Starting Your PhD: Using and Choosing Your Software

It’s September, and that means that another class of PhD candidates will be entering university to embark on a research project that will take up anywhere from three years to a decade’s worth of their time and effort. Doing a PhD can be a valuable thing, but you have to do it right. Financial insolvency and project fatigue are two dangers that face the unprepared PhD candidate. In the following series of posts, I will cover the academic software options available to PhD candidates and explain how they integrate into a well-planned course of research. A subsequent series of posts will address PhD finance and career planning. (Note: while potentially useful to any PhD candidate, this advice is intended for students of the humanities, particularly those within the UK, as that is where my personal experience lies.)

There are four types of software every researcher must have: a draft editor, a reference manager, a database, and a mind mapper. While there is overlap between some of these types of software, it is best to think of them as separate items. If you can find a program that combines these functions, that’s all to the good, but don’t assume that you will. This first post will deal exclusively with drafting software – where the writing and editing of the PhD thesis gets done.

Drafting Software

Word processors, such as Microsoft Word, are good applications for short documents or final editing for publication, but they are terrible for the composition of long documents, due to their inflexibility and the limited view available of the whole document at any given time. A document extending into double digits of page length quickly becomes unworkable. Instead of a word processor, the PhD candidate is advised to purchase drafting software that will allow text to be written in manageable chunks, while also allowing a flexible overview of the entire work in progress.

I use Scrivener for my drafting needs, and it is probably the best program I have ever purchased. It is available for both Windows and Mac, published by the boutique software house Literature & Latte. Scrivener appears as a corkboard to which the user can pin notecards containing ideas, but the beauty of the program is that these notecards are merely the surface imagery of a very deep organisational program. 

Scrivener contains a multi-column view. The left navigation column allows the user to see the entire document, with the ‘notecards’ actually forming sections within the document. I adopted a hierarchical approach, with a Scrivener project for each chapter of my thesis. The chapter was broken down into folders, within which I placed notecards representing topics I wished to address, topics that soon became sections and sub-sections of the chapter organisation. The corkboard, comprising the large central column, can be toggled into an outline or composition mode, within which you can write the document itself. The right column is the Inspector, within which you can add metadata as well as footnotes and comments to the main work. On larger screens, the central column can be split into two panes, so that the text editor, outliner, or corkboard can be viewed simultaneously.

Here’s a screenshot of one of my draft chapters in Scrivener:


As you can see, this is very powerful software, and at the bottom of the navigation pane (left column) you can see that there is room for attachments, so as to keep your documents all under one project file. This is a very valuable feature that I have not yet utilised to the full, but you may find useful in your own work. Given that Scrivener is available for both Windows and Mac, and given my own high regard for it, I will leave the matter of drafting software there and turn next to reference managers.


Next to come: Reference management software.

Posted in Education, Technology | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Movie Review: “Star Trek Into Darkness”

Warning: This post contains massive spoilers from the beginning.

When did actors become too talented for their movie roles? That question started to bother me soon after watching the latest Star Trek film, “Star Trek Into Darkness”. It wasn’t that I didn’t enjoy watching the film. Indeed, at times I was nearly giddy with recognition of details alluding, and sometimes directly referencing, earlier films. But as soon as the credits rolled I was immediately dissatisfied. A film that is essentially a remake of “Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan”, “Into Darkness” is crippled by association and cannot stand in comparison to its parent film, largely because the flimsiness of the writing cannot sustain it. Continue reading

Posted in Review, Television & Movies | Tagged , , , , , | 1 Comment

Why were there no decisive battles in the US Civil War?

There’s an interesting discussion going on in response to a post by James Q. Whitman at the New York Times’ Disunion blog. Whitman argues that the reason the US Civil War did not have decisive field battles, and instead ended as the result of the Union’s policy of total war against Confederate society, was that the US Civil War was an ideological war between two republics, whereas eighteenth century wars were characterized by decisive battles fought between legalistic monarchies, who accepted the outcome of trial-by-battle. Paul Krugman counters that the mass production of the long rifle neutralized the ability of cavalry formations to exploit the retreat of a defeated army, and hence the victors of a particular battle were unable to consolidate their gains, thereby dragging out the duration of the war.

