Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Please, Please, Please

Another dispatch from Second Suitor. --PGS

I’m running into a problem. Ok, it’s a dissertation problem. You know, the kind that you have to solve before you can get back to real, philosophical work. When I was but a fledgling grad student worrying about seminar papers, I always had a fairly good grip on my ‘my documents’ folder. With a folder for every semester and subfolders for each class it was easy to get to the information I wanted. I adopted a numbering system that points me to the most recent version of a paper and identifies when significant changes happened to the document. So far so good.

The problem comes in having a whole year to think deep thoughts. The number of documents on my computer has exploded. Sure some of it has to do with the fact I have 2-3ish different intros (Don’t worry, I’ve skipped that part for now) and some of it has to do with having a new version of at least one document (almost?) every day, but I also seem to be generating a lot of ‘dissertation related but not part of the dissertation’ stuff. I need a way.. a program.. a system.. something to organize my ‘dissertation and beyond’ folder. If anyone has a good way of keeping your dissertation files (or even all of your documents) organized, that’d be really helpful.

22 comments:

Pseudonymous Grad Student said...

Vista is for SUCKERS!!!!!

organizer said...

first, I have a folder called 'dissertation'. In it I have a folder for (1) chapters and notes on chapter, (2) papers from other people, (3)grad school forms, and then other less important folders.

In the 'chapters and notes on chapters' folder, I have a folder for each chapter. If you don't know where the dividing lines for each chapter will be, you can make a different folder for each big idea. In each of those folders I have a folder for notes and a folder called 'older drafts'. at the end of each day I name the files I've been working on with the date, e.g., 'chapter 1 (2-25-08)'. I then move any previous chapter versions into the older drafts folder. That way each chapter folder is easy to root through. I also have a 'bibliography' folder and a 'frontmatter' folder in this 'chapters and notes on chapters' folder. [a side note for you who are just now starting your dissertations: learn from my mistake: pick a citation style and stick with it throughout. Put your bibliography into that style NOW. Then copy and paste from your bib to your footnotes. You'll save billions of hours later].

In the 'papers from other people' folder I have every electronic article I have on my topic, all named like this: last-name,first-name--title' that way it is easy to find the article I need to cite.

and in the grad school folder I keep all the crap I need for, well, for the grad school. YOu'd be surprised how many forms you'll need to fill out and keep straight.

I haven't had any problems with this system. One thing I would recommend if you are writing multiple small documents on similar issues is to take the extra 5 seconds to give each document a name that will actually let you know what is in it.

thesizer said...

This is a little neo-Freudian, but bear with me:

Your problem is not a computer problem, it is a dissertation problem. Specifically, you don't seem to be working from a well-developed outline or roadmap.

You make the excellent point that writing a dissertation is qualitatively and not just quantitatively different from a seminar paper. While you might be able to stumble into a decent 20 page paper with little forethought, the dissertation or thesis requires you to think a lot before you ever commit anything to the page. This will make the writing process easier, because you know (roughly) where to go next, especially if you get stuck and need to come back. Now, of course, your plans and thoughts will change and accordingly so might the structure of the dissertation, but that just emphasizes further the need for solid planning.

On the more specific point, I would probably have separate documents for each of the chapters, and maintain the version history model (Chapter1_29Feb08.doc), since various readers may be looking at different versions. To keep track of this on printed versions, mark the document with "Draft: date here" underneath the heading. For the miscellaneous ideas/documents, just stick them all in ONE folder, and label them by title. As for keeping the overall number of documents down, don't worry about this too much -- it's not like you'll run out of space unless you've got too much multimedia (read: porn) on the computer as it is. I'd prefer to have more versions available, but you may not need to make one every day you change something. Just make folders for each month and stick them in the appropriate spot. While keeping the number of files in any one place down is important, you also don't want to be nested more than about 4 levels deep in the file structure (dissertation --> year --> month --> chapter --> chapter1_29Feb2008.doc).

