Post-PhD Reflections: Part Three – Revisiting My PhD Digital Toolkit

Post-it notes

Image by Dean Hochman (CC BY 2.0) https://flic.kr/p/ebt15q

When I re-read my original post My PhD Digital Toolkit I am struck by my quest to use “dead time” productively. Admittedly, there was quite a bit travelling between Edinburgh and Glasgow in my first year which I felt had to be put to good use, but the anxiety around time spent on doing other things was probably centred around inefficient use of time when I should have been working (see Post-PhD Reflections: Part Two – The Hours and Minutes for proof that I could faff). As the years went by I learned to gift myself the time spent travelling as relaxation, so I would instead listen to podcasts or nap. Like most of my relationships with technology, I like to play and experiment for a bit, but then I get serious and streamline – anything not absorbed seamlessly part of my work-flow gets thrown out.

So, a quick review. What were the essential, use (nearly) every day hardware and software?

A lightweight, quick-to-boot laptop, so I never had any excuse not to take it with me nor any excuse not to open it up and do some work.

This was an expensive bit of kit, but four years later it’s still going strong. I used it almost daily and it’s lightness meant that I could chug it around everywhere, and could still carry notebooks, books, lunch, water bottle and coffee flask in one backpack. I learned early on that working at home didn’t suit me, so I would tramp to a few of the university libraries around Edinburgh to work. I used an external mouse and, when the need arose to block out background noise I used large closed-cup headphones for either music, white noise (SimplyNoise) or Coffitivity.

Top software:

Evernote: Everything went in here and as it added OCR to PDFs, it became invaluable for searching through my notes. I transcribed my interviews into Evernote (encrypted, obvs) and most importantly, typed up rough notes on everything I read. Clipping directly from a browser was great for grabbing important pieces of text on the fly.

Dropbox: Syncing files across devices and backing them up to the cloud = invaluable. I did end up going for a subscription on this. I also continued to use it to store my Mendeley files and database.

Speaking of Mendeley, this also worked well for me and the final dreaded pull-together of references for my thesis wasn’t that painful, though I had been quite thorough in making sure references were correct as I went. I had a few instances where I accidentally had Mendeley open on more than one device at once, which meant the entire database had to be re-configured which was a pain, but worth the effort. In general I opened PDFs stored in Mendeley in Adobe Acrobat as the Mendeley highlighting and note-taking tools were only visible within Mendeley and I wanted to be able to access these outside of the software sometimes – this was particularly the case when Mendeley only existed on Android as 3rd party apps, since rectified.

I worked with Scrivener for about a year, but my laptop was very high res and Scrivener wasn’t optimised for 3200×1800, so menu items were impossible to read. Scrivener’s strong point, being able to re-arrange and map out the structure of a large document, was only marginally useful for me and I soon decided to work directly in Word. Word’s heading styles allowed me to navigate between sections quickly and Mendeley’s plug-in meant that I could pop in citations as I wrote. I never quite liked that what I was seeing in Scrivener wasn’t the final look and feel.

There were two other tools which I picked up and used as needed along the way. The first is KabanFlow which helped me plan and keep me on-task with time-consuming, routine tasks (see image below). For example, I used it for tracking myself while transcribing my data collection interviews and used the Pomodoro timer functionality to stay focused and take breaks every 30 minutes to get up and stretch. The second, slightly similar tool was Workflowy. While I sometimes get depressed looking at to-do lists which I’ll never get to the end of, this is a deceptively versatile list tool was a dumping ground for everything I needed to remember. I could go for weeks without opening it, but other times it became vital for checking that I was covering everything, particularly when pulling everything together towards the end.

Screenshot of KabanFlow Pomodoro statistics

The final piece of technology which I shouldn’t omit is (of course) the post-it note. Most mornings I would write everything I wanted to do on a post-it note (including nice, fun things) and keep it in my eye-line. I didn’t always stick to it, and sometimes it ran to more than one, or even two, notes, but the reward of crossing things off with a pencil never failed to thrill.

 

 

Post-PhD Reflections: Part One

I’ve been rereading some of my blog posts from several years ago and reflecting on the distance travelled. I assume that the PhD process has changed me, but it can be hard to see how. A kind colleague said to me this week that she was ‘in awe’ of how I did it, especially with two small children. Completing a PhD within 3 and half years (two years full-time with 18 months part-time) may look impressive, but it never felt like I was uber-achieving or particularly self-disciplined. I can attribute this to a few things:

  • I received a studentship from Glasgow Caledonian University which covered my fees and gave me a modest stipend which meant I could leave my job and focus entirely on my PhD. This gave me the space to think, which was invaluable.
  • I had a partner who worked part-time and could take on the extra parenting over and above the normal school pick-ups, so that I could disappear to the library in evenings and weekends when I needed the time.
  • I knew part of my topic really well and that was the practical side of how lecturers work with technology for teaching. I knew already their concerns and aspirations, and also I knew how to talk to a variety of them about what they did.
  • I discovered I had a passion for writing. This was a revelation and turned sitting down to write as something to be looked forward to rather than dreaded. Drawing together the rich and challenging ideas from other peoples’ work and creating my own became an immersive process. I got lost in this when I sat down to write.
  • My topic kept giving. It was rich and drew on a number of areas with a history of thoughtful literature. During those 3 and a half years, there were new developments in theory which really challenged my thinking and position. It was this that meant my corrections took over 2 months to complete even though they were minor.
  • I had monthly supervisions. I was always working towards producing something, however imperfect and unfinished. The monthly conversations were helpful in keeping me on track and challenging my thinking, but it was the regularity of them which really helped. I learned the ‘that’ll have to do’ way to appraise my work. Sometimes things just had to be done quickly, rather than exceptionally well. This carried me through writing too as I learned that it was possible for to write something relatively quickly that I was willing to let other people read.

Reading about my procrastination before I started in 2013 is rather poignant to me now. I never did stop procrastinating, it just got incorporated into my work day. And posts like this helped me feel less guilty.

There were times when things had to give. For example in January 2016 I decided to stop watching television in the evenings, which meant that effectively I was spending almost no time alone with my partner. The good meals he was providing were supplemented by not-so-healthy boredom-reward snacks in long evenings and drowsy afternoons. I travelled from Edinburgh to Glasgow once a month for supervisions but other than that I had a short walk up the road to one of the University of Edinburgh’s libraries. Child-ferrying duties were done by bike but I couldn’t incorporate regular cycling into my commute as I did previously. So exercise took a back seat until I started using a couch-to-5k app in January 2016. (After a very stern self-talk over the new year of 2016 where I reviewed what I had done and what was left to do, I made some resolutions which, rather amazingly, paid off.) Running, that is running very slowly, has been a revelation. It has helped me sort out my thoughts, get blood to my brain and feel like I have actually achieved at least something with my day.

I’m still re-adjusting to civilian life. A contract with the University of Edinburgh hashelped me integrate back into the 9-5 and keep me up to date with the coalface where teaching and learning meets technology. I’ve tried watching TV again, but that’s not going so well, partly due to different tastes and partly to a changed habit. A kind friend sent me the book in the photo below as I complained I hadn’t read a book in a linear fashion for a number of years.

So far I’ve got to page 108 (out of 446).

The Book of Dust by Philip Pullman

The Book of Dust by Philip Pullman

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.