Monday, October 28, 2013

Must have apps/programs for Grad students

This is a much longer and more informative post from me, but I thought this was the best venue to post all the interesting tools I have come across through my MA as I've been trying to organize my primary research in a way that makes sense for me. Hopefully some of these tools are useful for you as well!

Thought Maps by Jamie Marie Waelchli | 2007-2011| FalseFront

I may not be the most organized person in the world, but I'm definitely open to trying new apps, programs, websites or techniques that might help me organize my thoughts and research, or increase productivity. Here are some of my top five technology picks I'd recommend if you're trying to organize your research, essays, thoughts, schedule, life, etc.

I'm going to include a brief description of how I use the product in some cases, just so you get a sense of how to apply it to your own research, or life.

1. EVERNOTE (click here for the website)  - A program for organizing your notes, ideas, pdfs, photographs, thoughts, citations, to-do lists, voice recordings, everything!

Before I begin, watch this quick video explaining what you can potentially do with Evernote as it explains the gist of it better than I can.

Evernote would have to be my all-time number one choice. I can't say enough good things about it! It's a program that you can download from the website, and run while online or offline on your computer (this means you don't have to worry about what you are writing disappearing if you aren't connected to the internet - you've got it ALL THE TIME). You can also add Evernote on your phone, your tablet, or access the online website version of it by logging in wherever you are.

Whatever you put on Evernote syncs up when you are connected to the internet, so if you add something to Evernote while at the library using their website log-in, it will automatically sync up to your home computer and all your devices (okay, this may not seem revolutionary to a lot of you, but it's HUGE if you're like me and paranoid about losing information - it's all organized in one central hub). Or if you're the type of person who writes notes on the go on your phone, it's automatically accessible to you once you turn on your computer (no need to transfer it manually, or try to remember where you wrote that note down).

How to use it?

Its usefulness depends on you figuring out how best to make it work for you (it took me about 3 months to start figuring out how I could use it for my own research). You can make individual notes that have titles and tags so that they are easy to find and search later. You can put these notes into notebooks, and you can have sub-notebooks inside your notebooks (I don't think you can but sub-sub-notebooks into your sub-notebooks yet, or maybe you can if you pay for a subscription).

How do I use it? 

I use it for my Major Research Project (MA thesis) as I have one large notebook for my topic - the historical artist I'm studying, and then I have sub-notebooks that include:

  • Her paintings (the notes in this folder each have a photo of an individual painting, and then whatever information I've been able to find about it from the web, or quotations from literary sources I've come across) 
  • My to do list (this is actually broken up in to individual notes with to do lists for certain things. You can add in a little box that you can add a check to when you've finished something, so it really helps you stay on track)
  • Information on sitters and patrons
  • Literary sources 
  • Chapters
  • Possible connections 
I also have notebooks for my personal life and interests, classes I'm in, other research projects or interests, etc. 

When beginning my MRP I had all my research in one extremely large Word document (I think it was about 80 pages). It had photos, excerpts from literary sources, reviews, etc. and every time I opened it, it would slow down my computer immensely, and it would be hard to find and organize thoughts (copying and pasting only does so much). 

Ultimately, Evernote is a brilliant way to organize what could otherwise be a whole bunch of disparate notes, all in one easily accessible place. 

Did I mention the Web Clipper?

You can download a browser app called the Web Clipper, so whenever you see a photograph, pdf, article or website online, you can use the clipper to clip the whole page or just a section of it and add it into Evernote as a note, nicely filed away.

2. POCKET (click here for the website) - Collect articles to read later, online or offline

Pocket is another really handy app I'd recommend. This is less about organizing your notes, and more about organizing your readings. Often when I'm going through facebook or twitter or other sites, I come across articles that I think sound really interesting, and I know I should read it but I don't have the time to at the moment. If you install Pocket (I have it as a Chrome app) you can just click the little Pocket button at the top of the screen and it's saved in a little folder for later.

It's like a bookmark folder, except now when I'm commuting to school or elsewhere I can take out my tablet which has the app on it and be able to look at those saved articles while I'm offline.

3. THE POMODORO TECHNIQUE - A technique to help with time management or "getting shit done"

This was a technique developed in the 1980s, and involves breaking down the time you are actually working on a project into 25 minute intervals. Each of these intervals are called pomodoros (or tomatoes in Italian). Between each tomato is about a 5 minute break when you can check your emails, take a quick glance at facebook, stretch your arms, grab some water, etc. But when you're in your pomodoro/tomato you have to work completely uninterrupted for that 25 minute period.

There's a number of different apps, programs and websites you can use to help you with this technique and most of them are fairly straightforward and will help you get the same thing out of it (for my Nexus 7 tablet I used Pomodroido, which doesn't really have any bells and whistles but it's useful as a timer and calculating how many tomatoes you do).

4. KANBANFLOW (the website is here) - "A visual process management system that tells what to produce, when to produce it, and how much to produce... An approach to incremental, evolutionary process improvement." - Basically, it's a fancy way to organize your To Do lists

KanbanFlow is something that works hand in hand with the Pomodoro technique (the website KanbanFlow has a built in Pomodoro timer a the bottom of the page). Basically it's a website that helps you break down a project (like your thesis or your MRP) into smaller, bite-size tasks.

Instead of having on your to-do list "write my MRP" or "research this artist," you can break down each task into sub-categories of tasks that are easier to digest. I think the point of this is to help you establish a game plan, figuring out the steps you need in order to complete a task. I personally think that it works off that feeling of satisfaction you get when you accomplish something on your checklist, and having all these small tasks (maybe.. "turn on laptop," "go to this website," "email so and so about this archive") gives you a bit of an adrenaline rush that makes you feel like you're accomplishing something.

Anyways, I've found that it works. I don't use it for my MRP (because that would be too intimidating to make a massive to do list for that just yet), but I definitely find it useful for smaller essays I'm working on.

5. BOOMERANG FOR GMAIL (here is the website) - it works as an add-on for Firefox, Chrome and Safari as well as with Google Apps email

This is a relatively new find for me and I'm loving the idea! All too often I find that I'm only getting to my emails around midnight or later, and you have that dilemma about do I send this email now and look unprofessional or do I save it in my drafts and send it in the morning (if I wake up that is)?

With this program you can write your email, and then tell it to send the email out at 8am tomorrow morning. It does other things like boomerang emails back to you but I haven't really used that part of it yet, so I really can't say how useful that is. What's really great about this is that you can send an email out at 1am, schedule it to be send 7am that day, and when you wake up, you may already have a reply waiting for you!


Those were the top 5 I could think of off the top of my head, but there are quite a few other programs you might find useful if you don't already know about them (though chances are you do).

  • Reverse Google Image Search: See a photo on the internet with no context? Drag and drop it into Google images to search the image itself, and find better quality versions as well as contexts. You can also get a Google Chrome App, so that all you have to do is right-click an image to reverse search it
  • Dropbox (or Skydrive, or Google Drive, or any of those other ones): This is great for obvious reasons, storing your files online as well as being able to easily share documents and photos with others. 
  • Programs to gather citations - Zotero, Mendeley, Endnote - I've heard great things about these, but haven't really gotten around to using them yet. They're definitely worth checking out though! 

Anyways, that's all I've got for now, but I'm always interested in hearing about new ways to make my life easier, so feel free to comment if you have suggestions.

Edited to include suggestions -