Tech Tools for the Savvy (Graduate) Student-Part 1

There are several tech tools that help me organize my life, complete work- and school-related tasks, and generally function well in graduate school. These apps, platforms and websites help me manage the multiple (sometimes conflicting) demands of researching, completing coursework, and teaching as a doctoral student.  Below, find some tools that may help you get stuff done while maintaining a modicum of sanity in (graduate) school.

(Quick note: I operate pretty exclusively on the Mac products/Apple iOS and have for nearly a decade.  As a result, my recommendations are offered from the perspective of someone who uses a MacBook Pro, iPhone, and iPad mini, although many/most of the suggestions below work across operating systems/devices.)

1. Dropbox. It’s number one for a reason.  With functionality across multiple devices and operating systems, it’s cloud-based storage made easy.  I use it literally every single day to store PDFs, notes and back ups of all my final papers (and my master’s thesis). I have collaborative, shared folders to do and share work with colleagues, peers, and my partner.  Dropbox is an affordable (free to start, $9.99/month or $99/year for a terabyte of data storage) method of keeping your stuff, syncing it across multiple platforms and devices, and sharing and collaborating with others. Multi-platform functionality (especially with iAnnotate, below) is icing on the cake. Pro-tip: two-factor authentication adds a second layer of security for your precious files.

2. Google Drive. I have some mixed feelings about Google’s ubiquity as a corporate monolith, but I’m willing to set them aside to use Google Docs (and Google Drive, more generally.) All of my papers are drafted in Google Doc, saved to the cloud, and accessible across multiple devices.  I also love Google Docs for collaborative work–I almost always start a shared Doc for group projects. I use Google Sheets to budget, keep track of work hours, and take student attendance in my classes. These can be shared with or without editing permissions. In terms of mobile utility: that Google makes you download the individual apps (Docs, Sheets, etc) as well as Drive is cumbersome, but worth it especially for those with an iPad; the ‘offline’/keep on device function alone is extremely useful and worth the extra space on your device.

3. Evernote. Early on in my graduate school career, I received the following excellent advice: Pick an organizational platform/strategy and stick with it. Evernote was my (almost) all-in-one organizational solution.  With cross platform/device functionality (can you sense a theme?), I have installed Evernote on literally every single one of my devices.  While some find Evernote clunky or overwhelming, I have fallen in love with their notebook and tagging functions. I keep all of my class notes and précis here, organized by notebook (Grad School/UNC>Spring 2015>Rhetoric and the Public Sphere) and by hashtag (#Warner #masses #collectiveaction). Evernote also features an outstanding search function and organizes results in a thoughtful, accessible way. It has proved invaluable for paper writing, and I’m hoping it pays off for comps and dissertation work. Bonus points: designed to work with Penultimate, one of my favorite apps of all time (see below.) I’m still operating on the free version, but I’m about to commit to Premium (can search PDFs, increased data uploads.)

4. Penultimate. One of my favorite note-taking and brainstorming apps.  You know all that research that says that typing notes is bad for retention/learning relative to note taking by hand? Yeah, that only really works if you can keep track of your notes once you’ve hand-written them. I much prefer having a digital copy of my work over paper. While Evernote theoretically has built-in functionality to allow you to scan your handwritten notes, Penultimate allows you to skip that step and take hand-written notes in the app that you can save to your device or back up to the cloud (vis a vis Evernote.) If you have a reasonably legitimate stylus and a responsive touch-screen, nothing can stop you, you note-taking machine.

5. Prezi. The website and the app. Although people bemoan the PowerPoint and may find Prezi similarly uninspired as far as presentation software goes, I have found Prezi to be invaluable during my tenure as a graduate student.  Non-linear and more open to creative movement, I use Prezi in lectures and conference presentations for several reasons. First, it’s not difficult to learn the tricks necessary to make a pretty elegant presentation, relatively quickly. Second, it is extraordinarily easy to share your work (with the click of a link) or present remotely (people can follow along from a distance. Possible functionality for online teaching). Students have especially appreciated this function, although I usually also make my Prezis available for view after conferences (share the link on Twitter.) Third, you are not committed to a linear-progressive presentation narrative of Slide-after-Slide-after-Slide. Prezi allows you to bounce around conceptually with relative ease. It’s also a great brainstorming tool, and has several beautiful premade templates. The mobile app has slightly less intuitive features, but has allowed me to create and edit presentations while en route to a conference (on the plane, in the passenger seat of a car packed with my grad buddies…) and when I connect to the Internet again, my changes are saved.

6. iAnnotate PDF. I forked over $10 precious dollars (okay, $9.99) for this app at the advice of a colleague and it’s been money well spent. I’m still figuring out all the functions of this app, but have used it literally every day to download and mark up PDFs. Remember my dislike of paper?  This application solves the problem of wanting to write on, underline, and take notes in the margins of PDFs by letting me do it in the app, on the PDF, and then saving it wherever I want.  I use this application with a stylus to read and mark up eBooks and PDFs and then sync to my device or to a cloud-based storage option of my choice. Huge bonus: the app works almost seamlessly with Dropbox and Google Drive (my two favorite cloud storage choices) to download content into the app. After I’m done marking up the document, it uploads the new, marked up version to the same file as before. Perfection.

What are your favorite platforms/applications/websites/all around tech tools? I’d love to hear your ideas in the comments…

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3 thoughts on “Tech Tools for the Savvy (Graduate) Student-Part 1

  1. Priscilla Martinez says:

    Heather, this post is great! I am pretty much on par with you, but I will have to check out iAnnotatePDF. While I prefer hardbacks and paperbacks for my own work and use, most of my undergraduate courses utilize a fair amount of PDFs. I have been looking for a way to share my own mark-ups of the readings as an example of close reading. I was mulling over the tediousness of scanning 40 pg articles, but it literally gave me chills. I’ll have to check out this new app. Also, which styllus do you have? I am mulling over taking the plunge and getting the Evernote Jotit–thoughts? I hope all is well!

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  3. heatherswoods says:

    Priscilla, I am using a no-name (literally I don’t think it has a brand) stylus that I picked up at a 5 and below store. There was a pack of 10 for $5 so I took a chance and it has paid off so far.
    I’ve thought about the Jotit, but the biggest barrier there is cost. I’ve been looking for the sweet spot between quality and price, so I’d love to hear your thoughts on what you have (or have heard!)

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