Dissertation Essential Kit


Project Organisation – Digital Paperwork Using Dropbox And Zotero

One of the biggest things when doing a project is keeping everything organised, especially when you have collected a wide variety of resources from several different places. Most of the resources I am using for my dissertation are in PDF format as they are research papers rather than books, so I have a specific folder on my Dropbox account where I save any articles to that I come across in my initial searching. I make sure I rename the file to the actual title of the research paper as it makes it so much easier to find the specific paper you need later on. I also have Zotero downloaded so I have set that up to have my papers in it with the necessary document tags filled in (by downloading the information from the internet from Zotero itself, in the same way iTunes gets track information to tag previously unlabeled tracks or albums). A great feature in Zotero is that you can make notes about each paper so you can see at a glance what the paper includes that is relevant to your research, you can also add tags to each paper so you can filter all your papers by the tags you select to use those papers together to complete a section of your work, then chose a different set of tags to do a different section of your work. Once you have done all of your writing and you are assembling your final paper, you can create a bibliography in whichever format you need – you can even add additional ones from the Zotero website if the specific one you require isn’t there, I had to do this as the uni I am currently at uses the Harvard format but specifically the “Cite Them Right 10th edition – Harvard” version, where as some universities have their own university titled version you can select, which means that when I do the proposal for the PhD course I want to do, I can create a different folder in Zotero for that document and save the relevant research papers in that folder, then when I am ready to insert the bibliography, I can just switch to the specific one I need for the other university without having to change it all myself.

With my digital paperwork stored in Dropbox so I can access it from anywhere, and my Zotero set up to support the filing system, I have 2 additional programs that I have been using that have made things really easy for me to make notes and then write my actual paper, GoodNotes and Scrivener.


Digital Notes: GoodNotes

The first of these programs – GoodNotes – I use on my iPad Pro. Now there are many different note taking apps out there, and believe me I have tried a LOT of them with little success. I ended up using Microsoft OneNote at the start of my course as it was free and generally I like the idea of the program, however I found it slow, and hard to work with if you wanted to add PDFs to write notes on. Then there is the small matter of getting digital ink all over the place when you were merely trying to move the page up to write more, despite the fact I was using my Apple Pencil to write I still had to use 2 fingers to move the page up or my finger movements would be regarded as me trying to write with my finger. It is great that you can use both but if you are using an Apple Pencil why would you be writing with you finger (ok unless you had written so much you had run out of charge)? What GoodNotes does differently, is that it lets you tell it what you are using to write with, so you can select Apple Pencil or another specific stylus, or indeed none and just use your finger, but if you have Apple Pencil selected as your stylus then using your fingers on the screen just scrolls up and down the page, between pages or zooms in and out of the page you are on – it knows the difference between the stylus and your touch.

My notes written directly on my iPad Pro
My notes written directly on my iPad Pro

GoodNotes can also keep up with my notes, there are no sync errors, no lost time waiting for syncing to finish and the notes are kept in a notebook that you just turn the pages of, or you can select a page from the thumbnail view at the top of the menu bar. You can very easily highlight then switch back to writing mode, or select the eraser to rub something out or you can undo/redo if it was one of the last few things you did. You can paste from the clipboard if you want to put a source reference next to some notes for example, or a link to another relevant paper. But the best thing is by far how you can just open a PDF and start making notes on it without having to add the PDF in the computer version like you have to do with OneNote. In OneNote, you add the PDF then you print the pages of the PDF to the screen, then set the pages individually to be the background so you can actually make notes directly on them in OneNote on your iPad Pro. You have none of this messing around in GoodNotes, you just add the PDF to the app and start making notes on it.

The research papers highlighted and with notes in GoodNotes
The research papers highlighted and with notes in GoodNotes

Once you have finished annotating the PDF in GoodNotes, you can export it with all your notes as a new PDF, print it out, you can even search your handwritten notes for specific words! You can add your own custom page template if you wanted something specific, initially I added a blue paper template until I found the iPad’s built-in function that allows you to add a coloured overlay by setting a button to be triple clicked to turn the overlay on or off, and you can select the colour of your choice for the overlay, so I can use the cream or white paper templates that come with GoodNotes then just use my coloured overlay so I can read and write with less visual stress. I don’t know why, but my MacBook Pro does not come with this amazing feature yet my iPad and iPhone can both do it – I wish Apple would add it to the Mac OS!

My iPad Pro with the colour overlay on
My iPad Pro with the colour overlay on


Large Written Projects Made Easy: Scrivener

The second program that I am using to support the whole dissertation process is “Scrivener”. Anyone who has done NaNoWriMo before may have heard of this fantastic program, I am sure plenty of those who have taken part also use it for their writing, for those of you that haven’t heard of Scrivener until now – it takes away the nightmare of scrolling up and down word processing programs such as Microsoft Word, Mac Pages, Google Docs, or any other word processing programs.

How does it do that?

You split your document down into sections, so if you were taking part in NaNoWriMo then your overall novel would have several chapters and within each chapter there could be several scenes, instead of either one massive document that starts at chapter 1, scene one, and as you scroll down you get to all the chapters and scenes in order with “The End” right at the very bottom. Instead, what you can do in Scrivener is to set up a project for your current novel, then inside that project you have a binder with 3 different sections in it.

One section with folders in for each chapter then within each folder you have lots of “documents” in for each of the scenes within that chapter. You can add more folders or documents as you need and you can also move them around both within the chapter as well as between chapters if you desire. There are also sections for Research and Trash, so if you had just finished a scene in one of your chapters but then had an idea that meant that scene was no longer relevant or needed, you could move the document to the trash section – in case you needed it again. The Research section allows you to add documents that are snippets of whatever you find to help you write your novel, they could be character bio sheets, a map of the area you are writing about, an image, or anything that you are using for your work. Once you have completed each chapter and scene and are ready to edit it or send it off to be published, you can either print and edit it document by document, or chapter by chapter, or you can compile the entire thing into one document as desired.

Using Scrivener For My Dissertation
Using Scrivener For My Dissertation

You might be able to see already how this could be made use of in academic writing, you can decide to use it for other things as well, there are several templates you can choose from when you create a new project so you can try things out.

How I have been using it for my academic work, is by having a project for each assignment, breaking the assignment down into its component parts, I then use the target word count feature not only for the overall document but also for each of the sub documents having looked at the marking criteria and marks available per section then allocating the word count target for that sub document accordingly.

This makes it really easy to see when I am about to waffle on about something and waste my overall word count, or when I need to properly pick up the pace and put some more effort into a particular section. I have my dissertation broken down into 3 main sections, in the first section, there is a folder called preliminaries with 3 documents inside called Title Page, Abstract, and Contents Page.

The second section is the main section so has a folder inside for each chapter number and title of the chapter – I have broken this down according to what my supervisor wants so check to make sure what your supervisor wants as it might be very different. Then inside the chapter folders I have one or more documents depending on how each chapter needs breaking down. The biggest chapter will be chapter 2 for me, and so far I have only 1 document in it for the literature review but that could still get broken down depending on how I decide to work through the literature – for example you could decide to group different themes together so you might need a document in that folder for each theme, or you could decide you will discuss different research papers in one long section as they all link together, then you might decide to just have one document in that chapter. However you think will be easiest to type it split it up accordingly as you can compile it into one long document when you finish anyway.

The Research section in my dissertation project, is where I have a selection of summaries of the papers I have read, I have also included a part to add the full reference for the paper so I can make sure I have included the correct papers in the bibliography section at the end.

I have Scrivener on my MacBook Pro as well as on my iPad Pro so I can easily take my work with me and carry on, as my Scrivener files are synced across both using Dropbox, if I do something at home it gets synced to Dropbox, and when I am working from my iPad out and about I initially sync the project from Dropbox and can carry on where I left off or start on a different section entirely. Everything gets synced back to Dropbox, and I make sure I manually select sync before packing up just to make sure the very last bits get synced before heading off somewhere else or back home. I use a Logitech K810 bluetooth keyboard with my iPad Pro, that I have mentioned before, which is really great to type on and last ages on one charge, although I think there are newer models as I have had mine a fair few years now, that are similar such as the K380, or K480, or for version with a number pad as well, there is the K780.

Scrivener on my iPad Pro (in dark mode) with K810
Scrivener on my iPad Pro (in dark mode) with K810

Helpful Books And Other Items

If you read this post, you will have seen the book I am using to help me with my dissertation: Dissertations And Project Reports A Step By Step Guide – Stella Cottrell. It explains what needs to be in each section and guides you through the process of the dissertation from the very beginning, before you even start on the actual research bits. I can honestly say this has been great to dip in and out of when I have some questions. I found it was well worth the small amount of money to get the actual book and its available on Amazon Prime so quick delivery!


I also ordered a refill pad the other day that has light blue pages rather than white pages, it is definitely softer on the eyes when you have been working hard all day! It is made by Rhino Brand and the paper is so smooth and such good quality that I can use my fountain pen to write on both sides of the page and there is no ink showing through. It also comes in pink or green if they are more your thing: RHINO A4 Special Tinted Paper Education Refill Pad

I’ve been using my stash of blue lined Super Sticky Post-it pads, these things are great for writing brief notes or ideas on, I was lucky to find a batch of them ages ago in Amazon Warehouse deals, they worked out really cost-effective considering how much they are for just one pack in most shops. I have also got several packs of the smaller square lined Post-it pads as well, I haven’t made use of them yet this term, but during the first semester I was using them to write individual tasks on and I had 1 colour per module so I knew at a glance how many tasks I had for each and could pick one to work on accordingly. Once I had completed the task I would tick it off on the Post-it then move the Post-it to the done side of the wall so I could motivate myself with the visual reminder of what I had already done so far. Now I have my dissertation topic area sorted I can get working with the different coloured Post-it pads again to list tasks that I can check off related to my dissertation.










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