What software would be most helpful for a masters degree?
July 31, 2007 5:16 AM   Subscribe

I'm starting a masters degree in a few months, and I'm looking for recommendations for the best Mac software to use in order to take notes and organise information.

The course is in politics, in London. In contrast to my undergraduate degree, where my notes where a mass of badly organised jottings, print outs, photocopies, etc, I'm looking for (ideally) a single program on the Mac that will help me organise all the information that I will get into a format that will help me write essays and prepare for exams. I'm likely to take a lot of notes from books and lectures, as well as pdfs, websites etc.

Progams like Devonthink, Yojimbo, Tinderbox and Scrivener, all look like they might be useful, but I don't know anyone who uses any of them.

So hive-mind, what program or programs would be most helpful? Thanks.
posted by Touchstone to Computers & Internet (18 answers total) 20 users marked this as a favorite
These links might help:

Digital Organizers

New Class of Writing Tools for the Mac
posted by jayder at 5:22 AM on July 31, 2007

I am in a Masters program myself and I use Keep It Together. It's definitely helped me stay organized on big projects that require a ton of research from different places. I use it to save whole websites or PDFs. The dev updates it very frequently so it improves all the time.
posted by sneakin at 5:53 AM on July 31, 2007

A friend of mine uses DevonThink and says its excellent.

posted by Rain Man at 6:13 AM on July 31, 2007

Voodoo Pad is brilliant for organizing information - it's a wiki bundled as a local app and has a nice friendly Mac GUI. Ey?
posted by dance at 6:18 AM on July 31, 2007

If it's an academic program and you'll be writing a lot of papers, EndNote is excellent.
posted by B-squared at 6:26 AM on July 31, 2007

See this recent thread, which includes a couple of strong recommendations for Schoolhouse.
posted by idb at 6:32 AM on July 31, 2007

I've used them all, they all have pluses and minuses. DevonThink is the most obv. powerful, but it falls short if you plan to actually write in it; if you're going to do a lot of writing, Scrivener is by far the most pleasurable choice, and has been genuinely helpful to me from a creative standpoint. DevonThink works best if you have a very high volume of information, and if you're going to fall short of that it's not worth it. Yojimbo is a little underpowered for what you're planning to do, and is more focused on taking quick notes throughout the workday than on working in an intense and focused manner. Tinderbox is fiendishly complicated, and I would wait to see if your working style in grad school requires it (mine, it turns out, definitely doesn't).

For myself, I store PDFs in Devonthink--which I hardly ever look at, preferring to simply print them out and keep them in a hanging file in my desk--own Scrivener and use it to draft chapters of my dissertation, and also use Mellel for almost all of my other writing instead of Word. I've given up on keeping some big system that works flawlessly, and just work in whichever app seems more appropriate day by day. I also use both Backpack and Highrise from 37signals to keep work organized online, although those might not be important to you if you're really committed to carrying a laptop everywhere or if you're not yet teaching.

Good luck! Hope that's helpful.
posted by josh at 6:40 AM on July 31, 2007

I <3 circus ponies a href="http://www.circusponies.com/store/index.php?main_page=notebook&sub=organize">Notebook.

From a notetaking POV:
It can take notes (on pages that "LOOK" like notebook pages); also offers the cornell method.

You can sync specific pages to your ipod (viewable anywhere!)

Each "notebook" auto indexes - it's easy to create dividers, etc (as well as tabs on sections)...

Dammit, I could just go on and on- but you should just check it out.
posted by filmgeek at 6:54 AM on July 31, 2007

Scrivener is the best tool I've ever used for developing long, complex documents.
posted by enrevanche at 6:55 AM on July 31, 2007

Since you asked about Yojimbo- I recently started using it (I'm not in school) just as a personal info organizing tool. Personally, I think it's very good at what it does, which is categorize disparate pieces of info into something that becomes increasingly coherent the more you use it.

Yojimbo is tag-based, rather than project-based, which has its benefits and drawbacks. If you think like I do, which it sounds like you do, you'll appreciate this approach because it doesn't force you into pre-determined boxes. The downside is that you occasionally need to go back and "clean up" your tags (which should be increasingly less often). An offshoot to this philosophy is that there are no subfolders in Yojimbo, which is a deal-killer for some people. If you're trying to impose a more rigid structure on yourself, Yojimbo won't help you.

That aside, I quite like it. Bare Bones Software knows how to make clean, clear interfaces, and they've developed several easy interfaces for putting info into Yojimbo- drop docks, hotkey popups, Quicksilver integration.
posted by mkultra at 7:16 AM on July 31, 2007

Best answer: Yojimbo all the way. I've used every one mentioned here so far, exhaustively because I'm doing a lot of independent study at the university myself and needed the same things.

