Tech Advice for a New Philosophy Grad Student


A student who will be entering a philosophy PhD program in the fall is seeking advice about hardware and software for his studies.

He writes:

I am entering a PhD program this fall. I am starting to plan and organize for this challenge. This includes considering buying a tablet (Ipad or Surface Pro). I currently write all my notes on paper. I hope to change to electronic note taking because of the organizational benefits and environmental impact… What do professors and/or PhD students use to organize their research? Is it possible to go through a doctoral program with just a tablet? Furthermore, and perhaps most importantly, what apps do people use to annotate papers and write/store their notes? 

Readers, please share what has worked well for you (and perhaps what hasn’t). Thank you!

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Nick Hadsell
28 days ago

Consider investing in a ReMarkable tablet: https://remarkable.com

They are, imo, worth the investment. I do all of my readings and note-taking on it.

But if you’re skeptical about the investment (as I was), there are refurbished versions online for much cheaper. I went this route and then sold mine to a friend after a few months to get the brand new version.Report

Gregor
Reply to  Nick Hadsell
28 days ago

I second the suggestion to use an eReader, it saves a lot of headaches. After trying the remarkable, I have been quite happy with an A4 sized ereader (Onyx Boox Max). It runs Android and therefore has (out of the box) more room for customization. The price is steep compared to a Kindle, but also lastGen devices are fine.

The more important question is maybe how you want to organize your ideas, and this is by no mean a trivial question. If I were to start from scratch, I would probably be tempted to try obsidian (rather than building a complicated setup in emacs org-roam). Many people use evernote. An absolute must for reference- and file management imo is zotero and zotfile.Report

Dale Miller
Reply to  Nick Hadsell
26 days ago

I went with the Supernote A5X. I use it almost exclusively reading PDFs. Someone who also uses it for notetaking will get even more bang for their buck.Report

Platypus
28 days ago

Not quite notes, but I recommend downloading a citation manager like Zotero. You’ll save so much time!Report

Hector
28 days ago

Folks are going to say that a late-model smart watch is all you need, but I have found myself more and more using a phone as well.Report

Jonathan Cohen
28 days ago

slightly different software thought: the sooner you get the effort of learning latex behind you the more years you will reap the benefitsReport

Grad Student
Reply to  Jonathan Cohen
27 days ago

What are the advantages of LaTeX?Report

Steve
Steve
Reply to  Grad Student
27 days ago

I just started learning it–it allows you far more control over the layout of your documents (especially useful for handouts, I think).Report

Richard Y Chappell
Reply to  Grad Student
27 days ago

Mostly cosmetic (nice-looking PDF output), though it’s also nice to have internal references (e.g. to footnotes or section numbers) that automatically update when the number of the referenced item changes, and automatically track your references (so you never miss a citation in your bibliography).

fwiw, I’d now recommend pandoc which lets you turn simple markdown text into nice (LaTeX-powered) PDFs. Has most of the advantages of LaTeX with fewer of the costs.Report

Richard Y Chappell
Reply to  Richard Y Chappell
26 days ago

I wrote up a little guide to getting started with Pandoc, in case anyone’s interested:
https://www.philosophyetc.net/2022/05/writing-papers-with-pandoc.html

One downside (compared to LaTeX) is that it doesn’t seem to allow for internal references to footnotes. (Section references work well, though.)Report

Antony Eagle
Reply to  Richard Y Chappell
25 days ago

Markdown is great, and Pandoc-flavoured Markdown gives you everything you’ll typically need if you are writing article-length philosophy. (Unsurprisingly.) Anything it can’t do is typically either (i) something that you’ll only want so infrequently that manually doing it is not a huge deal (e.g., cross references to footnotes!) or (ii) something that the journal you are hoping to publish with won’t be able to handle and will just cause you grief during production. (It’s also easy to produce accessible formats, like html, from Markdown source, and this is something we should all be thinking about more than we do.)

For what it’s worth, the AJP is now accepting final manuscripts in Pandoc-flavoured Markdown (and still accepts Word docx too).Report

Ian
Ian
Reply to  Grad Student
27 days ago

One historical advantage of LaTeX– reference management with BibTeX– is not as relevant as it once was. Zotero is now good enough that I can use it as effectively as I used to use BibTeX.

LaTeX also has some disadvantages:

– few enough people use it that it is rarely useful for collaboration.
– some journals only accept final submissions in popular word processor formats.

