Five (plus one) tools for modern students and academics

Five (plus one) tools for modern students and academics

In order to survive modern college, both students and professors need tools that will help to deal with a huge amount of tasks and responsibilities. Luckily there are many applications designed to keep us organized, productive, and sane.

As many of students and academics, I rely heavily on my calendar. Setting it up and building up necessary habits took me years. Now, I can hardly imagine being able to function without its constant help. But calendar, despite being an essential tool, is not suitable for other things I have to take care of. That is becasue academic work also involves collecting and storing information, managing tasks and projects, outlining ideas and papers, and communicating with the team. Over time I simplified my toolbox down to five essential applications that help me to organize the whole process. Today I am gonna share with you the apps at the core of my workflow.

I need to mention that, as a long time Mac user, the software I rely upon is often exclusive to this particular platform. Still, you should be able to find suitable replacements on other platforms. Windows in particular offers many alternatives.

Collect and organize information

Evernote is the most powerful note-taking application I know. I’ve been its user since the very beginning and there is no real alternative. Yes, there are a few other competing , but no one offers such complete set of features that include (among many others) advanced search syntax, handwriting recognition (images!), and PDF annotation. Unfortunately, some features belong to the paid premium version.

Evernote is available on many different platforms and offers minimalistic web inferface. It is very easy to share notes with your colleagues or students. Very handy.

Despite being quite versatile, Evernote is not really optimized to be a literature manager for researchers. It can be used in such way, but is just not desinged to store thousands of academic papers in orderly manner. It is not only about notes. Academics need citation infomation, journal information, relation to other papers, ability to generate LaTeX citations, etc. All this can be done manually in Evernote, but there are better alternatives available. Personally, I use Mendeley. Thanks to its relationship with Elsevier, related papers search is fast and convenient. Mendeley allows me to manage a collection of few thousand research papers. Unfortunately, it started to evolve form a simple resource management system towards a communication platform similar to Research Gate. Nevertheless, Mendeley is the one resource manager I use for work.

Task management

OmniFocus is a task manager that is designed along the lines of the well known productivity system Getting Things Done, better known as GTD. The methodology created by David Allen, the world wide known productivity guru, is build on the idea of moving projects and tasks out of the mind to “the external brain”. Having handy and trusted list of projects and tasks takes burden out of our conscious. It allows to focus on the next necessary action instead of being overwhelmed by whole bunch of priorities and problems.

OmniFocus has been designed to be such trusted companion for your mind. Decade of development changed the application into a productivity monster. It is very intuitive tool for GTD enthusiasts, as it closely follows the main concepts from the book. OmniFocus comes in two versions: simple and professional. The killer feature that will make you longing for the professional edition is the ability to create custom prespectives. This is were OmniFocus truly shines as the GTD powerhouse.

The program works natively on Macs, so some of you might not be able to enjoy its features. Mac users are here for a treat, but it comes at a significant price. Good news is that there is substantial discount available for students and academics. There is no better choice for hardcore GTD practitioners.

Plan projects and write drafts

If you write or plan anything you need some kind of outliner. In another post I mentioned the importance of outlining before actual writing. Outlining application should allow you to create complex lists of things and then move them, edit them, collapse and group them. There are many applications that can do exactly that, including many free ones. So, if you want to try if the concept of outlining suits you, you can have a test run with Workflowy. It is a free outlining app that works in your browser (pro features come at price).

The application of my choice is OmniOutliner, very elegant and flexible. As it is in case of OmniFocus, OmniOutliner is native to Mac. Again, it comes in two versions: simple and professional. There are significant discounts for academics and students. Recently it became my main writing tool and the simple version is just enough for my needs. At least for now.  The outline and the draft of this post were also written in OmniOutliner.

Team communication

If there is one tool that substantially changed the way we communicate within our team, you guessed it, it is Slack. I grew up using IRC, so now having Slack as our main communication tool brings back memories. We just use is for communication, and it allowed us to get rid of internal emails. You can integrate Slack with almost all modern work tools, including almost all known cloud services. For example, it can be connected to Evernote and allow you to create or share notes with simple commands.

Honorable mention

There is one handy application that does not belong to my essential five, but I use it so much that is deserves honorable mention. It is called TextExpander and its sole purpose it to automate writing process. There are many recurring things that we have to write over and over. Try to think how many times you wrote you name and surname last week. TextExpander allows you to create a handy shortcuts (called snippets). Every time you write these few predefined sets of letters the application will substitute the correct long text in their place.

I started using TextExpander few weeks ago (the older standalone version), so there is a long way before I develop proper writing habits. Still, I already feel the difference, and so will you if you try this usefull little tool. As in case of almost all software for Mac, the conviniece comes at price. So, next time you plan to treat yourself (upcoming birthday?), you might want to consider TextExpander.

Photo by rawpixel.com on Unsplash.

