The mornings are getting dark and the afternoons are generally soggy. This means the autumn term is upon us. If you’re starting a PhD or a Master’s this semester, do yourself a favour by adopting some good techie habits. With the right tools, you can save time and also ensure your studies go much more smoothly.
Here are six of the best, based on my own experience and feedback from my workshop attendees. All except one is available in a free version, so there’s no excuse.
First and foremost: please back up your work! I’ve met so many academics who’ve lost memory sticks, fried their laptop in a thunder storm, or somehow managed to delete everything in a strange spasm. Make me happy by installing Crashplan today. This backup tool runs unobtrusively in the background and works on both PCs and Macs. In the event of data loss, you can download your files from their website (and they’re also accessible through your smartphone). It costs $59pa for unlimited data storage, or there’s a free plan through which you can back up files to your friends and family.
Now that little rant is out of the way…
OK, this one might be a little bit ranty, too. I’ve also encountered numerous final-year researchers who haven’t used a 21st-century solution for managing their bibliographic references. This makes the final few months of writing your thesis or dissertation very stressful. Some academics in my field still think that index cards are perfectly acceptable, but then they spend most of their time in the Victorian period. Believe me when I say that installing and using Zotero will make your life much easier.
Zotero is a free tool for managing bibliographic data and creating properly formatted citations in Word and OpenOffice. Using a plugin, you can easily import books and articles from library catalogues and databases.
If you’re using only a small number of references, you might want to take a look at RefMe instead.
It really is the bees knees. Don’t just take my word for it – here are a couple of fans I spotted today on Twitter.
@zotero thank you thank you thank you! That was it.
— Fiona Brooke (@Brookefiona) September 29, 2015
Remarkably, my thesis got written a lot quicker once I actually had a clear plan and monitored my progress. As I was studying part-time alongside a full-time job, it was vital that everything was broken down into tasks and properly scheduled. I probably tried every task management app out there (an excellent work displacement activity in itself) and Todoist was by far the best.
The design is simple, but the functionality is extensive. Most importantly, it works across all devices so I can add and update tasks on the move. Unlike many apps, it doesn’t impose a particular way of working.
Even if you’re a full-time researcher, you’re likely to end up assuming teaching and editorial responsibilities, so finding a way of keeping on top of everything can really help.
The basic version is free, or it’s £18pa if you want more advanced features, such as templates and backups.
Very few researchers these days enjoy the luxury of their own desk, so mobile working is a necessity, often across different devices. Dropbox allows you to store your files in the cloud and access them from desktops, laptops, tablets, and smartphones. It’s great for collaborative working, too, and alerts you when other people have the file open. One of the features I like best is that it automatically uploads any photos I take on my smartphone. I also use Dropbox to back up my blog and to save useful blog posts.
The free version is limited to 2Gb, but you can get another 3Gb by installing their Carousel app.
People often ask me how on earth they managed before Evernote. I don’t know either. Evernote is essentially a great big repository for all your digital material. You can use it to store notes, slides, images, PDFs, video, audio – just about anything. You can either rely on the excellent search engine to find your stuff, or organise it into different notebooks and add descriptive tags (I’m somewhere in the middle). It’s a breeze to upload files with your smartphone, by email, or simply dragging and dropping. There’s a lovely mobile app, too.
There’s a limit of 60Mb on monthly uploads with the free version, but you can increase the allowance and the functionality considerably for £19.99pa. If you need more space and are on a tight budget, take a look at Microsoft OneNote.
Microsoft Word is fine for writing letters and short essays, but it always seems to crash in the middle of a big an important document.
— Academia Obscura (@AcademiaObscura) September 22, 2015
I was lucky to discover Scrivener when writing my thesis and it was a transformative experience. It’s a word processor and project management tool, all rolled into one. With Scrivener, you can easily plan your work, set targets, and monitor progress. And it never crashes.
Scrivener is available for both Mac and PC and costs around £25. There’s a 30-day trial available, too, so you can give it a thorough workout before deciding to purchase.
I hope you’ll give some of these tools a try, as technology really can make your life easier. Yes, really.