Sharing Dissertation Writing with DropBox

One of the better decisions I have made recently has been to use DropBox to share my dissertation writing with my committee members.  DropBox is an application that allows you to easily save and share files in the cloud (for more info, check out our DropBox post). Using it sped up the revision process and smoothed out some logistical problems. While there are a few things that I would do differently when using DropBox this way, these problems came from less-than-stellar communication on my part and were easily resolved.

Sharing Speeds up Revising

During the early stages of writing, I used email to distribute my chapter drafts.  This worked okay, but once I started revising, I found that email was not the best option for managing drafts.  Because I had co-chairs for my dissertation, I had two faculty members reading drafts at the same time — and what happened if their schedules did not line up?  I would have to wait until I had comments back from both of them before I could do any revisions.  Or, I could work on the revisions for one faculty member, and the other faculty member might have work on an old draft.  By always having the most recent draft of a chapter on DropBox, faculty members and advisees can streamline the revision process by not repeating work.

However, the streamlining did not always work — sometimes a chair would revise a draft that was not the most recent version of a chapter.  When that happened, Microsoft Word’s “Merge Documents” feature could resolve any issues (although it can still be time consuming).

Solves Some (But Not All) Logistical Problems

I am not sure if the faculty members had any problems signing up for DropBox — but neither mentioned problems to me.  While I did feel a little awkward asking faculty members to sign up for a third-party service to manage my dissertation draft, I felt that it would be worth it to not use email for distributing drafts.

One of benefits of using DropBox is the not having to worry about sharing media.  If you are emailing your drafts that include image files, email clients can sometimes give you problems.  Putting the files on DropBox, for the most part, does away with file size limitations.

That said, one of my co-chairs had problems opening Word files that contained images in them.  So, you might still need to do a little troubleshooting, share the files directly, or put them in a PDF.

What I Would Have Done Differently

If I were starting a dissertation now, I would go about using DropBox a little differently.  The service itself worked well, but my communication about how to share writing could have been better.  For me, a way to improve communication with faculty members about how to share my writing with them would be to have a conversation about it at the dissertation colloquium.  The colloquium is probably the last time you will see all your committee together in the same room (before the defense itself) and I think it would be a more natural (or at least less awkward) space to bring up logistical issues.

Here are the two things I would add to a colloquium about sharing writing and DropBox:

  • Discuss how I am going to share writing with my committee members.  I would mention DropBox and ask if it would be okay to put EVERYTHING in it (prospectus, grant applications, abstracts for CFPs, chapter drafts, etc.) that my committee might care about.  This might not seem helpful when you are just starting your dissertation, but as your committee members are writing recommendations letters for you years later, it would be nice for them to easily see what you have been up to.  It isn’t fun to ask for a letter from someone and essentially force them to ask to see your latest work because you haven’t kept them in the loop.  I also would have talked with my committee about how to organize the shared folder on DropBox.  Everyone has their own ideas about how to organize files on their computer, so a short discussion about what would work best might prevent problems later.
  • Discuss how they prefer to share their comments on my writing.  In my case, I’d’ve asked my committee members specifically to put their comments into the shared DropBox folder.  Or better yet, I would see if everyone would be willing to work from the same draft so all comments appear in a single Word file.  Merging documents in Word can solve these issues, but having a “master” draft that contains all of your work and your readers’ work at the same time would help streamline the revision process.

Granted, I am not a faculty member and can only begin to imagine the workload of having dozens of advisees.  However, I suspect getting graduate student writing out of email inboxes would be a good thing, and if faculty members could do this for all of her or his advisees, it could save a lot of time.  From the advisee’s prospective, DropBox helped me get my draft out to readers by allowing multiple faculty members to review my work, and each other’s comments, at the same time.

About Evan Cordulack

Evan Cordulack is a Web Applications Specialist for Academic Technology. He helps faculty members with Web-based projects related to their research and teaching. He earned his PhD in American Studies at William & Mary in 2013. Find him at http://cordulack.net/

Comments

  1. Good question! I had a folder for each deadline. (For me, these were monthly). In each folder, I put the files for the (then) current draft. So for by the time I sent my draft to readers, there were Folders named like “May 2012 Draft, June 2012 Draft, July 2012 Draft.” Once my draft got cleared to go to readers, one of my committee members asked me to delete all the folders and leave only the most recent files of all the chapters in the shared DropBox folder.

    There are probably better ways to organize the shared folder, but this worked for me (more or less). I do wish I talked about the organization of the folder with my committee though to see what would have been most helpful to them.

    • Great, thanks! I wish I had done this during my colloquium, but I’ll just ask my committee members if they have preferred methods for organizing.

  2. Hey Evan — I was wondering if you have any suggestions for how to organize the files/folders within the DropBox folder. I’ve been thinking about using DropBox for the same reason and any tips on organizing stuff would be helpful!