Writing a thesis – some advice for first-timers

Writing a thesis – some advice for first-timers

Teaching is very important part of academic life. It is a never-ending cycle of all-to-similar problems and questions. Yet, there is one teaching responsibility that stands out from the others, i.e. being an academic means supervising writing of theses.

Usually, the thesis is the most complicated and the longest document that STEM students have to write since enrollment. They may have written structured essays (with a proper introduction, discussion, and conclusion), but nothing even remotely as complex and demanding as a full academic text. For this reason, writing a thesis is a difficult task. Even more so if the author lacks writing and reading habits. Compiling 40-60 pages of an academic text can be a particularly daunting experience.

Still, the work needs to be done. So, at the beginning of every semester, I discuss with all my students how to start writing a thesis. Over time, I developed a system and guidelines that helps them to write at their best.

This post is not a guide how to write a thesis. It is merely the discussion on how I set up collaboration between me and my students in a way that improve their writing process. If you are a student, you will learn here about some tools and techniques that will improve your writing. If you are a mentor, you might find below a few ideas on how to organize collaboration with your own mentees.

There are three things that I always discuss with every student that wants to write his/her thesis under my supervision. We establish rules that allow both of us to work in coordinated purposeful manner. First, I ask them to ditch Word and learn how to write everything in plain text LaTeX. Second, we establish a plan for our collaboration (an outline). Third, we agree to have regular meetings to discuss progress and problems.

Write everything in plain text

There are many ways to write an academic text. Normally, the process requires a word processor. So, for a long term users of Microsoft Word, it will be a tool of first choice. I would like to encourage you to try using much simpler editor (any editor) that lets you write efficiently in plain text.  Microsoft Word, despite its powerful features, is a distracting writing environment. It shines in business context, but it might hurt your academic writing.

Your goal should always be “extreme simplicity” because in such raw environment you will stop worrying about fonts and start thinking about words. For academics, the tool of choice is LaTeX, and chances are that you already know what LaTeX is.

Have you seen any LaTeX document lately? I am quite sure you have. They are very distinguishable because of their elegant and professional formatting. Even incoherent and badly written report appears like a work of an expert. As the final document looks awesome, it gives its author emotional feedback and stimulates his writing process in a good way.  I noticed that since we transitioned to LaTeX, theses became better thought over and generally more interesting. Engaged authors write better.

There are thousands and thousands of written and recorded tutorials on how to write in LaTeX, so I will not dig deeper here. All answers you need are a single search away.

And if you are curious, my personal editor of choice is Sublime Text. Very flexible and with built-in “distraction free mode”.

Start with the proper outline

I am telling all my students what every writer understands intuitively: writing should always start with a plan. Writing a thesis is a project. Writing a book is a project. Every project needs a plan, in this case an outline that contains synopsis details of all chapters, sections, and sub-sections.

Regardless complexity of the topic, the structure of thesis is usually quite simple. Like any other academic text it should contain: introduction, several body paragraphs, and conclusion. Body paragraphs (typically chapters) discuss separate topics, provide supporting details, introduce examples, and end with conclusions. It is very important to think about the contents before even typing the first letter.

Having to write an outline forces student to think about his thesis as a whole. Down the path, this will make writing much easier because the goal will be clear. I found that thanks to completion of this simple task, students stopped asking what else they should write about. On the contrary, their approach is now more proactive. They often inquire if it is a good idea to add more content because they feel it will improve their work.

If the thesis involves making designs and calculations (all my advised theses do), I ask students to focus on the introduction and literature review first. For STEM students, writing is challenging, require grit and determination. Usually, they are not accustomed to looking for and reading of sources, taking and reviewing notes.

Meet often and regularly

Being a thesis advisor means having to meet with the student to discuss contents of his work. After few years, I came to conclusion that it is necessary to meet often. Single session doesn’t have to be long – my own standard is 30 minutes. But it needs to happen every two weeks. More often if necessary. It is not only about the progress. Usually, all a student needs is a little push and a dose of motivation. Encouragement is more important than any substantive help.

One thing that I try to convey during those meetings is that writing a thesis takes time. The text will have to be rewritten. Its quality is a function of how many times that revision happened. Hemingway famously said that “The first draft of anything is s**t!”. Who am I to disagree with the master, but in case of thesis this is especially true. This is just something we all need to accept. Sooner, the better.

At the end of every meeting we set the date and the time for the next one. The appointment is an effect of negotiations with a student. I usually propose a date (plus minus few days). She agrees (or not) and declares how much progress she expects to make. It works.

Few years ago, I started to send calendar invitations. Many students rely on modern organizational tools. It is very convenient for them, as well as for me.

The above described process is very simple, but it works. I hope that you find some inspiration in my methods and they will improve your own writing/advising experience.

Photo by Sergey Zolkin on Unsplash.