There are some pretty big flaws with both interpretations. I think that Whitman misreads the eighteenth century wars when he states that:

The wars of the 18th century were legal procedures, fought over carefully stated legal royal claims to territory, and were justified by carefully formulated legal briefs. They were staged in orderly ways intended to symbolize the glory and civilization of royal courts. But in the mid-19th century the two Americans republics and the French Republic began to fight more bitter and more horrible wars, in the name of grander ideals. Hard though it is to accept, democratic idealism and widespread death began to march hand in hand.

While Whitman is correct that some of the intra-European wars were fought as disputes over royal claims to territory, particularly the claims of rival houses over the Spanish and Austrian empires, he overlooks the importance of imperial politics as generated from mercantile and colonial, rather than court, interests. While the claims of entities such as the various monopolistic trading companies, or the claims of colonial settlers, were frequently territorial in nature, they were presented in the language of national self-interest, with the language of royalism being a secondary consideration. Mercantile interests had also developed a nuanced ideology of national prosperity to justify their policies. Analysis of the limited nature of eighteenth century European warfare must take this into account. (Whitman also understates the extent to which civilians were victims of eighteenth century warfare; massive population displacement, such as the flight of the German Palatine refugees to London, and then to New York, was less severe than in the seventeenth century but not unheard of.) Continue reading

Posted in History | Tagged , , | 1 Comment

Was The Iraq War Inevitable? A 10th Anniversary Counter-factual.

When the Iraq War started ten years ago, I was a college freshman studying politics, and to call my understanding of international affairs “sophomoric” would be getting ahead of ourselves. I was enthusiastically in support of the war – I read the newspaper coverage of diplomacy, tracked the troop buildup online, and even stayed up all night on March 19th in order to watch the war as it started on TV. I look back at the way I looked at the world in 2003, and I am amazed by how dumb I was. Having access to lots of information doesn’t make you informed.

Over the years, I turned against the war like most everyone else, but I’ve never lost interest in it. I even went so far as to present a research paper on the Iraqi military at a conference hosted by the US & UK navies – a bit outside of my current area of expertise, but one in which I have a wealth of background knowledge. The Iraq War came to define my undergraduate experience in many ways and, when it came time to choose a career, was the main reason why I chose to go into academia rather than government service. (The jury is still out on that decision.) I also teach Iraq as part of my American history undergraduate survey. Each year, the last class is a discussion of Samuel Huntington’s “Clash of Civilizations” and James Fallows’ “The Fifty-First State“.

So I think about this topic a lot. The Iraq War was a mistake, but why, exactly? Certainly the mendacity of Republican officials, and the self-serving political risk management of the Democratic opposition, are two main factors. The war was bungled politically from the very beginnings of diplomacy. But here is where I have a hangup with the “we should never have gone there” crowd. We were already there. So the question we have to ask ourselves is: “was the Iraq War inevitable?” Continue reading

Posted in History, Politics | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Book Review: “The Founders and Finance”

It’s not easy writing an unfavorable review, especially when the author is no longer able to defend himself. My review of Thomas K. McCraw’s The Founders and Finance: How Hamilton, Gallatin, and Other Immigrants Forged a New Economy is up at the IHR’s “Reviews in History”, and it’s not a happy one, made all the more regrettable since the author passed away in November. I do take some comfort from Gordon Wood’s review of the same at The New Republic. Wood, while reviewing for a general audience, also finds McCraw’s book to be problematic and notes its organizational problems. 

Money quote from my review:

So what should the final judgement on this book be? Reading it as an academic specialist, the book is disappointing in that its weak thesis on the correlation of immigrants to the office of Treasury Secretary is not fully explored, nor evidence for causative influence on public policy demonstrated. On the other hand, the book has much to offer the general reader, with its clear explanation of financial instruments and its lively prose. If the book were issued by a trade press, it would be a clear success and stand above many other works of popular literature on the American founding and early republic. As it is, its publication by an academic press raises questions as to its intended audience and what statement it is actually trying to make.