I miss the days of writing LaTeX source in emacs. It was fun, less distracting, and produced beautiful output. I do NOT miss spending hours converting to a word processor format for journals that don’t accept PDFs or LaTeX source. (Maybe conversion scripts have improved in recent years, but five years ago, converting was labor intensive and error prone.)

These days I use google docs and zotero.Report

Former-texie
Former-texie
Reply to  Ian
24 days ago

> I miss the days of writing LaTeX source in emacs. It was fun, less distracting, and produced beautiful output. I do NOT miss spending hours converting to a word processor format for journals that don’t accept PDFs or LaTeX source.

I write markdown in emacs in the Linux tty, with a similar goal of avoiding distraction. You can then use markdown to produce PDFs (either via latex or via odt/docx and a word processor). The old ways are still possible… sort of.Report

Louis Chartrand
Louis Chartrand
Reply to  Grad Student
26 days ago

I’m a LaTeX user, but: https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0115069

“On most measures, expert LaTeX users performed even worse than novice Word users. LaTeX users, however, more often report enjoying using their respective software.”

Using LaTeX (or pandoc) is about controlling your environment.

Side notes: if you want the joys of LaTeX without the pain of learning the markup codes, LyX is an outstanding frontend to LaTeX. If you need to convert to word from time to time (maybe Pitt is a bit special, but in most places, profs will ask for word documents for revisions), pandoc is preferable to LaTeX.Report

David Wallace
Reply to  Louis Chartrand
25 days ago

That’s a very funny, and very telling, paper. This seems about right to me:

our study suggests that LaTeX should be used as a document preparation system only in cases in which a document is heavily loaded with mathematical equations. For all other types of documents, our results suggest that LaTeX reduces the user’s productivity and results in more orthographical, grammatical, and formatting errors, more typos, and less written text than Microsoft Word over the same duration of time.
The only caveat I’d add is that if you’re mostly doing math-heavy things, I’m not convinced it will benefit you to mix and match, and use Word for your non-mathy papers.

And if your profs want word for revisions, use word from the outset! It’s a special case of: use the processing language that your work environment standardizes on.

(I mark up grad students’ work on PDF, so I don’t care what people use.)Report

Aaron V Garrett
Reply to  Grad Student
25 days ago

You can use Bibtex and get the nice look of LaTex w/ Markdown + John MacFarlane’s (yes that John MacFarlane) wonderful PanDoc (https://johnmacfarlane.net/tools). Markdown is the simplest around and Pandoc allows you to convert it to pdf or docx with your bibliographic info. You can also convert it LaTex if need be. I used LaTex but switched to this because I don’t have to worry about quotation marks and MD converts directly to HTML.Report

Aaron V Garrett
Reply to  Aaron V Garrett
25 days ago

Oh and I write in Atom, but one great thing about markdown is that you can write it in any environment insofar as it is a very simple language not a word processor like MS Word.Report

Eric Steinhart
Reply to  Jonathan Cohen
27 days ago

Unless you’re doing extremely technical work, involving novel or non-standard notations, I think LaTex is a grand waste of time. And if you’re writing non-technical prose, which you craft through multiple revisions requiring searching and reorganizing, LaTex will make your work pretty much impossible. With the exception of extremely technical work, any good word processor will do.Report

David Wallace
Reply to  Eric Steinhart
27 days ago

I partially disagree. LaTeX is fine for non-technical prose: I don’t find searching and reorganizing any harder in it than in Word (easier if anything). And even if you’re using mathematics that Word can handle, it is usually quite a lot faster to do it in LaTeX.

That said, I do agree that people probably shouldn’t worry about learning LaTeX unless they’re working in a field (e.g. philosophy of physics) where LaTeX is the norm. Word is fine for most things, and most of the supposed advantages of LaTeX for organizing and structuring your work are (now) replicable in Word if you take the time to properly learn how it works. LaTeX forces you to learn how to use it before you can start writing your paper; Word lets you just start typing, but if you take the time to learn it properly it becomes drastically more powerful.Report

Former-texie
Former-texie
Reply to  Jonathan Cohen
24 days ago

Latex can’t produce accessible (tagged) PDFs. This has been a problem for years but it’s basically untenable now, especially for teaching materials, which are often legally-required to be accessible.Report

Yannick
Yannick
Reply to  Jonathan Cohen
23 days ago

I can recommend LyX for writing. It sits between traditional latex editors and programs like word in terms of look and usability. The learning curve is not as steep as it seemed to me with other editors but it retains all the flexibility and possibility to dig deeper, should you want to.Report