Anonymous said...

I have a similar problem with the document explosion, but I have at least found a way to keep the working draft of each chapter (and at this point, the working draft of the whole dissertation) to one file: I set up a special Gmail account for backups. At the end of every workday, I email to myself all of the documents I worked on that day, so I have drafts available on a day-by-day basis.

I also have two documents for each chapter: "Chapter X" and "Chapter X NOTES", as well as a "General NOTES" document. I take very meticulous typed notes on everything I read, including quotes and my own thoughts (the former in plain text and the latter in bold). It works exceedingly well for me.

Oh, and like organizer, I have "papers from other people" folders, though I have one for each chapter along with a "general" one. I have enough HD space that if a paper pertains to more than one chapter, I save a copy in each folder.

I am NOT a naturally organized person and this has not come easy to me but it has really saved my butt.

Anonymous said...

I discovered my new best computer friend this year: Scrivener. It's a wonderful way to write organically, and it helps me organize all my notes and supplementary documents. It's Mac-only, though, so if you're a Windows person it won't help.

If you're a Mac user, check it out. It's the best thing that's happened to my philosophical writing since I first learned to take notes.

http://www.literatureandlatte.com/scrivener.html

There's a cool video tutorial that shows off some of its features.

John Turri said...

Here's one simplifying device that I used. It has nothing to do with folder organization.

I had a single file for all dissertation-related thoughts (outlines for different possible ways of organizing a discussion, incipient thought experiments, notes for further reading, etc.). I used the outline function in my word processor, dedicating a roman numeral to each chapter, one for front matter, and one for miscellaneous thoughts. (No bibliography stuff, though.) With respect to this material, I never had to search for a file, but rather only expand the relevant part of the outline.

This was in addition to files for each chapter, a numbering system for revisions, etc.

I don't know if it's too late for you to adopt that strategy.

Another possible aid: a good desktop search engine (the native Windows search is slow and unreliable, I've found). Google desktop will index everything on your computer (or specified folders and files), so that you can just search everything at once form a single interface. Over-reliance on this might, however, make you less organized ...

Evan Roberts said...

I had a folder for every chapter. Within chapter-folder I had the current version of the chapter document (chapter1_29_february_2008.doc, for example) and then an "archive" and a "workspool" folder. The contents of archive and workspool will vary, but the simple (but useful) idea was that archive was things I'd pretty much finished using (PDFs of articles, data ...), whereas workspool was stuff I hadn't looked at, or was still working on.

It was kinda like the computer version of piles of paper on the desk, and helped me move stuff across the screen. I've heard of others using a similar system and having it work well.

Anonymous said...

My advice is similar to what others have said, but I'll emphasize three points anyway. (1) Save multiple versions of the same document, each dated. That way if you cut something out that you need later, you've got it. Or if someone accuses you of plagiarism, you've got a good track of documentation. There are lots of good uses for this, and you can always keep track of which is the newest. (2) My university gave everyone server space, and I ftp'd versions to there periodically. I think this is better than emailing to Gmail, but the strategy is the same: you have backups in case of hard drive crash or flood. (3) I create files for each chapter called "outtakes". If I delete a paragraph or more, I cut it from my main document and paste into outtakes, with little lines separating each section. That means I can have, in the main document, just the stuff I think is pretty good, but I keep everything I might want later. Even if the language of the original draft wasn't very good, it's sometimes a useful source for ideas that I developed at some time, which might come in handy later.

Anonymous said...

Get it together.

Create a folder and put all diss. related materials.

If your proposal is sound and properly vetted, this process should be a lot smoother.

Keep writing and stop procrastinating about writing about writing.

Anonymous said...