Posted in Books, History, Review | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Soviets vs. Russians

In the American history class that I taught this morning, the topic of conversation was the origins of the Cold War, and in particular the division of Europe into capitalist and communist spheres. Something that I have been left thinking about for the rest of the day is the question of what in the post-World War Two settlement made the Cold War inevitable.

In answer to this, I take note of a problem in contemporaneous accounts of the early Cold War, both in documents such as George Kennan’s “Long Telegram”, the US National Security Council planning document “NSC-68”, and even in Arthur Schlesinger, Jr.’s 1967 retrospect on the events of 1947 (the year the Cold War began with the Truman Doctrine, the withdrawal of eastern Europe from the Marshall Plan, and Churchill’s “Iron Curtain” speech). That problem is the interchangeable use of the words “Soviet” and “Russian” in reference to the USSR and its policies.

Kennan, the NSC staffers who wrote NSC-68, and Schlesinger all use these words interchangeably, but they actually refer to distinct things, and I wonder whether this conflation helped lead to the ossification of divisions in Europe. “Russian” is an ethnic and national identification, while “Soviet” is a political one that substitutes for “Communist”. The conflation of the two is evident throughout the documents. It raises the question of whether things would have turned out differently had Western diplomats been able to isolate the components of Soviet policy that were part of the USSR’s Russian heritage from those components which were manifestations of its Communist ideology.

Continue reading

Posted in History | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Of Seconders and Tenthers

Since Newtown, I’ve been struggling to express the difference between someone who has a strongly favorable opinion of guns, but who is rational about it, and the truly extreme cases – such as Wayne LaPierre, Alex Jones, and James Yeager – who have elevated the right to bear arms into a fetish. My desire to distinguish between the two kinds of person are threefold. First, I don’t wish to offend those who find legitimate use for guns in their lives. Second, I want to peel off moderate gun users from the gun abusers, and conflating them is counterproductive. Third, there really is a genuine difference between someone who wants to use a gun responsibly, subject to reasonable limitations, and someone who will accept no limitations at all. 

Until now, I have not been very successful at making this distinction, but I may have come up with a solution. Just as there are extremists known as “Tenthers” who elevate the 10th Amendment to the US Constitution out of all context and rationality, there are also extremists who do the same with the 2nd Amendment. Why not call such people “Seconders”? It could replace the imprecise term “gun nut” by specifying the nature of the derangement as one of Constitutional extremism, and distinguishing those who are enthusiastic for their hobby from those who genuinely are crazed by it. (After all, terms such as “sports nut” are used casually to describe ardent fans of a hobby without impugning them as people. “Gun nut” is one of the few cases where it is used as a pejorative, and it often ends up being used to describe people who deserve better. Let’s retire this phrase.)

Something Tenthers and Seconders have in common is a lack of appreciation for the entirety of the Constitution, instead adopting a Choose-Your-Own-Amendment approach whereby one section becomes the supreme provision by which liberty will survive or fall. Tenthers ignore the many other provisions of the Constitution that restrict federal power and arbitrate between the states and the federal government, while Seconders ignore or mangle the many safeguards for individual liberty. For example, see this post at Tea Party Nation in which the writer mistakes the 7th Amendment for a protector of the 2nd Amendment, rather than a protection of individual liberty in its own right. As White House press secretary Jay Carney noted in response to Alex Jones’ tirade, “The Constitution not only guarantees an individual right to bear arms, but also enshrines the freedom of speech and the freedom of the press – fundamental principles that are essential to our democracy.”

So let’s hear it for the Seconders as well as the Tenthers, and single them out for the mockery they rightly deserve. We could even throw in other amendments too. I’m sure Firsters will be easy enough to find. Personally, I want to find myself some Thirders. But I will always consider myself a Twenty-Firster.

Posted in Politics | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment