Ideas for a PhD iPad workflow

Achieving flow on the go ....

I am going to be doing quite a bit of communing this coming semester – 1 class even involves an overnight trip (it’s a full day teaching and is both a great Cv opportunity and good money) so I began to wonder how best I can utilise the time I am ‘in commute’ to get some research and/or writing done.

I need hand in my MacBook when I leave work so I now have an iMac and an iPad. I don’t really want to buy a new MacBook – for one thing I am not a big fan of the laptop, it’s one of the reasons I got an iPad to begin with, so I wouldn’t have to cart my MacBook to and from work – but I have owned the iPad for over  year and I am not convinced I am using it to capacity. I am constantly buying and trying apps – and there are some sensational ones available – but settling in on an actual workflow that is productive, makes sense, fits into a process of desktop-iPad-desktop and allows me to produce, well, that has been a challenge. I currently mainly use my ipad for mobile Internet & email access and although I have some great note taking apps, I don’t feel like I am maximizing the potential of the ipad at all.

Apps I know I need/have that I can start using right now

Part of my problem is that I have too many apps and I find it really difficult to choose one that fits a purpose and to stay with it – there are so many choices and they all offer a variety of extras!

The first thing to ask is “what do I actually want to achieve on the iPad”?

  1. Ideally, fully functioning word processing,
  2. a bibliography/pdf manager (with annotation capabilities),
  3. a calendar/to-do list
  4. a place to create and present slides for lectures and tutorials (maybe an attendance app as well?)
  5. A place to create, store and retrieve notes (recordings?) of meetings with my PhD supervisor/advisor

Second consideration is compatibility/synching/transferring of files to and from my iMac to my iPad and back again. There is no point creating work on one platform and not being able to access it easily on the other. The ability to export as RTF and PDF is useful and most apps have that ability – however DropBox synching is something that might be a dealbreaker, depending upon the app.

So, what would a mobile/iPad workflow actually look like?

Ideally, the iPad would be used as a catch-all through which the day to day flotsam & jetsam of teaching, research and writing is processed. I asked around a couple of places and the best answer I received described their workflow in detail:

I start each day on the iPad checking my email. I then check MobileRSS and email any relevant news stories to myself from within that app. If I have reading to do, I will sync my dropbox app and then open iAnnotate and read/highlight whatever articles/books and email the annotations to myself. If I have a print copy I need to read, I’ll use GoodNotes to jot down my thoughts and email that to myself. I then go to Safari and check in with the online courses I am teaching. If I have an existing document that I am working on (say drafts from Word or Scriv), I will go into Dropbox, download them to the iPad, then open them in QuickOffice for editing – when done I email the new file to myself (so that I have a built in versioning system plus a back up). Lastly, when my work is done on the iPad, I then get on the desktop, download my emailed files, and file them in the relevant folder on my desktop. 
When I am done with that, I switch over to the desktop for the bulk of my writing (I need to have my dual monitor setup in order to work quickly between notes, maps, and drafts).

If I did not have a desktop, I would use the iPad just the same way – but would do all my writing in QuickOffice and save to DropBox for syncing with a online backup. In that case, a good keyboard and stand is essential. There are many combination case/bluetooth keyboards out there; there are also standalone keyboards that would be ergonomically better… loads of cheap but sturdy stands out there as well.

This great outline of apps and process really helped me get an idea of how I could use the iPad more productively and ensure that my workflow or process is being synced/updated between devices.

I would also add …

For preparing teaching presentations I have Keynote. If you get an iPad adaptor you can hook the iPad up directly to an output screen and give a slideshow without having to use a computer or laptop.

Record keeping for students and classes – I use Teachers Attache which allows for attendance, input of assessment and grades as well as allowing files such as pdfs to be associated with a particular class (with DropBox sync) and displayed from within the app. This may be overkill for some & there are simpler attendance-only style apps available.

Records of meetings with supervisor/advisor etc: Here the iPad really shines as there are many apps available that allow you to type/write and record at the same time. Not only that, but touching on a word or sentence in your notes will automatically bring the recording to that spot – very neat! I use Audiotorium but there are plenty available and usually one of them is on sale at any given time.

For file management in general, you can’t go past ReaddleDocs, it will store and view most file types and has a pretty good search function. I have used a few of these and Readdle is my firm favourite here.

The poster above recommends QuickOffice for word processing but I happen to know that they use a Windows desktop. For those of you using an iMac or Macbook/Pro, you could consider using Apple’s own Pages which is about as clean a word processor as you will get. Pages also syncs seamlessly in iCloud making the documents available on any computer with an internet connection. If you use Office on your main computer or Scrivener (and if you are not using Scrivener, why the hell not? It will change your life!) make sure to save/export Pages documents in rtf or word format.

There is also no mention of Bibliographic storage/management. I use and highly recommend Sente for both desktop and the iPad version. It’s an intuitive program that allows for bibliographic information, generation of biblios, pdf attachments, notes from pdfs and syncing between devices. Sente is not free but there is a free trial and it is worth every penny as you can take your entire pdf library and all of your notes and annotations with you everywhere you go on the iPad – syncing is automatic from within the software, no need to push it through iTunes or DropBox, it syncs when you plop your iPad down next to your computer – beautiful! If you are new to Sente, I recommend academipad’s blogpost which outlines the features and functions of Sente – you can read it here

Finally, I have been playing around with Circus Ponies Notebook for the Mac on and off for years but seriously for about 6 months. I love the notebook metaphor which allows the user to set up a ‘folder’ with dividers and pages plus the fact that I can pretty much do anything on the page – drop a pdf or graphic, annotate, write, type, outline etc .. One of the very best things about CPN is that it has an automatic index called multidex that allows for searches based on words, phrases, keyword, dates and a whole load more. At the moment I have separate notebooks for research and bibliograpies (you can also link notebook entries both within a notebook and to other notebooks). CPN potentially replaces any other notebook on your iPad or desktop  but it has a steep-ish learning curve and from what I gather they are still ironing out a few bumps with the iPad app. I will post more on CPN in the future but I recommend having a look (free trial) to see what it is about and considering replacing a few other, cheaper apps with this one large multi-app that now has DropBox syncing. (For a excellent post on CPN & academic writing over at Organizing Creativity click here)

There are so many potential ways to approach an iPad workflow

That it can be overwhelming to contemplate where to start. I recommend that you jot down what you would like to be able to achieve on your iPad; is it mainly for email and internet use? Would you like to keep student records? Do you have some downtime or commuting that allows for writing or reading/note-taking/annotating? What about a digital research diary? Once you have an idea what you are going to use it for, choose the least possible apps to achieve those goals and make sure they sync with or can be transferred to your main device/computer. It may take a little while to get a workflow going that you are comfortable with but the potential is there to increase productivity and use your time more effectively. If you know that everything you need is on your iPad, it becomes possible to go work in a coffee shop, a park or at the beach. Even bus or train trips are going to be easier because it is much, much simpler to take out and work on an iPad than it is to take out a laptop, there just isn’t a comparison.

I would love to hear from anyone who has an app that should be mentioned here or a process or workflow that they would like to share. I imagine this will be a page that is updated and modified as new apps are released and as I improve my own practice.

NB: I have tried to make all app links go directly to iTunes where possible so that you can get more information about the product. Some links go to the developer and some to the main site. I have tried to find the best link for the app but if you have a better link, please let me know!


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