I have little to add to most of the suggestions here. (My file structure: dissertation --> chapter_names, and then for each chapter draft, if I'm just making minor stylistic changes I'm happy to overwrite what came before, but any significant change gets saved to a file slightly higher: e.g., CH1.txt, then CH1(1).txt, CH1(2).txt... the (n) lets me know how far along I am. Then I can always go back if I think a major change was a bad idea, but I found that seldom happens. And it's always easy to see what the newest draft is. (Also, I use LaTeX, so the date is always automatically produced whenever I compile one of the files.)

I did want to strike a note of disagreement thesizer, though... It would be beautiful if you started writing a dissertation seeing the end from the beginning, so you already knew what the arguments were, etc., and then could outline it in advance, know how many chapters you'd have and what each one would say, etc...

But a lot of us aren't like that -- we find ourselves able to *do* philosophy by *writing* it. Until we sit down to write, we just don't have a totally clear vision of what we're going to say... Thats how I am, and my dissertation (about to be defended -- yay!) evolved organically.

So when I started, I just had different folders for different "big ideas", and started writing papers (sort of "proto-chapters", but also the sort of thing I could send to friends for comments, conferences, etc.) in each folder. I had no idea how, or if, they'd all fit into the dissertation -- by the end, quite a few of them didn't. But by organizing your thoughts into a few somewhat separate papers at the beginning, you give yourself a chance to actually be producing good material even before you can do the high-level planning thesizer calls for. Then, once I had enough proto-chapters written and saw how they worked, etc., it was a relatively easy task to *turn* them into a bigger dissertation. But for my part I definitely *don't* recommend "just read a lot and take notes until you can put your dissertation ideas into a complete outline" --- if you *can* do that, props to you, but if you wait around for that to happen you can end up paralyzed waiting for an impossible sort of perfection-of-planning before you even really begin.

Anonymous said...

I would advise anyone who starts working on a dissertation to forget about word processors and learn LaTeX, even if you won't need logic symbols or math. You get beautiful output without needing to worry about consistency of formatting; you can have a "master file" that links to all your chapters and notes; you can have bibliography files from which LaTeX automagically generates your bibliography. You can also have comments in your source files (mine are usually full with FIXMEs and TODOs, and links to other files).

Get a decent text editor that works with LaTeX, has some sort of version control, project management, ability to follow cross-references and search in multiple files. There are several options for different operating systems, many of which are free.

Many universities (although probably not philosophy departments, unless logic is one of their strengths) have LaTeX style files for their dissertation requirements.

And with LaTeX, you can be sure that your dissertation will always be readable, as opposed to those who will realize that their Word 2017 won't open it any more...

If you don't understand any of this,
Peter Smith has a nice page about LaTeX:
http://www.phil.cam.ac.uk/teaching_staff/Smith/LaTeX/

Anonymous said...

Have PGOAT or nth year gotten any offers?

will philosophize for food said...

A lot of the features you mention in regard to Latex are also available in OpenOffice, without any extra time commitment learning a new type of software. Open office is a free, open-source replacement of the MS Office package--which supports "master documents" as Anon 1:36 describes.

Anonymous said...

Repeat question:

Have PGOAT or nth year gotten any offers? We are waiting with baited breath!

Anonymous said...

As for backups, here's another idea. Get a sychronization program (I use GoodSync, and it works like a charm). Get a 1 gig USB/pen drive. When you run the sync program, it will copy only files that have changed since the last sync (from whatever relevant folder -- I copy my entire My Documents folder) to the USB drive. It takes about 5 seconds, literally, and if you do it every night, you always have a complete backup of your documents. It's just as fast, or faster, than the email archive idea, and it keeps EVERYTHING updated. This saved my ass on multiple occasions when my PC had some issues and crashed frequently.

As for the desktop search, Copernic is a freeware program that is very well-reviewed (I find it great), and doesn't have the privacy issues of Google desktop search.

Anonymous said...

It's 'bated breath', not 'baited breath'.

Anonymous said...

Yes, outtake files are great. I typically keep multiple. This way you can remove junk without suffering the pain of permanent deletion. I also have files of notes.

