My PhD Digital Toolkit


As a technologist, I’m always on the look out for tools to make my life easier. I particularly like using ‘dead time’ like travelling productive. Before starting the PhD I looked at how I worked best and tried to eliminate excuses for getting on with things. With me excuses like “This chair isn’t comfortable” or “I can’t find information fast enough to hold an idea in my head” can be destructive to productivity.

In terms of hardware, I bought a new desktop 6 months ago. I even ripped out the CPU and case fans and replaced them with silent ones to reduce noise. And I bought a laptop tray to make working on comfortable chairs/sofas more feasible when I get sick of sitting at a desk. Actually, I’ve been experimenting with standing at my desk, but that’s probably another blog post. I also bought a handheld scanner for £30 which I’ve already used to scan selected pages from library books and documents that have been given to me in hard copy.
But it has mostly been software. Some of it is for my tablet (Google Nexus 7 inch), my smartphone (Samsung Galaxy S3) and for my desktop and laptop (both Windows 7 64). Being an Android and Chrome user, Play store apps and Chrome apps work well with my general Google ecosystem. Most of which are free but I did spend money on the following:
  • Evernote premium: no limit on uploads, offline notes, search with PDFs and no distracting flashing ads. £35 per year
  • Scrivener: Writing tool for structuring, writing and revising. I haven’t used it that much yet, but I know I’m going to need this for a thesis. £29
  • ezPDF Reader: A very flexible PDF reader for Android with good annotating functionality, night mode and voice reading. £2.50
  • Simplemind Pro: A mindmapping (desktop and Android app) which can sync to Dropbox. £3.76 (app) £31.55 (desktop software)
Everything else is free or a trial version.
Dropbox is a no brainer. It sync files across computers and devices and makes the USB stick redundant.  I have 50gb space, most of which came for free with my Android devices but I’ll probably shell out when that space expires. It’s become too useful to me. I also use it in conjunction with other applications. For example, Mendeley. Although I will be watching it like a hawk since it was bought by Elsevier, I can’t get over the usefulness of Mendeley sorting out my mess of articles into neat folders and renamed files. I have set up a system whereby I store both my PDFs and the Mendeley database files in Dropbox which allows for me to access the up-to-date files on any device. It was very important to me that any annotations I made on my tablet synced back seamlessly. It can be very frustrating searching for the version of an article where you’ve made annotations. This system can get unstuck if I accidentally have Mendeley open on two devices and Dropbox starts to create conflicting versions. It can take a while to sort out and I know I’m using Mendeley in a way which is not supported by the company. For me, the benefits outweigh the risks. Let me know if you’d like more information on doing this (it involves doing a little bit of register editing).
Reading is a big part of any PhD so I’ve got a few tools which help me reduce my excuses not to do it. On the desktop I use Adobe Acrobat Pro (an old version) and use highlighting and commenting tools. For my full note taking I use Evernote with the name of the article/book for title and ‘reading notes’ for a tag. You could just use the free Adobe Reader for highlighting and commenting but I like being able to use the character recognition tools for my scanned documents. Having all text searchable is invaluable.
I’ve experimented with some fast reading apps (both Chrome and Android). These  flash one word at a time at a pre-defined pace in order to train you out of ‘sub-vocalising’ and therefore, in theory, you can read more quickly. While I find them good for light reading like blog posts or news, I don’t think I’ll be using them for scholarly reading. I am quite a fast reader already and sometimes I find myself re-reading academic texts because I’ve read too quickly to completely understand. To slow down my reading (and to drown out the noise of the driver’s radio on the bus to Glasgow), I sometimes read while simultaneously listening to the text being read. I’d recommend trying Ivona TTS (text to speech) which can be installed on a smartphone. It can read back any text in a compatible app (such as ezPDF Reader) in a reasonably human voice.
For task management, I have been using Nozbe task management Android app and desktop app. It’s got a nice interface but my trial has expired and I’ll probably not pay a subscription. I’ll think I will return to Google Tasks and use 3rd party apps to access them on my mobile devices. I’ve never completely nailed using task managers. Maybe it’s just me, but I always have a bunch of tasks at the bottom of my list that never get done which does my self esteem no good. On my desktop I use Sticky Notes to have small chunk of info readily accessible. I’ve been using them for my Athens login for the past month.
For time management and motivation I’ve been using Rescue Time which is both a desktop and mobile app. It monitors what you are doing. You can categorise activities (Mendeley = v.productive, Facebook=v.distracting) and you get a score at the end of the day, overall time and a breakdown of how you spent you time. You can compare days and try gaming yourself to do better. There’s a premium version but I’m finding the freebie does enough for me. So far today I’ve been online for nearly 8 hours, 76% which was productive, which is pretty good going for me. For the times I need to get my head down, I use the Clockwork Tomato Pomodoro app on my phone which switches it to airplane mode for 25 minutes, then rings a bell for a 5 minute break. It has a lovely interface and records your stats. It’s quite satisfying to see those purple bars add up on my weekly calendar. As with all these things though, it’s only useful if you use it honestly.
Finally, there have been a few reports lately about the effect of using a screen before going to sleep at night and how exposure to blue light is detrimental to falling asleep. Coincidently I have been using f.lux for a few years on my desktop. I used it originally because I dislike having a bright white screen when using artificial light. But it turns out that f.lux is perfect for warming up those harsh blue tones. It changes the colour on your screen subtly at sunrise and sunset. I heard a review for Twilight for Android and realised it did the same thing, so I have that running on my phone and tablet. It has a distinct red hue but it’s easy to turn off if I wanted to see something in truer colours. It’s a shame I can’t scientifically prove that they’ve helped me get to sleep quicker, as I think I’m pretty tired most nights anyway.
And on the subject of getting to sleep there is one other digital tool, though not directly related to doing the PhD, it helps me relax: audio books. I subscribe to Audible and fall asleep every night listening to a book. I don’t really feel I can afford to pick up a book for pleasure time-wise any more but I find audio books a great way to fill in some dead ‘pre-sleep’ time and it takes my mind away from all the things I need to do. I’d recommend Proust’s In Remberence of Time Past, Tolstoy’s War and Peace and Joyce’s Ulysses.
I’d love to hear about any other tools people use to help with their studies.

2 thoughts on “My PhD Digital Toolkit

  1. Pingback: Post-PhD Reflections: Part Two – The Hours and Minutes | Meta Meta

  2. Pingback: Post-PhD Reflections: Part Three – Revisiting My PhD Digital Toolkit | Meta Meta

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