How Mendeley helps PhD students become successful scientists



Fierce competition in Academia demands PhD students to build strong skills to progress to the next step in their careers.

You want to finish your PhD. You want to have a great career afterwards.

Reading, writing, being productive and collaborating. If you master these 4 skills, nothing is going to stop you in Academia (or in a job in industry after your PhD).

We are going to talk how to develop (passively) those skills. But first, let me tell you a little story on managing academic literature.

Struggling To Manage Academic Literature

During my master thesis I suffered EndNote (this post describes a similar pain with EndNote). People warned me “the worst part of writing a thesis is to add the bibliography”.

This was just a tiny master thesis of 20 to 30 pages. A joke compared to a 200 page PhD thesis.

At the time I thought, if everybody in science cites papers and adds bibliography to their publications, why is it still so much of a pain in the ass?

Long story short, I wrote my master thesis with the un-help of EndNote. I promised myself I would not go through the same torture in my PhD. I was determined to find a better way to handle scientific literature.

Luckily for me, I started my PhD one month after the first release of Mendeley. I asked Mendeley out for a date. We liked each other. I took Mendeley to my apartment and we started making … papers. (what were you thinking??) Until today.

Mendeley made my academic writing and reading much easier. That’s what it does, it helps you with academic literature. And with something else.

The Indirect Benefits Of Some Products

Reading, writing, being productive and collaborating.You can deliberately train those skills. That’s the best way to go about it. Do it.

You can also get some help by using products that indirectly train those skills in you. Let me explain.

Let’s go to a materialistic world. You know that “having things” doesn’t bring real happiness. I think we can agree on that, right? We are scientists! We get happiness from higher intellectual endeavours!

But think of those products that owning them and using them give you a little warm feeling. A good espresso machine, a Moleskine, or that leather messenger bag. It’s like their quality brings the best out of you.

In my case my Dutch bike makes my rides more fun. The blog posts I write in my Macbook seem to flow much better than when I use a Windows based laptop. I tend to come with more exciting ideas if I write them down on a Moleskine.

I look back at my PhD and start connecting the dots on how I developed some PhD skills. Many reasons come to mind: intentionality, great colleagues, better advisors, luck, and amon other tools, Mendeley.

Yup, I used Mendeley to develop some PhD skills. So can you, although you didn’t know yet.

It’s time to talk about developing some PhD skills. Let’s get into it.

Better Reading Skills

It is more likely you having at any moment a computer or portable device near you than you having a stack of printed papers. Right?

Then why not use the ubiquitous nature of technology to read when and where you want?

I would start reading a paper at the uni on a Windows desktop. Then, I would go to a coffee shop and continue reading on my Macbook. Next morning, I would finish reading on my iPad from the … well, you don’t want to know where. Let’s called my inspiration chamber.

I didn’t need to remember to bring the papers I was going to read. They were just there, in whatever device was near me.

Reducing the barriers for you to read academic papers, that’s the key to reading more in a PhD.

Better Writing Skills

Wow, it seems today is going to be a great day. Not only did you decide to spend some time writing that forgotten paper. You are also kicking ass. Words flow. Sentences come together easily. You churn paragraphs like there is no tomorrow. You are “in the zone”.

Wouldn’t it be a pity to spoil this moment searching for that other paper to cite? You don’t remember the author or title. You only remember the paper was about “sparse rainbow deconvolution”. In that case, you open every PDF you find in your computer to see if the title rings a bell.

Have you ever heard of Optical Character Recognition (OCR)? That is a technique to find characters (and words) in images and documents. Mendeley has OCR.

This means that you can search in your article library using text search a-la-Google. Mendeley uses OCR to automatically search in the text of all your PDF files. Neat, right?

Really, the process of searching for a paper, finding it, citing it and going back to your writing can be accomplished in less than 30 seconds. The chance is that when you search, find and cite the paper on “sparse rainbow deconvolution”, you are still “in the zone” and can keep enjoying that the writing muses are visiting you.

Mendeley helps PhD students stay longer “in the zone” when they are writing. And that’s good.

More Productivity Skills

Everybody wants more PhD productivity, right? Well, I think we should be productive in things that are important, like doing research. Downloading, printing or tidying up files are not at the core of doing science. How can you cut the time spent on those zero-value activities?

Enter Mendeley…

This was my pre-Mendeley workflow to handle research papers: download PDF with weird name > store in a sub-folder with descriptive name > rename PDF with title and authors > open with Adobe > print them to read later at home > go to the printer > feel guilty for the paper wasted > add 1 kg of papers to my messenger bag

This is my workflow with Mendeley: download PDF with weird name > store in folder with all other papers > (Mendeley does its magic) > read article in iPad at home

But whait, what is all this Mendeley does it’s magic?

Mendeley detects the new article in the folder. It automatically renames it with the title and authors. It loads it into the Mendeley cloud, so it’s available across all your devices. Additionally, it annotates key fields like authors, journal, year, title and others for easy citation.

All that together is easily 5 minutes saved per research article. I have read hundreds if not thousands of articles in my PhD. Do the maths.

Better Team Skills

Collaboration is good. You need to collaborate as a PhD student. We have all heard this, right? How can Mendeley make you a better team player?

I see two types of collaboration:

You are member of the team: in a multidisciplinary project where you contribute from your area of expertise.
You are member and leader of the team: you are supervising students or you asked for help from a colleague in one of your research projects.

In type 1 you are one more in the group. Probably with other PhDs, postdocs and tenured scientists, so you learn to interact with your peers and superiors. In type 2, you are the leader of the group, so you learn to be in charge of other people and to do some project management.

In both cases we are talking about a body of literature that sustains research projects. The papers of that body of literature form the background on which the team relies to move forward.

With Mendeley you can share papers with a team, so you make sure everybody is aware of the state of the art. You can also annotate the papers and share these annotations.

Imagine how many brownie points you could earn if at the start of a collaboration you share the “15 essential papers for this project” with your team members. Add some annotations highlighting the information nuggets you consider most relevant, and you make your team’s life easier.

So far so good with Mendeley.


Mendeley rocks, but …

As you can see I enjoyed using Mendeley. I think it is the best tool to handle your academic literature.

This is all great and awesome, but there were a couple of pain points when using Mendeley during my PhD. Disk quota and collaborations.

Mendeley disk quota for free accounts

You have 2GB of online storage in your free account. This means that you can sync across devices up to 2GB of papers. That is enough for an intern, or a master literature review project. But for a PhD of at least 4 years, it comes a bit short.

I solved this issue by deleting papers. It is so easy to download PDFs, dump them in Mendeley and search for them later, that I overdid it.

I would have liked though to have a larger online storage quota.

Mendeley limits on group size

As I mentioned in Mendeley you can create private groups and collaborate. Unfortunately these limit you to 1 private group, of up to 3 people and 100MB quota.

That was enough when I was supervising my first master student. We created a group where I could add the papers he needed to read at the start of the project. Then he would extend it with relevant literature he found. It was a great way of keeping an eye on what he was up to.

But then I got a second student. And then a third who had to do a literature review. My free Mendeley account couldn’t handle it anymore.