Note to myself: Use better notes
April 24, 2009 8:00 AM   Subscribe

I'm doing my comp. exam (also called doctoral exam here) this summer. This involves reading a whole bunch of books and articles (about 30), and writing a long paper that answers a few questions from my committee. I am looking for good note-taking methods.

I've made it to the PhD with not much of a technique. Sometimes I write in the margins, sometimes I hand-take notes on a separate sheet for each text, and sometimes I just read, no notes. I'd like to have a better system this time to be able to do the readings and then be able to use principally my notes for the writing. What is your preferred method?

I'm okay using a computer for note-taking (os x), but not online tools, as I'll often be in dead zones. I have Zotero, but I'm not sure I'm using it to its full capacity.

(also, not to derail, but any tricks for the reading-writing of the exam would be appreciated-this is in communication studies)
posted by ddaavviidd to Education (9 answers total) 16 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: Try starting here, here, here, or here.
posted by proj at 8:22 AM on April 24, 2009 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: arrrgh... not sure how I missed them all! My search competences should also be ameliorated. Some good ones there. If you have any tips that are specific to the comp. exam study keep them coming!
posted by ddaavviidd at 8:27 AM on April 24, 2009

I didn't go to all those links. For papers, I like to take notes in the margins or on a separate sheet of paper and staple the paper to the back of the paper. Then I write a few key points on a post-it and stick it on the front of the paper. You can put them all in a binder together in a somewhat organized fashion.
posted by sickinthehead at 8:42 AM on April 24, 2009

Best answer: In my field, almost everything I'd want to read is available as a PDF — but then, we put a lot more weight on journal articles, and a lot less on books, so it might be different in your neck of the woods. If you can get the stuff you need in PDF form, though, there's a lot to be said for doing it that way.

Here's one reason that stands out: I'm not sure about other OSes these days (i.e. let's not have an OS holy war here), but OS X lets you search within the contents of documents on your hard drive. As far as I can tell, most of the organized note-taking that my classmates do is just for the sake of tracking references and quotations — anything they might conceivably want to refer back to, they need to make a careful note of who said it where, and then file that note away someplace they'll be able to find it. Search makes all that unnecessary. Can't remember whose article had that great quote about the Lebanese guacamole farmers' insurrection of 1847? Go to the Finder and do a search-within-contents for "Lebanon guacamole insurrection."

Of course, you'll want to do some jotting and scribbling still to get your thoughts moving, and maybe write an outline or some such for the paper. But I find that keeping that stuff organized is simple — one text file for jotting, one for outlining, one for the paper itself, and there you go.
posted by nebulawindphone at 9:42 AM on April 24, 2009 [1 favorite]

Honestly, I found that I didn't really use my notes at all when taking the comps. If you need the notes to help process the information, great, otherwise, I'd probably limit it to just referencing, e.g., "book X suggests Y and has problems Z, ZZ, and ZZZ."
posted by paultopia at 10:43 AM on April 24, 2009

Best answer: Okay, there is one thing that absolutely made the difference for me, when I took my comps. It not only helped me study the material, but it also helped me be perfectly prepared during the test itself.

I made a list of quotes from each book/article that were central the the piece's main point. You know, the thesis statement, or the perfect sentence or two that expressed the main gist of their evidence, etc. I'd have about a page or two of these key quotes for each piece.

There were several reasons why this was so helpful. First, going through and figuring out which quotes would be the most helpful to me was a great way to really get comfortable with the material. Second, it meant that, as soon as I read the questions on the exam and started to panic because they were so complicated, I could easily go through my Pages of Notes and separate out the ones that related to the question -- it definitely helped keep the panic at bay and organize my thoughts. Third, it meant that, right at my fingertips, I had any of the main quotes I'd possibly want to use to help form my answer.

I'm assuming, of course, that you'll be able to look at notes during your exam.
posted by Ms. Saint at 10:46 AM on April 24, 2009 [1 favorite]

I found Endnote to be extremely valuable in prepping for and writing my comp (and my aborted dissertation too). To use it for note taking, I would use the Word plug-in and type my notes for each article in Word. This was especially useful if, in reading one article, I was reminded of something in a different one.
posted by bluejayway at 12:07 PM on April 24, 2009

I didn't find any special software very useful, and I had about the same amount of reading as you do. I did the following:

-read each chapter of each book and then took notes on it
-wrote 5-8 page essay-style write-ups of all the notes from each book
-wrote up 3-4 pages of notes on each article
-devised some likely essay questions and wrote them as 'practice exams'

What I would do differently in retrospect is probably be less slavishly faithful in my original notetaking to the context of each book/article. I'd want to be reading the pieces against each other from an earlier point, rather than what I did, which was (1) get them all under my belt individually, and then (2) start the comparing and contrasting.
posted by Beardman at 6:03 PM on April 24, 2009

DEVONthink is what you need. All your pdfs in one place with notes attached and indexed.
posted by TrashyRambo at 7:44 AM on April 26, 2009

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