10 Quite Useful Tools for Academics

Gone are the days of type-written papers and literature reviews built on index cards. In the age of information overload and email overwhelm, we need all the help we can get to stay sane and productive. I rely heavily on the 10 tools described here, and I hope that they might lighten your load a little too. 

Many of these tools require an initial time investment and/or steep learning curve before you realise their full potential, so I don’t recommend trying to integrate them into your workflow all at once. Start with one or two that you think might be most helpful: if you are about to begin a PhD, get friendly with a citation manager; if you have 8 post-its permanently affixed to your monitor, get your shit sorted with Trello. 

1. Citation manager
If I could give only one piece of advice for those starting out in academia, it would be this: use a citation manager! I use Mendeley, and get along reasonably well with it, but I recommend fiddling around with a few before settling (try Zotero, Papers, Endonte). Ultimately, the particular platform matters much less than the absolute necessity of integrating some sort of citation management software into your workflow. It may seem like a chore at first,1 but you’ll be glad you put the effort in.

scrivener-logo2. Scrivener
Whereas Word and its ilk are digital extensions of the typewriters of old, Scrivener is a word processor built from the ground up to redefine the way we write on computers. Scrivener is at once simple and versatile, and flexible enough to complement the way you think and work when writing, whatever your style. I put snippets of writing onto virtual note cards and organise them by theme. The cards are easily edited and reorganised by dragging and dropping, while the powerful export function turns it all into a formatted and ready-to-go doc file.

evernote3. Evernote
The Chinese word for computer literally translates as “electric brain”, and this is exactly how I would describe Evernote. I use Evernote as my second brain, a giant electronic notebook brimming with everything from research-related news stories to recipes. You can clip direct from the web, add photos from your phone, or email notes directly to your account. It is available online and syncs across all devices, so you can access your stuff wherever you are.

trello logo4. Trello
Trello is a sort of virtual pin board. Pre-Trello, I would have at least 3 to-do lists on the go at any given time and would waste an inordinate amount of time faffing around with them. Now, together with my calendar, I use Trello to organise my entire life. I have changed the way I use the app a few times based on my needs at the time, so I recommend experimenting until you find what works best for you. Currently I have four main columns: One Big Thing (i.e. my primary task for the today); “Three Smaller Things”, in case I get my one big thing done; “Later” (for everything else); and “Done”.2 I also colour code, because why not.

Gloriously simple, and incredibly effective.

My Trello setup Colour coding: red=work, blue=PhD, green=blog, orange=admin

On older Trello setup, before I started prioritising one big thing per day.
Colour coding: red=work, blue=PhD, green=blog, orange=admin

unrollme5. Unroll.me
If you want to reach the holy grail of inbox zero, Unroll.me is going to help you get there. It “rolls up” all of your regular email subscriptions and newsletters 3 into one neat bundle and sends it to you daily/weekly at a time of your choosing (I receive mine every day at 4pm, the time that I am usually started to either fall asleep or look at cats on the internet anyway). This reserves your inbox for priority emails and stops you getting distracted by junk during the day. Unroll.me detects new mailing lists and allows you to leave the messages in your inbox, add them to your rollup, or unsubscribe 4 This nifty little app has spared me the distracting allure of 12,000 emails in the two years since I started using it.

twitter6. Twitter
Academics are notoriously sceptical of the merits of Twitter. Despite initially sharing in this somewhat understandable reluctance, I am now a full convert. I use Twitter to keep up to date with news and developments in my field, request articles that I can’t access, and chat with other researchers. As long as you are vigilant not to let tweeting take up too much of your time, Twitter can be incredibly useful.

freedom7. Freedom/Anti-Social
While studies show that looking at pictures of kittens increases your productivity, wasting your day on the internet probably doesn’t. Freedom will lock you out of the internet for a designated period of time.5 The only way to get your connection back is to reset your computer, which is enough of a pain in the arse that you probably won’t do it. If you really do need the internet (e.g. for research) you can use Anti-Social instead, which only locks you out of particularly distracting sites. 

coach me8. Coach.me
Coach.Me is a motivation app for building good habits. You set up a checklist of things you want to do on a regular basis, and tick them off daily. I used it to get over my lifelong habit of biting my nails, to start brushing my teeth after lunch at work, and, during writing periods, to commit myself to X pomodoros a day. Not especially sexy, but eminently practical.