For each topic in philosophy that I work on, I have a folder. Under that there are subfolders for each paper that I'm working on. Under each paper folder, there is a history folder, for when there get to be too many versions. (Actually there is another layer, one for external papers downloaded an another for articles I've written.)

The directory structure looks like this:

papers_and_notes > philosophy > special_topic > articles > my_paper > history

Under that folder I keep versions. A good way to name the version is by name, version, and date.

ex. MyPaper_version01_20080225.doc

This way the files will be sorted by default, so that the most recent is at the bottom. The yyyymmdd format is crucial. This works great. I change the version if there is a major change, say after referee comments, or the like.

As for a dissertation, do not try to put it all together until you are nearly done. Work on it chapter by chapter. Then when they are mostly formed put them into one big document.

Make sure that you use styles rather an ad hoc formatting. If you use consistent section formatting levels (header 1, header 2, header 3), you'll be able to generate a table of contents. . . . .

No one cares about your citations, so don't kill yourself getting them in the correct format. Just get close to Chicago style and you will be fine.

Sisyphus said...

I organize my files pretty similarly to the other people here (with the exception of a folder called "notes on library books" with subfolders for different fields or topics --- I'm a historicist --- and a notes/quotes/book review of each book I've found important. And I put the full biblio info at the top, so whenever I go back to cull my thoughts or some quotes I can cut-n-paste the citation into the new project easily.)

I haven't tried it yet but I guess Firefox has a free extension, Zotero, that can do all your biblio stuff for you.

But I also like to prewrite by hand or noodle through a tough problem on paper. So in addition to my computer I have two spiral notebooks, one labeled "notes" and another "future projects." If I have an idea or thought for some other project or book I'd like to look into more, I just write it down in there and save it for posterity. I know where they are all are, should I ever finish the damn diss and need some new ideas.

The "notes" notebook is where I riff on stuff or warm up for writing. That way you don't throw it away, even if it really was crap that will never go into the diss and only needed to be worked through and out of your system. If you _do_ need it, you can go back to it. But it cuts down on the sheer number of files for each chapter.

Emailing or ftp-ing your stuff to yourself is an excellent idea --- one of my committee members loves to tell about how her grad housing _burned down_ one year and she lost everything but a finished chapter that she had stuffed in her freezer for some (rightly) paranoid reason.

I don't keep my dissertation in the freezer, despite her urgings, but I have left CDs of the finished chapters at school, the library cubicle, friends' houses, you name it.

Anonymous said...

here are two things that helped me a ton:

Name the files in a format like this: 080228_chapter_1. The key is that the first part of the title is year, month, date. That way, if you sort the files by name, the latest versions appear at the top. Sometimes this corresponds with the "last modified" date, but they can come apart if you open old versions and re-save before closing.

Also, use styles and headings in your wordprocessor. You'll have consistent formating throughout, and you'll be able to use your outline function, moving sections around more easily.

Anonymous said...

I have one thing to say: Google Desktop -- get it and Google search all of your documents. (Just be sure to disable the feature that allows Google itself to access your computer.)

Anonymous said...

What anonymous 5:44AM said. I use the following date format dd-mm-yyyyTitle. I save the file I'm working on with that day's date. Two advantages: (1) I have all the material as it develops, (2) and it allows me to see how much NEW content I've added each day, as opposed to endlessly fiddling with already written material - this enforces a tough measure of productivity.

Also, if you haven't switched to Latex, do it now in grad school while you still have the time. It will save you a lot of time and pain later. For example, using Bibtex, you never have to enter a reference more than once. Since you're working within a body of literature from paper to paper, this will save you a lot of time.

Second Suitor said...

I've adopted a lot of what people have said here. Having a clean file system is like having a clean house, it means it's time to work.

The only thing I wanted to add to anon 9:30's comment was that I added the 'google drive' which requires shorted file names but somehow seems easier than e-mailing myself.