TRr
TRr
27 days ago

I’m having trouble finding well-supported stats but from a quick Google it seems like one tree might produce about a full 10,000 sheets of paper. I don’t know what the footprint of a new iPad is but I would question whether buying one to stop printing is really better for the environment.Report

Stephen Latta
Stephen Latta
Reply to  TRr
27 days ago

The environmental impact can also be greatly reduced by using recycled papers and those certified by the Forest Stewardship Council (most such papers can then themselves be recycled after use). I too suspect that the net environmental impact of a new tablet is equivalent to that of a massive amount of paper.Report

David Wallace
Reply to  Stephen Latta
27 days ago

If you use up a tree worth of paper and then discard the paper as landfill, and then the people manufacturing the paper plant a new tree, it’s a net carbon sink. Recycling actually reduces this!

(I can well believe that it’s still overall more carbon-friendly to recycle and to save paper because of energy and transport costs.)Report

SEC postdoc
SEC postdoc
Reply to  TRr
27 days ago

There are also educational downsides to laptops and e-readers in classrooms.

I say this as someone who mostly used paper for class, but could go a 3 hour seminar without looking at Facebook or my text messages when I did use a laptop. So, I know there are exceptions! But I could also see that I was the only one not answering e-mails, checking the weather, responding to texts, whatever. I don’t mean this in a snotty way, just an observation about general tendencies.

Grad classes are long, tiring, and difficult. They can also be boring. It’s harder to succumb to the boredom without a handy escape. And if you do have an escape handy, it can be harder to redirect your attention to the course.Report

Former-texie
Former-texie
Reply to  TRr
24 days ago

I agree, this seems extremely dubious to me. Besides the manufacturing cost, a tablet also tends to rely on very energy-intensive cloud computing infrastructure.

Especially in a university environment, you often can’t move for legal pads waiting for the taking.Report

Grad Student
27 days ago

Closely related to your question, as a non-native English speaker that reads quite slowly in English, I have found Microsoft Edge’s read-aloud function to be extremely useful. I use it to read and listen simultaneously, and then I can use the higher reading speeds, and it increased my reading speed dramatically. I believe it might help native speakers as well. Note though that the read-aloud function is quite buggy. I hope they will improve it as time goes by. Edge browser is also great for making notes on pdfs, and it works great with a digital pen.Report

gradstudent
27 days ago

Is it possible to go through a doctoral program with just a tablet?

Yes. But if I understand this question correctly, you might not own a laptop? In that case, and if you plan on making through gradschool with just one mobile device, your best bet is probably a Surface Pro/iPad for the versatility. Get it refurbished if you want take environmental impact into account. The footprint of making/transporting these digital devices is huge.

On the other hand, I do take all my notes on paper, and then scan them into searchable pdf files and store them in my laptop/google cloud. It has worked very well for me.Report

Max DuBoff
Reply to  gradstudent
23 days ago

I’m finishing up my third year of a PhD program, and I’ve been quite happy with just a Surface Go as my computer. I suppose that could change as I get further into my dissertation, but seems a-ok as of now (and was certainly great during coursework and exams).Report

Emmanuel
27 days ago

Is it possible to go through a PhD program with just paper for note taking?Report

Quinn White
Reply to  Emmanuel
27 days ago

For whatever its worth, I used mainly paper notes all through grad school and really preferred it. I think the best system of note-taking, organizing, word-processing, etc., can vary a lot by person. For whatever its worth, my strong advice is to experiment with different things maybe over the summer, pick a system and then don’t worry too much about whether it is the *best* or not. If it is your system, it will (likely) work for you! Things that work for me:

  • iPad or eReader, I did like this a lot for annotating pdfs. I have used both iPads and Surface products at various times. Both are good! iPads probably better as tablets overall; Surface products better as laptop replacements. If you go with a surface, I found drawboard to be the best pdf editor for “inking” with a pen.
  • LaTeX—I really prefer LaTeX to word because I don’t like using proprietary file formats and find the control latex gives me really nice. But I definitely do NOT think it is for everyone. If you use it, overleaf is a great editor, but maybe even better is sublime text (which is free to try and will ask you to buy a license but never force you to) with various latex plug ins. Also if you are not doing technical work, you may find that some journals will require to convert your latex files into word, which is silly, but alas.
  • Mendeley—any of the reference managers are good! Mendeley is free. One thing to _maybe_ think about it that even if you are lucky enough to have your school give you a reference manager subscription for free, you might have to pay for it once you graduate. That’s why I, in any case, stuck with a free one that could travel with me.
  • Obsidian—awesome for note taking! But use whatever works for you.
  • Pads of paper and notebooks!—I took all class notes and the like by hand. When I was feeling very responsible, I scanned them afterwards. But for now, all my lecture/seminar/talk notes live in notebooks on a shelf and I reference them often and quickly. One pro tip if you do use paper is to number the pages in a notebook by hand (just as you go along) and then make a table of contents in the front. Some notebooks have this. I had never even considered this possibility until grad school and it was such a game changer for staying organized with paper notes.
  • Todoist—great todo app. Free version is super; paid version even better (but, obviously, paid). Some system to stay on top of various todos is essential! There are many!
  • OneDrive—doesn’t matter much, but some good system that lets you scan whiteboards, handouts in talks, hand written notes, etc., into a readable system is great. I know some love evernote. I prefer staying away from a piece of software that traps my data within their file system (I think evernote does? I may be wrong), so I use onedrive to “scan” everything that I need into a pdf and file it away. Google drive has this also; i’m sure dropbox does, too.