DevonThink, as mentioned, as more horsepower than about anything. Unfortunately, it's not... the most pleasant to use. I don't know about you, but as a Mac user I have certain expectations for ease of use, and... well, pleasantness to use.

It's also freaking expensive. I've got a license, but I honestly never use it at all.

A lot of the other programs are pretty decent, Mori, etc. But Yojimbo is astonishingly easy to get info INTO (hit F8), and then you can tag it and use smart folders or just the search. But, for me at least, most importantly is that it syncs through .mac and you can keep your database handy everywhere.

Also, recently, a program called Webjimbo was released that allows that info to sync to the web so you can access the info everywhere.

Scriver is nice, but I found it more useful for actually writing it - not actually managing data.

Tinderbox... man.. It's a nice program from all accounts, but it has a monstrous learning curve and very steep price. I believe for a while they were even bundling it with Yojimbo because Yojimbo is so much easier to get info into.

Another program to consider, though it is different from many of these other programs is Curio. Curio is a lot like OneNote in Windows. Basically, you create spaces where you can stick just about anything, and do all sorts of stuff from there. While Yojimbo remains my database of just about everything "organized" I use Curio for projects I'm actively working on. It's kind of a like big whiteboard. It also supports LinkBack technology and can do mindmaps. I highly suggest you download it, try it out.. make sure you go through the sample file to see all it can do. It's very versatile.

I'd do the same thing with Yojimbo. It's cheap, it works well. I'd try it out for a month, put everything in it. See how you like it. If it can meet your needs easily, there's no good reason to invest in DevonThink or Tinderbox. I've spent a LOT of time trying this stuff out, and this is just the conclusions I've came to. Your mileage may vary.
posted by Gideon at 7:52 AM on July 31, 2007

OmniOutliner is a nice note-taking application.
posted by chunking express at 8:43 AM on July 31, 2007

To piggyback - Something similar for Windows?
posted by Jaie at 8:46 AM on July 31, 2007

Scrivener is the best one I've tried (I've tried most of them).

Besides having the best writing environment for me, I think Scrivener is great for note-taking because of the index card metaphor--I can take one note per card (old-school--but very flexible). I also like the split-screen view which lets me take notes on PDFs and web pages really easily. And I like having my notes and my actual writing in the same file.
The integration with Mellel and Bookends is excellent, and those are the other two programs I use most.

That said, I do not use Scrivener for holding all my research documents. I have DevonThink and I want to use it, but I really haven't. Basically, I save everything I can as PDFs, including web pages, catalog them right away in Bookends, and pull the things I need most (or links to them) into Scrivener for handy access.

I use Spotlight for finding files. It works fine for me. As I said, I'd like to be able to use the AI power of DevonThink but I get hung up on having to create a really good folder hierarchy. All my materials seem to overlap so much in subject matter. If DT ever implements tagging maybe it'll get easier.
posted by bluebird at 8:50 AM on July 31, 2007

As a medical school student my favorite is Journler, a free/donationware information manager along the lines of Yojimbo and DevonThink. I love the smart folder and tagging functionality. I print PowerPoint presentations to PDF and embed them in my Journler entries, I manage homework/reading assignments and other To Do's using the smart folder functionality, and I'm thoroughly impressed by the searching capabilities of the program.
posted by Grundlebug at 10:02 AM on July 31, 2007

Not “Mac software,” but if you like Firefox and you spend a lot of time in a web browser try Zotero.
posted by ads at 9:09 PM on July 31, 2007

Response by poster: Lots of very useful suggestions and advice, thankyou all very much.
posted by Touchstone at 2:59 AM on August 1, 2007

Having tried most of the apps mentioned (as well as Eagle Filer, which is worth checking out) I've turned back to text files for all my notes, using the built in tools that come with OS X to organise them, as well as PDFs and info from the web/email (which I either print to PDF or copy and paste into a text file).

Spotlight comments are a big part of this approach - tagging files allows for really useful Smart Folders and precise Spotlight searches (you can tag files very quickly with Quicksilver). I also use TextMate, which is great for working on projects with lots of source material, as you can have various folders and files in a sidebar for quick access while you're working on an essay, and it has a tabbed interface, so you can flit between your outline, notes and final draft. The abovementioned VoodooPad and OmniOutliner are both great for note-taking, but for me their key feature is the ability to export to plain text (ie I really use them as specialised text editors.)

Sorry, that wasn't really a direct answer to your question, but working as a journalist (which in terms of organising lots of notes and working up final pieces of writing is pretty similar to being a student) I've found that the bells and whistles of the various organising apps always end up getting in the way, so it might be worth trying a more 'minimalist' approach with tools you probably use already before learning the conventions of a new application.
posted by jack_mo at 3:01 PM on February 20, 2008 [1 favorite]

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