Being inspired by my colleague Heather’s post on useful digital tools in MA/PhD program, I’d also like to share my ideas about tools and workflows in navigating grad school. I understand majority of these are specific to myself (i.e. a Mac user), but as a fan of “How I work” series on Lifehacker and  blogs that tackle academic workflows (such as Macacademise and Organizing Creativity, Academic Workflows on a Mac, and posts like this and this) I’ve been wanting to write this. It will probably change over time, so I am sharing this also as a log of what I’ve been thinking about my workflow as a grad student.

1. Collect and process information.

In GTD paradigm these two are separate, but I consider them together. Because it really means nothing if you collect it without knowing what you’re collecting. For example, I used to subscribe to bunch of newsletters and automatically sending them to Evernote, with hopes that my external digital brain is smart enough to connect dots that I didn’t connect. I was wrong. At least, for now, especially if your goal is to write/analyze/create something, you need to first process what you’re getting.*1

A. Email – filtering is the key. I have a “white list” filter that only those I know & academic email addresses will stay in my inbox. The rest is archived but remain “unread” where I use Multiple Inbox to show as alternative inbox. My point is, have a minimum but meaningful system to filter through your personally and professionally meaningful, and resourceful emails against the rest.

B. Evernote – for me, this is where all processed (i.e. What I deemed meaningful) information get clipped. Mostly web pages, listserv logs, and some PDFs that somehow didn’t end up in my organization scheme, and scanned handwritten notes (taking photo on the phone and attaching is easy. About 200 pages of handwritten notes took about couple of hours to “scan”).

C. File folder system – I use Mac and default finder. I store class readings, relevant articles in PDF, and everything in Offfice formats that I use to read/write/present/teach here. I have three major systems: coursework, (potential) dissertation, and teaching. The point here for me is not to be too rigid and don’t be afraid of duplicates. Also, having Launchbar or Alfred or some sort of instant launcher helps speed up things a lot (but not crucial).

D. OCR software – if you are PDF annotating person, or switch back PDF and print annotating, OCRed documents makes it easier. OCR softwares are expensive, but Prizmo is a decent, relatively affordable one (less than $80 pro pack).

F. Annotation software – on Mac I use default Preview, and on my Nexus tablet I use ezPDF reader with Folder Sync (both free). PDF annotation seems to be a popular topic (For Mac, for Android, and for iPad)  so I won’t spend too much words here.

G. Pen and paper – ultimately this is how I take notes. I keep one giant moleskin and keep everything chronologically. I also have multiple uni style fit pens of 0.28 mm nibs for annotating books and taking notes. I carry around post its with my notebook. My readings I get in physical copies so that I can take notes on them (this is discussed as not necessarily ideal – I understand the importance of summarizing the book but also my current reading style is conversational, and I enjoy writing in margins. I’m working on ways that will ultimately help my comprehension and synthesis)

2. Writing.

This is central to academic workflow. In grad school, you’re here to write. You write something everyday, whether that is your reading notes, draft for term papers, or conference presentation. My goal here is A) avoid demotivating myself being lost in different tools, and B) make your own writing easily retrievable.

A). Tools and motivation. Because I love new tools and apps, I have too many options to choose. If you’re like me, try out different things but settle down on few what you cannot live without. I use nvAlt (synced with Simplenote) for any kind of jotting down to initial drafting,  then I move on to Scrivener to more organized writing. I don’t use evernote for writing because it gets cluttered, but for those who take notes digitally, it’s an attractive option that let you use rich text formatting. I also use writing aids, such as TextExpander and clipboard history in Launchbar. TextExpander lets you type shortcut and turn it into a full length words/phrases/sentences as you like. I use it in many ways, such as preventing typos (can;t to can’t) and of names (like Nietzsche), and discipline specific terms (such as différance, and other commonly used Japanese terms in roman letters for the paper I’m currently working on, such as surechigai tsūshin). It also lets you run script, so I have shortcut for “paste clipboard item in plain text.” Clipboard history remembers what you copied to your clipboard for the last set number of times, so you don’t have to go back and forth between two documents side by side.

B). Make your writing easily retrievable. This include having a separate folder for your own past writing (I have one for published articles and presented papers), “tagging” your writings in nvAlt (course number, topic, etc), and having separate folders or separate projects in scrivener (I use one scrivener project for everything I’m working on, but within have separate folders for different courses, papers, presentations, etc). Avoid having “draft 150410 150415 150417.doc” “final draft edit KN rev3.3.doc” etc.

3. Formatting.

Once you get done your draft, you need to format the bibliography and the paper itself. There are bunch of citation managers out there and well reviewed (for example here, here, here, and here) so I won’t spend too much words here, but currently I use Sente. Also, in the end I format papers on Office suite, either the Microsoft one or the open-source kind.

4. Backup.

This is really to save everything you’ve done as a grad student (or even before). I’m still working on this, looking in ways to save files other than Dropbox. My goal is to have it in at least 3 places – local, cloud, and external hard drive.

5. Communicating.

A. Email – Overlaps with 1, but I use email following the GTD rule – “is this actionable?” If actionable via email (meaning requires response), it’ll stay in my inbox until I reply. If actionable with something else other than reply, I keep note in my to do list (moleskin pocket planner, or sometimes post it). I should be able to remember to respond after I get the task done. I also think twice – “does this really need to be said in email?” I sometimes write specific notes on my planner, if I meet someone only on particular day of the week.

B. Collaborative work – Google docs has been useful for collaborative writing & editing.

C. Sharing files – sometimes email is just fine, other times Dropbox shared folder is the easiest. Be careful with sharing with Dropbox, as many users have free account that doesn’t allow for large number of files & sizes.

D. Communicating to wider audience – Blogging and Twitter seem to be the common channel of choice in academia. I’m ambivalent about Facebook, and I try to keep its use minimum. For pedagogical use of Twitter and blogging, see my colleagues sample activities: “Using Twitter to Teach Critical Listening” and “Using Blogs to Generate and Host Online Discussion”)

That’s it for now. What’s your academic workflow?

(Next up… I want to write about routines & places to work/read/write).


*1: The “stuff” coming in is never purely  a “stuff,” and before asking “what is this?” you already have some idea of what it is. Because information arrives you in a context, whether from particular people, organizations, theoretical fields, or through particular channel, or in particular medium. You may have some kind of motivation or intention prior to retrieving the information. Those are important to attach to whatever you collected.

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