9. A clipboard manager
Modern academic writing involves as much copying and pasting as it does scribbling or typing, yet most of us still make do with the one-shot copy and paste feature built into our computers. I do not say this lightly, but a clipboard manager will change your life. The main advantage is the ability to copy more than one item for pasting later (if you’ve ever copied something only to forget to paste it and remember an hour later, you will understand the importance of this simple extension), but most of them have other handy features too. I swear by Copy’em Paste – while the $15 price tag might seem steep, it is pretty reasonable for an app that I use unthinkingly hundreds of times per day. 

10. An external hard drive/Dropbox/Drive/Crashplan
Computers die, so you should back up regularlymore or less constantlyas if your life depends on it. Invest in a decent external hard drive and make use of the backup software on your computer. Hard drives also die, so sign up for an online file storage service and put an extra copy your most important files in there too. I use Apple’s Time Machine to back up everything to an external drive (a recurring task in Trello nudges me to do this weekly), and I copy all my essential documents to dropbox as well. Better safe than sorry.

Already using these tools? What has your experience been? Did I miss something? Comment below or tweet @AcademiaObscura.

 

  1. Does footnoting ever not seem like a chore?
  2. When a task is done I drag it here – I could just delete it, but I find dropping something into the done list seriously gratifying
  3. To distinguish this from unsolicited emails, i.e. spam, the tech community coined the term “Bacn” to describe “email you want but not right now”
  4. Be careful though: it doesn’t actually unsubscribe you, it just funnels the messages away from your inbox, never to be seen again. This could be problematic if you stop using Unroll.me later and find a sudden influx of all this junk you thought you were rid of. Caveat emptor my friends.
  5. Yes, it is a damning indictment of our culture that ‘Freedom’ means turning off the internet so you can get more work done. Don’t hate the player…

What PhD Life is Really Like

Mairi Young is a PhD student at the University of Glasgow, researching why people are scared of the dentist (sort of). She is also a foodie and self-confessed junk food lover, blogging over at The Weegie Kitchen.

When you’re studying for a PhD, you will be perpetually presented with two semi-rhetorical questions:

  1. Wow, you must be really smart?
  2. Wow, so you’re gonna be a Doctor!?

Regardless of how tedious these become, you better get used to it because it’s all any non-PhD-student really understands about it. We minions in the lower echelons of academia know it’s a different story altogether.

Whether you’re embarking on a PhD, you know someone studying a PhD and you want to understand their life a little better, or if you’re doing a PhD and just procrastinating today (I’m not here to judge, man) I’ll share what PhD life is really like.

Source: exloringhandhygiene.wordpress.com

Source: exloringhandhygiene.wordpress.com

We’re old, and a student

PhD students are generally older than your average Undergrad or Masters student. We have (considerably) less money than anyone else our age, we shop at Lidl and Aldi, and a night out/celebration are limited to:

  • Student clubs at the weekend – We can have a night out and taxi home for less than £20 but this involves warm syrupy cranberry juice mixed with paint stripper vodka in a plastic cup surrounded by girls wearing shorts/heels/crop tops and boys who resemble our baby brothers; or
  • Fancier pubs during the week – There are fewer crowds, so you can actually chat to your pals, cocktails come in REAL glasses and are often half price during the week. The problem is you can only really go out with your PhD pals because everyone else has to be in the office for 9am.
Source: author's personal collection.

Source: author’s personal collection.

What’s your PhD about anyway?

Let me tell you right now, 90% of people who ask this question aren’t interested in what your PhD is about at all. The other 10% is made up of:

  • Your Supervisors – You take up a lot of their time so naturally they are interested but this interest is VERY low down in their list of priorities;
  • People at a conference who are researching something similar – These people are the tiny percentage of people who actually understand your research and who are genuinely interested. Believe me, this is rare.

So how do you deal with this question from the other 90% of people who don’t care and are asking out of politeness? Well, you reel off a small catchy sums-it-up-sentence people can relate to

For example:

I’m researching why people are scared of attending the dentist.

People love this, and it generates a discussion that most people can join in with. Is it what my research is about? No.

My research evaluates the efficacy of interventions by oral health support workers trying to engage hard to reach families, typically people with a fear of attending the dentist, regarding oral health behaviours. My working title is:

Optimising the role of the Dental Health Support Worker in Childsmile Practice: A qualitative case study approach. 