Good luck!Report

Former-texie
Former-texie
Reply to  Quinn White
24 days ago

I would steer clear of Mendeley. Unless things have changed in the past year or two, they seem to have moved to locking your bibliography in an encrypted (by them) database. I switched to Zotero at the time, which included downloading an older, pre-encryption version of Mendeley so I could export.Report

Mike Titelbaum
Mike Titelbaum
Reply to  Emmanuel
25 days ago

Um… I hate to sound like the old guy, but many many of us made it successfully through grad school taking all of our notes on paper. Cause we didn’t really have a choice….Report

Newly Dr
Newly Dr
Reply to  Emmanuel
24 days ago

It is possible to go through a PhD program without taking any notes. I wouldn’t recommend it, but I think you’d be surprised how many manage to do it.Report

Three_little_birds
27 days ago

You will probably need a laptop or pc to write your thesis, but your university should be able to provide one if you don’t want to buy. The only downside is that you won’t be able to work from home. Regarding software, as others suggested if your work involves technical writing learning latex is a must. It might feel a bit time consuming at the beginning but the more you work with it the easier it gets and your invested time eventually pays off. Getting your hands on a citation manager is also a must. Most of them also produce bibliography files for latex and this will save you a lot lot of time (I learned this the hard way). I use Mendeley, but there are lots of alternatives so do your research and make your own decision. Good luck with your new start!Report

Sam
Sam
27 days ago

Two thoughts: (1) Start using citation management / note-taking software your first semester in grad school. Mendeley, EndNote, Zotero–it doesn’t matter, but keep all of your readings it in, and keep all of your (digital) notes in it. (2) Tons of philosophers develop repetitive stress injuries in their arms and wrists (carpal tunnel, tendonitis, etc.) during graduate school, because of the quantity of typing. RSIs can be major impediments to finishing the dissertation or to publishing later on, because it can be difficult or impossible to type when they flare up. The time to think about ergonomics is before you destroy your ability to type, not after.Report

benjamin s. yost
benjamin s. yost
Reply to  Sam
26 days ago

What Sam said. I would in fact recommend an ergonomic keyboard and mouse from the get go. I got bad tendinitis in my right wrist from crappy ergo layouts in grad school and I still have to mouse lefthanded in my 40s.Report

Daniel Weltman
27 days ago

Zotero (citation management), Hypernomicon (PDF management, note taking, and other stuff), and Scrivener come with my hearty recommendations. Details here (although the page is a little outdated and is due for an update at some point).Report

ABD
ABD
26 days ago

Since there are now many professional activities that take place online (some conferences, definitely job interviews) I highly recommend investing in good video-conferencing technology. You need a high quality webcam and microphone, or a laptop with these built in.Report

David Wallace
26 days ago

A few small bits of technical advice. I suspect most are obvious to most people by now.

1) Use Dropbox, microsoft’s OneDrive, or something similar, and keep everything in it. (Probably everyone is doing this already, but just in case.)
2) Keep basically every pdf article you download. Put them in some reasonably-simple filing system (I just have one folder per letter, A-Z) and give them names like “wallace quantum field theory diatribe” that are vaguely memorable. It only takes a moment to do each time you download something and it can save a lot of time in the long run.
3) Keep one central repository for all your references, in whatever software system fits your word-processing style (I use a JabRef front-end for BibTeX, but there are alternatives for LaTeX and for Word). There will be plenty of articles that you end up citing many times over your career; don’t waste time having to multiply re-enter them.
4) Put your references in as you go along, but only as placeholders: just put something that reminds you what you meant to cite (e.g., ‘that-QFT-diatribe-by-Wallace’). It’s not a good idea just to insert the citations at the end, because you want to make acknowledging the sources of ideas an integral part of your writing process, but equally you don’t want to derail your writing every time you add a citation in order to look it up. Actually fill in the reference information at the end. (I actually redefine the \cite command in LaTeX just to reformat whatever I type in boldface, and then delete the redefinition when I’ve finished the paper and am putting the references in.)Report

Richard Y Chappell
Reply to  David Wallace
26 days ago

Alternative (4*): use writing software that can autocomplete references for you, so you never have to look them up manually.

