Skip navigation
From PhD to Life

Note-taking and project management


I had a great notetaking and project management system when I was working on my Master’s thesis (on Canadians in revolutionary Russia). I used a free program called Scribe, which was developed for historians at George Washington’s Center for History and New Media. The program wasn’t particularly user-friendly, but with time and patience, I made it work well for me. All my research notes went into the program, including notes I wrote by hand in the archives or library and then later typed up. Doing this meant I could tag each note with keywords, and that meant I could find anything I needed. It worked wonderfully for me. The time-consuming process of choosing meaningful keywords and reading my notes many times over to make sure they were appropriately tagged ensured I was intimately familiar with my material. That made preparing outlines only moderately challenging instead of a near-impossible, emotionally-frought feat. Organizing my notes for writing was eased by being able to quickly find whatever I needed.

In the two years between completing my Master’s and beginning dissertation research in earnest, the program changed and it no longer worked for me. There was nothing available that promised to do what I had been able to do with Scribe. I could have used Filemaker Pro to customize a solution, but that seemed daunting and I instead opted to wait for applications such as Endnote to improve.

Well, waiting turned into a fait accompli: By the time I’d completed my first few archives visits I’d used a mishmash of methods and ended up carrying on that way! These were the days when archives were beginning to allow researchers to photograph records . . . but many still did not; in one or two archives in the UK I could not even use my laptop. At the end of it all I had an organizational mess on my hands. By not spending a significant amount of time figuring out and managing a filing system, I spent much more time searching for bits of information stored in filing cabinets, on my harddrive (in .doc or .pdf files, or in Scribe), in handwritten notebooks, or on pieces of scrap paper piled on my desk and everywhere else in my room. Dissertators, a warning: Don’t do as I did!

Now that I’ve launched another major self-directed project — my new career, that is — I want to learn from past mistakes. Last weekend I resolved to do something about it. After soliciting advice and suggestions from my Twitter followers, taking the advice of my friend Liz to heart, and searching the Internet, I opted to give Evernote a shot, and the Secret Weapon‘s method in particular. We’ll see how it goes.

What’s your project management “secret weapon”? Which programs do you use?

Jennifer Polk
Jennifer Polk is a career coach and entrepreneur. She earned her PhD in history from the University of Toronto in 2012. For more information and resources, check out her website:
Post a comment
University Affairs moderates all comments according to the following guidelines. If approved, comments generally appear within one business day. We may republish particularly insightful remarks in our print edition or elsewhere.

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

  1. Charles Kingsfield / February 19, 2014 at 21:55

    Thanks for this handy article. I’ve been using OmniFocus, which is great, but will try the Evernote + TSW/GettingThingsDone approach (with my own modifications, naturally). One outstanding feature of Evernote is the ability to e-mail items into your EN account. Using subject line commands you can direct e-mailed items to your customized folders, or you can simply send all incoming items to your default EN notebook (e.g., @inbox). The key to using EN as an organizer is the tagging system (e.g., 1-today, 2-soon). EN also offers a web clipper, which allows you to save whole pages into EN, not just the URLs.

    • Jennifer Polk / February 25, 2014 at 13:58

      Thanks Charles! Yeah, so far so good. I’m glad to know this stuff works well for people.

  2. KC / March 13, 2017 at 11:34

    I didn’t even know about Scribe. Now i wanna try it out, but I would like to know it what way did it change for you?

    • Jennifer Polk / March 13, 2017 at 13:31

      It’s been over a decade since I last used it so I can’t remember the details anymore. I don’t think the software has been updated in a decade.

Click to fill out a quick survey