The intersection of technology, research, financial aid and student access in higher education

The hardware and software of dissertation work

Added on by Scott Cline.

I figured it was about time to write a post about how this dissertation was written. Up until this point I have only provided snapshots of process and pictures of the drinks that have helped to make it possible.

Quick background. I am in the last stages of my Doctoral of Education in Leadership and Adminstration degree. My dissertation is a quantitative-based study on the impact of the institutional financial aid process of students of color. Also, my day job is as full-time financial aid administrator for a private non-profit college.

First up, the rig that I have been using. My current computer is a 13 inch MacBook Air (mid-2011, i7 Core, 256 GB Hard Drive). It replaced my old 15 inch MacBook Pro that I started my doctoral program with and had for four years. The MBA is fast, quick and all SSD based. It can easily manage the hop between San Francisco and New York or DC.

The next part of my rig was until recently an original iPad 3G. It was replaced in March when the 3rd generation iPad 4G LTE was released. Between extremely fast 4G, always on internet connection, and 10 hours of battery life, it makes a great writing machine.

Finally, started with an iPhone 3GS until it was replaced by an iPhone 4S. Some might call this Apple fanboy, but I have used Apple products since the Apple II and never looked back. They simply work.

With the hardware out of the way, here is a brief overview of the software. I plan to delve much deeper each of these items and their pluses and minuses in the future.

Article and Research Organization and References

Zotero - While there is the big player of EndNote, I was introduced to an open source project called Zotero. I originally tried EndNote, but found its un-Mac UI painful and at the beginning of my doctoral work was looking for not only a citation organizer but also an article/research/notes organizer. Over the three years I have seen Zotero develop and mature into a great product. You can use it to collaborate with other people, handle all of your citations, and pull/push documents to an iPad for reading and markup. It is free, always developing open source project and something that I would be happy to pay money for.

Quantitative Organization and Analysis

Google Docs and Forms - I used Google Docs and its form generator to build out my data collection instrument to evaluate the financial aid application processes and offices. My study required collecting around a hundred independent variables on each college in the study consistantly over a number of weeks. I could then export the data collected into the next tool of Excel.

Excel - I used Excel (Mac Office 2011) for cleaning, organizing and basic calculations on the data. Mac Office 2011 gained a decent amount of stability compared to Mac Office 2007. If I had to pick, I would still use Office 2010 on Windows any date of the week. The Mac Office 2011 product suite is just a complete mess and needs a complete overhaul to clean it up.

SPSS Statistics IBM Verison 20 - After the data was cleaned, organized, and basic calculations were completed in Excel, the data was imported in SPSS. All of the multiple regression analysis and findings were run and generated using SPSS. It is a workhorse for many graduate students doing statistical and quantitative analysis. While I have heard that there has been stability issues on the Mac side, verison 20 ran without a hitch with a fairly small N size, but very large number of independent variables.

OmniGraffle - One of the many products from the OmniGroup that I have grown to not want to live without. OmniGraffle allows you to build many types of graphic layouts from workflows, to decision trees, to diagrams, to logic maps. If you know of Visio on Windows, it is that and so much better. I used it to think through and design all of the workflows and logic maps that were used in the study design stage and to the final product of the dissertation to visual explain parts to the leader.

Writing Programs

As one of my committee members told me during my proposal defense, "the dissertation is primarily a writing exercise."

OmniOutliner Pro (Mac) - OmniOutlliner is another OmniGroup software that might be one of the best outlining programs on the Mac. Most of my disseration was outlined before any words were written. By using a file format called OPML (see much more about this from David Sparks at MacSparky) you can easily pass outlines between mindmaps and down the line into the writing process. OmniGroup also now has OmniOutliner on the iPad. I have not used the product much since I prefer to more free form on my iPad with mindmaps (see next two).

iThoughts HD (iPad) - One of the best mindmaping software for the ipad. In a recent release it now syncs with a DropBox folder. By saving files in OPML it becomes very easy to jump back and forth between outline mood and mindmap mood. Feeling left brain? Use one. Feeling right brain? Use the other.

MindNode Pro (Mac) - A great mindmapping software for the mac. Again, using OPML you can jump back and forth depending on your purpose, state of mind, and platform.

nvALT/SimpleNote (Mac/iPhone/iPad) - Outside of OPML, one of the best file formats is plain old simple text files. Text files are so simple, basic and small. You can open then in nearly anything and come with very little baggage. nvALT is a text file directory and is based of Notational Volcity. SimpleNote on the iPhone/iPad allows you to access the same text files as nvALT and edit and create on either the iPhone or the iPad. Same text files are great for working out ideas, sections of writing and reference text.

Byword (iPad/Mac) - This is my minimalist writting software on either the iPad and with the recent release, the Mac. It blocks out all of the distractions and just focuses on writing. The app supports text files when writing on the iPad, the word counts slipped by and the pages added up. It might not have been that easy, but when you need to eliminate noise, email, twitter, facebook, etc), minimalist writing apps are great.

iA Writer (iPad) - Second runner up to Byword. Also a great app for minimalist writing. Has a desktop software for the Mac.

Microsoft Office 2011 Word - It is large and cumbersom, but everyone has it, includeing most academics and professors. Its one redeeming quality is track changes. These allow you to send drafts back and forth and keep track of all of the changes.


Dropbox - All of my documents for my dissertation and graduate school were saved in dropbox. Dropbox, if for some reason you are not already know or a user, syncs files and documents across nearly every platform--mac, windows, iOS, etc. Not only does the service keep everythign in sync quickly and easily, but it keeps everything backed up. Computer dies or crashes? Files are backed up to the cloud.

MobileMe (retiring) - Even though MobileMe is being retired by Apple in for iCloud, MobileMe has served as a workforse for two particluar programs--Omnifocus and the Zotero Library. MobileMe sunsets on June 30th, so both of these will need to be transitioned to other sync systems. At this point Omnifcous will most likely be headed to OmniGroups' sync server and Zotero will move to the Zotero server or

TextExpander (Mac/iPad) - This is a great service that saves hours of time. It expands text from key words that you setup. In my dissertation there were many sets of words that had to typed many, many times. With TextExpander it would allow you to type a few characters and have them expand a few words or multiple paragraphs of canned text. This is an amazingly powerful tool.

Soulver - Is a great little application for doing any number of calculation. I used it for everything from simple addition to a scratch pad of numbers. Great little app and saved a great deal of time.

Task Management

OmniFocus - This is my task manager of choice. There are many different task managers out there, including Things. But if you want one of the most powerful, sync everywhere (Mac, iPhone, iPad), and do not mind a little bit of a learning curve, OmniFocus from OmniGroup is the choice.


Mail (Mac, iPhone, iPad) - While grad school uses exchange server, work and person use google apps and gmail, all of it is pulled together through Mail on the Mac, iPhone, and iPad.

Buying All of These Apps

I own a license to each and everyone of these pieces of software. The amount of time and energy these applications have saved more then justify their cost that I paid to the developer. Most of it was purchased through the developer website, but a great deal of the software is not available through the Mac App Store and of course all of the iOS software was purchased through the iOS App Store. There are many upsides to purchasing Mac software through the Mac App Store, but one downside is most of these developers offer educational pricing that allows you to purchase the software as either a student or an academic at a reduced rate. OmniGroup has some of the best discounts out there in their educational store.


I hope this gives up an idea of the hardward and software that I used to survive my doctoral program and write my dissertation. In the future I plan to diver deeper into these and using it for academic work.

In the mean time, check out one of my old favorites of Mac Power Users and a recent find of Academic Workflows on Mac