(I use Atom with the ‘autocomplete-bibtex’ package. When you start typing a reference [“@” in pandoc-flavored markdown], it will automatically look up matching citation keys from your central bibliography file. It’s great!)Report

Oliver Pooley
Oliver Pooley
Reply to  David Wallace
26 days ago

“Keep basically every pdf article you download”… and then have some software that allows you to search the content of all of them in ways that go beyond the basic search functionality of the operating system. On MacOS, I’d recommend https://foxtrot-search.com.Report

David Thorstad
24 days ago

Mendeley is great for storing papers and notes. You can also use Mendeley as a citation manager, or use a separate citation manager (I use BibTeX). LaTeX (moderate difficulty) or pandoc (easy) is good for writing.

This might go beyond the original ask, but programs like todoist and evernote are great for organizing and planning.Report

Fredrik S
24 days ago

Don’t knock paper for notes! For many purposes, analog note-taking is superior.
Start learning a reference manager, and use it consistently. I use Zotero, which is excellent. I’m sure there are other reference-handling systems that are just as good; the important thing is to be consistent.
I’m a bit torn about LaTeX. I use it for a lot of things, but there are some clear downsides when using it for non-formal things. The original poster is a new grad student, so I guess that if they are in a LaTeX-heavy environment, they already use it extensively. if not, there is perhaps not much to be gained by starting to use it now.
One piece of anecdotal but consistent evidence in favour of LaTeX: I find that students submitting work in LaTeX tend to produce better work. No idea if that is a selection effect (smart students have chosen LaTeX) or if the program has some beneficial effect (LaTeX makes you better).Report

Eric Wilson
23 days ago

Here’s a different type of recommendation: buy and read paperback copies of Cal Newport’s books, Deep Work and Digital Minimalism. Then decide where you stand on your current pen-and-paper system.Report

Libre
23 days ago

LibreOffice works with Zotero and has all the extra features that Word has over Google Doc.

And I think Zim is a distraction free note keeping tool.Report

Raphael
22 days ago

I wrote my dissertation using vim, pandoc, and git. However, in the last few years I’ve switched to Word. This way I’m thinking less about the tech, more about my writing.

When I was starting out, git seemed like a good choice for a long-term writing project. Git is version control software. It lets you keep multiple evolving versions of the same document (e.g. an alternative version where you try out a new approach, which you can set aside and come back to later) and git remembers the history of your documents so you can recover any deleted text. (In git, a file is not merely a single timeline of changes – it’s one or more branching timelines which you can add to, combine, and modify at will.) However, I now find that just keeping a scratch.docx file containing any deleted text is enough. I haven’t yet found it useful to maintain multiple timelines for a document.

I prefer Word’s proportional-width editing to Vim’s fixed-width editing when writing prose. I do like that vim lets me switch quickly between my files just by pressing a few keys. And vim is an effervescent, mouse-less joy – or at least, it’s a joy once you know it. The learning curve is steep (maybe the time I invested in learning it has made me overestimate its value). It’s probably not worth learning unless you’re also writing software, which is what it’s normally for. The same goes for git.

Perhaps the moral is: consider keeping your tools simple so you can focus on the philosophy.Report

Lucas Dunlap
22 days ago

One other thing to keep in mind is that in some programs, grad students get the opportunity to teach, and very often these will be online classes. It might be worth looking into what your teaching/TAing responsibilities will involve before making the decision to minimize your tech. A full-featured tablet like an iPad or a Surface Pro could probably handle running an online class just fine, but an e-ink tablet wouldn’t be up to the job, and would require you to rely on departmental computers. That might be fine, but it also might be the case that there’s just a couple old desktops in a shared grad student office.

Similarly, you’ll want to have a machine that can handle giving a PowerPoint presentation so that you’ll be able give talks using slides. Again, an iPad (with the proper HDMI dongle) or a Surface Pro would be fine here, but an e-ink reader wouldn’t.Report