How I Used OneNote for My PhD

Finishing a PhD thesis is a complicated process. It includes collecting a great amount of data, classifying them and turning all that information into a monograph. I was writing a dissertation about the foreign assistance received by Turkey in the Postwar period and I had thousands of pages of archival documents, hundreds of books, tens of articles and official reports, newspapers, magazines, assembly transcripts, other dissertations and all kinds of statistical data to collect, organize and analyze. It was overwhelming to say the least. Writing all my notes by hand to my notebooks was too cumbersome because most of my archival documents were digital. Besides, organizing my notes on paper was taking too much time so I decided to use a digital tool, an application to keep all my notes at one source. Word processors (like Microsoft Word and LibreOffice) are not designed to organize your notes. You have to create a separate file for each source, name them accordingly, put them into separate folders. If you want to move your notes between documents, you have to open each document separately which makes the process too slow with an old computer. I had to find something else.

onenotelogoI tried several software but none of them suit my needs. I tried Scrivener, it is a great software, especially for novelists. It has the ability to show your notes like it is on a corkboard. It has many more useful features but it wasn’t cheap and I couldn’t use it on a tablet. After using Scrivener for a month, I tried Microsoft OneNote and found out that it is the one I needed. It was better than the other tools for several reasons. Firstly, It was easy to sync between multiple platforms. (I have a Mac Mini, a netbook with dual boot for Windows and Lubuntu, an iPad and a Windows Phone.) I wanted something which could at least sync between my desktop computer and my tablet. I wanted to write at home and on the road. OneNote does more than that, you could use it on Windows, Mac OS, iOS, Android and Web. Secondly, although I was willing to pay a reasonable amount of money for a good software, OneNote is free (as in beer, not as in freedom). Microsoft made it free on all platforms, as part of their goal to convert their products into services. Anyone can try OneNote without paying anything and if not happy, they could switch to something else. Last but not least, it is easy to use OneNote. Anyone who knows how to use a word processor could easily learn to create sections and pages in OneNote. For all these reasons, I picked OneNote to organize my notes and finally write my thesis and this is how I did it.

Creating Sections and Pages

First of all, I created a notebook called PhD. Then I divided it into sections based on my sources. I had lots of primary documents from different resources: scanned documents from the Turkish National Archives (BCA) and the US National Archives (NARA), all put in their own sections. As secondary sources, I had books, journal articles, theses, newspapers, magazines etc. I also had thousands of pages of digitalized documents from the Department of State Archives (DIT), as well as Microfilm Rolls. Microfilms were numbered, so I put them into Section Groups, and each roll had its own section. The notes of each document was written in a page and if there was any document connected to a previous one, I created a subpage for it. So, OneNote provided me with four levels of hierarchy to collect my notes: Section Groups, Sections, Pages and Subpages.

OneNote notebook with its section groups, sections and pages.
OneNote notebook with its section groups, sections and pages on Windows.

OneNote on Tablet

Another great feature of OneNote is instant syncing. You do not need to save your pages or any documents. As soon as you are connected to the internet, all your opened notebooks are synced with the cloud. If I wanted to go to the library, I didn’t worry about whether I saved the notes on my desktop computer. I just left it as it is and continued taking notes on my tablet. If you are suspicious of cloud, Windows version of OneNote has the ability to backup your notebooks to a local folder. (Unfortunately, Mac OS version is still unable to do that.) Yet, automatic syncing never failed me. Tablet version of OneNote while using an external keyboard is almost the same experience as its desktop counterpart.

OneNote on iPad
This is how it looks on iPad.

Pros and Cons

This was by no means a perfect solution. For example, OneNote lacks the ability to add footnotes. This may look like a major absence for an academic writer but in effect, it is not. When taking notes, if I had to add a citation for my source, I just put the page number. The book to be cited was designated in the OneNote’s page name as in “Black, Strategy of Foreign Aid”. When I was done with taking notes and wanted to add them to my thesis, I used Zotero and its Word integration. This way I wasn’t bothered with writing correct citation style or any other text formatting. I just focused on writing down my thoughts and analysis. Editing and revising was later done in a Word document where I finished my final manuscript. Seperating the processes of taking notes and actual writing/revision provided me with efficiency and peace of mind. I didn’t think about formatting when I was writing about my primary sources and when I needed to make corrections and formatting, other apps helped me to do it. (A post about how I used Zotero is coming soon.)

OneNote and Office Lens

Office LensYou could also edit notes on your phone regardless of its operating system. Currently, iOS and Android versions of OneNote are quite good for simple editing. Windows Phone 8.1 version of OneNote lacks many features but once its Windows 10 version is released, it will get the feature parity in the last quarter of 2015. Even it wasn’t fully functional I often used it to check my notes and add scanned pages of books.

For that I used Microsoft’s another application called Office Lens. It takes a photo of a document or a whiteboard and converts into a OneNote page (also a Word or Excel document if you want and uploads it to OneDrive). It is quite useful when you need to takes notes from a few pages in a book. You could use your default camera and later upload it OneNote but that way it is cumbersome. There are other document scanning apps but OneNote and Office Lens’ integration makes it easy.Office Lens OneNote

After adding your scanned documents to your notebook, you could add your comments besides them and add them to your thesis whenever you like.

Once you finish taking notes, you could begin adding them to your manuscript. I used it for my PhD thesis but OneNote could be useful for any longform writing. Editing an academic writing is more complex than just putting down some notes. I used Word and Zotero combination for the final text editing. In the next post, I’m going to explain how I used them to finish my dissertation.

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5 thoughts on “How I Used OneNote for My PhD”

  1. I also really like one note for collecting resources for academic writing, but I do find the lack of citation and bibliography tools frustrating. Hopefully, Microsoft will add this facility sooner rather than later.

    1. I agree but I have been requesting it in their user voice website for years. Keeping OneNote simple might be their strategy. At least, they should add footnote support.

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