Going back to school again – a shopping list



All over Australia, new PhD students are beginning their studies – welcome!

Starting something new can be hard. Connecting with your new community can make it so much easier. world.edu is an online community, but of course you will have your local community too, in your school or faculty. If you are new to ANU, we are running a welcome to ANU lunch on the 13th of February at University house (our very famous, nobel prize winning VC, Brian Schmidt will be giving the address this time — book early so you don’t miss out!).

My sister in law, Bek, recently started a university degree relatively late in life. We are all so proud of her. Bek has done a lot already: many jobs, amazing travel experiences, raising two lovely children (hello Angus and Abi!). At 40 something, Bek isn’t really that old for a new university student. I’ve met many brave souls who embark on a PhD in their 50s and 60s. However I think anyone coming back into university after some time on the ‘outside’ faces a unique set of challenges.

Becoming a student again after a long break can be confronting. You’ll be told you don’t know stuff and people will be watching your performance. At least Bek will find plenty of re-assuring structure in her undergraduate study. Not so with the PhD; suddenly you are in the driving seat.

Answering Bek’s questions about university life has made me aware of some of the more … mundane problems people face coming into the university environment. Bek asked me for a shopping list of hardware and software to write with. The list got so long and complicated that I told her I would write a post instead.

So this is my current advice on software, hardware and apps to do research and writing – written for Bek, but hopefully useful to others who are going back to school too. My shopping list might help you if you are upgrading, but it’s a good conversation starter too. I’d love to hear what’s on your shopping list in the comments.

Machine Basics

Although your university might supply a desktop, I think it’s advisable to have your own laptop. I have a small, light one that I can use in the library or workshops to take notes. The screen is small, so I plug it into a monitor at home or in my office when I want to write. Take your handbag to the shop with you so you can test out how it will travel.

Processing power will depend on your type of research, but for basic writing you don’t need a lot. Other features matter more, such as how easy it is to back up and how smoothly the computer moves between different wifi connections. Remember to match the machine carefully to your choice of phone. Tethering your phone to your computer to get access to the internet in cafes is the best feature ever invented for a researcher on the move. You’ll want a computer and phone that play well together.

Reading and writing

Most e-readers were built for novels, which you read sequentially. When you are an academic you need to look forward and refer back in a book while being able to hold your place. This is why paper was still king for me. However, Kindle has now changed the interface to let you ‘flip’ pages and hold your place – hooray! That’s the reading app for me, but there are a few other choices, so I’d encourage you to check them out.

Once you’ve decided the platform, your next question is, what do you want to hold in your hands while you read? I have (ahem) four hand held devices: two iPads (one big and one little) and a ‘fablet’ iphone as well as a conventional Kindle. Reading is important to me, and I have a steady wage now, but it’s probably overkill. If I had a limited budget I would just have a large phone that could do double duty.

My supervisor used to say “it’s not proper academic writing unless you have a pen in your hand”. Reading and writing are connected activities. There are four main types of documents you will want to read and annotate:

  1. Academic papers
  2. Random MS Word documents and PDFs in digital format
  3. Physical handouts
  4. Web pages

Annoyingly, you’ll need different software for each one.

You can think of academic papers as ‘the good scissors’ – you need to keep them separate from your other tools to make sure they stay useful. Reference manager software enables you to spit out formatted references, so making bibliographies is quicker and more accurate. To store my academic papers I use Papers 3 for the Mac (for personal reasons that I outline here), but I can highly recommend Zotero as a free alternative. Zotero sits in your web browser and makes transferring information from a PDF to your academic library a snap.

The random MS Word documents and PDFs that aren’t the ‘good scissors’ are an annoying challenge. In the course of any academic year, you’ll be sent a whole lot of documents, in various formats, that you will need to keep and action. I’ve played around with so many document readers over time that I have lost count.

At the moment, thanks to @drwitty_knitter, I am using PDF Expert for the Mac. It has very good mark up functions – including a nice ‘red pen’ feature for editing and marking up. You can put PDF Expert on your laptop, phone and iPad and move between the same copy of a document, reducing the risk of creating multiples with different sets of notes. Suggestions for PC versions of this app in the comments are welcome.

Physical handouts are best converted to digital format straight away so you don’t lose them. The easiest way to do this is to take a photo with your phone and send it to Evernote – an app that is blessedly platform independent. Evernote lets you tag the object and enrich it with other forms of information. If it’s a class handout for instance, you can record the lecturer explaining the task and attach the recording to the document (see my section on making notes below).

Web pages are THE MOST ANNOYING THINGS to keep track of. There are just so many great websites, the challenge is to find a bookmarking app that is flexible enough to capture them, whatever device you happen to be using. Some time ago @drjasondowns introduced me to Pocket, which sits in your web browser tool bar or can be added to any social media app. Similarly to Evernote, Pocket is platform independent and has tools to tag and label what you have collected. At the very least Pocket gives you a ‘bucket’ to throw things in and sort it out later.

Making and storing notes

There’s an art to making useful notes. Here’s some pointers to help you make useful digital objects, not just scraps of writing you never find again.

I use Evernote on my iPad to take digitally enriched notes from workshops or meetings. The tablet can be used to take photos of slide decks, written notes, make recordings or and take photos of hand written notes or objects. I have an Apple Pencil to write on the iPad and I totally love it. You have to have an iPad Pro  It’s brought back all the fun of writing notes in a journal – here’s an example of the kind of note taking I do with the Apple Pencil and iPad, stored in Evernote.  I use the various tags and filing functions to help me find them later, but sometimes I don’t bother. Most of the time I never refer to my notes, but the OCR function in Evernote is handy as it will find stuff even if the hand writing is terrible.

Making notes is a way to process incoming information so that it makes sense to you. Don’t sweat if you never read them back. It is still worth taking notes because the practice ensures you read and listen properly in the first place (I wish I could convince Thesiswhisperer Jnr that this is the case!).

I could go an and on about work flows with digital equipment, there is so much more to say. You can check out other posts I have done on the topic like Scrivener vs MS Word and apps to turn your phone into a research assistant. What about you? I’m looking forward to hearing how you have solved the mundane reading / writing / note taking problems in your life.