You see the distinction?

The Doctor thing

Most people who know me, and my journey to get here, get excited about the whole ‘becoming a Doctor’ thing. I appreciate their support but I can’t share the enthusiasm because the shiny appeal of being Dr Mairi Young is well and truly lost.

Let me take you on a journey:

  • 3-6months into a PhD you’re worried about being found out as a fraud to even consider being awarded the doctorate. You’re convinced the University has made a mistake and will call you any day now to kick you out.
  • 1st year you have no idea what to do, so you wing it.
  • 2nd year you worry whether you’ve got enough time to do all your research and writing.
  • 3rd year you panic because you don’t think you’ve done enough to even put together a thesis.
  • By 4th year you’re worrying about PostDocs, Viva’s and the sheer cost of binding the thesis.

By the time your graduation comes around, you’re in the gown and you’re being handed the piece of paper which allows you to call yourself Doctor, you’re already in a Post Doc post and that journey has started all over again.

Forgive us if we aren’t all that excited about being called Doctor. It can feel like something of a consolation prize.

Endless corrections

11704948_10153079810253736_7499609512061010656_nThe one thing I miss about undergrad life was handing in an essay and never seeing it again. You’d receive a mark and that was it: a pure and beautiful cycle of hard work and reward.

This doesn’t happen at PhD level. 

In a PhD you will spend weeks, if not months, tirelessly working on a chapter to make it perfect. You will submit to your supervisors and wait. And wait. And wait. Then you get corrections back.

That beautiful piece of work you worked yourself to the bone for returns covered in incomprehensible scribbles. Deciphering these scribbles will become a skill fit for your CV. Once you’ve deciphered and amended the chapter to perfection, submitted the chapter and waited, and waited and waited…. You get corrections back again.

Thus it continues until the day the thesis is bound and submitted. It’s thoroughly de-motivating and an exhaustive task.

Endnote (or Zotero/Mendeley etc.)

If I could give PhD students one piece of advice for the future, it would be this: learn how to use Endnote.

I’m 2 years and 10 months into a 4 year PhD and I still don’t really know how to work EndNote.

Supposedly it makes your life easier because you can ‘cite while you write’ and compile your references at the click of a button. Yet as I still don’t really know how to work Endnote chances are I (and a couple other PhD’ers I know) will be typing ours out manually.

Please know I’m not lazy, and I’ve not been avoiding the issue. I simply never fully appreciated the time I had on my hands in the first 6 months of my PhD. Back then, I had all the time in the world to spend learning the detailed intricacies of useful software. 3 years in, I don’t have this luxury anymore.

phd 3

Council Tax

Quite possibly the saving grace of the whole PhD malarkey: No Council Tax.

I did my Undergraduate degree, MSc and PhD back to back which means I’ve been studying for 9 years (with a year to go *weeps*). I have not paid council tax at all during this time. I truly believe Glasgow City Council has a ‘Mairi Young Is At It / Must Investigate’ file because after 10 years at 3 different universities, they must be thinking “Surely she’s scamming us?”

Even though I receive a tax free stipend (which FYI is an absolute joy to explain to the Inland Revenue) it is a measly amount, so the saving I make not paying Council Tax means I can afford to live on my own, a luxury I never want to give up.

Undergrads

Contrary to popular opinion, PhD students don’t dislike Undergrads, we’re just jealous of them. Undergrads have it easy and they don’t even know it.

At that age you don’t mind living in a tiny single bedroom and sharing a kitchen with 7 other people so long as it’s within walking distance to class and the student union. You don’t mind living off 9p noodles, cereal and toast. You can sleep during the day between classes, be told exactly what to study to pass the module, submit an essay and never see it again, and you have a whole summer each year in which to relax and enjoy yourself.

PhD students don’t have such luxuries.

We’re too accustomed to the finer things in life: expensive complicated cocktails, antipasti and fresh flowers every weekend. We also read journal papers in bed to catch up with reading, which throws a downer on any romantic relationship, and we stress out over how to afford a suitable outfit for a conference on a measly PhD stipend.

If you’re an undergrad and you see a PhD student tutting at you in the library for browsing Asos rather than working, please know we don’t hate you, we’re just green with envy that our lives are no longer like that. I’m sure you can empathise. By the time you end up doing a PhD, you’ll feel the same, I promise.