a gravestone carver, an 18th century African American in New England or a specific historic house.  I do wide surveys of documents and record groups in my attempt to locate something, anything on my target.  This often involves creating a research plan so that my chase is focused and efficient.  All the while I still get lost in the effort and can spend days or weeks on end chasing after my goal.

Background Reading

Often referred to as the literature search.  I typically circle around a topic, reading what seems to be relevant, and then later expanding my circle.  This summer has been an intensive background reading phase for me.  In the past I have read many genealogical works on New England as they related to my research.  This summer I decided I needed to read everything related to New England.  This has been a serious literature search.  I realized I couldn't move forward until I really understood everything that has already been published and what the gaps are in published works.  I started on this to achieve two things: 1) to fill in the gaps of my own knowledge and 2) to provide direction for my own research so I wouldn't waste time researching something that has already been done.  Clearly trying to read *everything* will take me a very long time but I've made great progress in the last few months.


There is where I take everything that I have learned from the research and background reading phases and turn it into something that can be shared.  Most of my efforts to-date have involved preparing presentations or articles.  I'd like to shift that in the future to include books, newsletters, webinars and maybe even a podcast.  Output takes just as much, if not more focused effort than the other two phases.  Often this is when I need my "alone" time, particularly for writing.  Output also takes the most discipline.  I need to give myself deadlines and try to stick to them.  Planning for the output stage typically starts in September, which for me, is a time of renewal and re-energizing.  But  it can also be strongly influenced, not surprisingly, by conference proposal deadlines.

Yes, the three phases do overlap.  It's not realistic to think that I can do one activity exclusive of another.  But each phase seems to take a predominance over the others for awhile.

I'm sure that my research phases are directly related to the cycles of my family life.  I imagine most researchers do all three things on a more daily basis.  Perhaps some researchers have other influences that are impacting the way their cycles work.

Let me know how it works for you.

Photo Credit: Photo by sonictk used under the Creative Commons license.


  1. Absolutely excellent article! Great job!


  2. I very much identify with what you are saying. It seems like I may research a topic, all of a posts. I'm just not motivated until I can get something to really sink my teeth in.

    sudden be blessed with a lot of new material, and then want to write like crazy. Right now, I'm sort of in a drought. I have about six posts I could write, but they are unconnected and related to older posts. I'm just not motivated.

  3. I'm with you as well, Marian. The individual "cycles" of my research do have a tendency to predominate one another. I'll get really active with one part, right now it's the chase, and then the literature search will start and I'll be completely focused on that. I am admittedly a bit lax on the output portion, as you described it, but that is something I'm working on. Great post!

  4. Great explanation and I know what you mean.