My first class in graduate school begins tomorrow, so I will keep this brief. I wanted, however, to quickly share 8 tools that I cannot live without and that I can only imagine will make life easier for not only graduate students, but also undergraduates, professionals, and virtually anybody else who engages in collaborations, is interested in academic discourse, or makes frugal choices in his or her daily life. This is by no means a “Top 10″ list–in fact, I like to constantly keep my ears open for better alternatives to even my most-used and favorite tools–but it is a list from the heart! Please add your own favorite tools or alternatives to the ones listed here in the comments.
1. Reference manager
This is the only category where I won’t advocate any single application because there is a wealth of superb reference managing software out there, many of them offering variations of the same features. Each has its strength and weaknesses and I find that certain combinations of reference managing softwares can nicely complement each other. I am currently using a combination of Papers (Mekentosj) and EndNote (Thomson Reuters). Papers is a commercial application for Mac OS (sorry Windows users, see alternatives!) that combines a superb user interface with some nice features. Think iTunes but with PDFs instead of mp3s. You can, for example, set an area of your hard drive for Papers to automatically sort and rename your PDFs according to rules that you stipulate. Papers also comes packaged with a number of common academic search engines such as Google Scholar, PubMed, Web of Science, and JSTOR in which you can search and download files to automatically add to your Papers library. References can be exported in a number of different formats, including BibTeX, CSV, and EndNote. Like in iTunes, managing metadata associated with the PDFs can take a bit of work, but I am betting that starting grad school with an organized database of papers and references (currently at 1,012) will be an enormous asset later on. Papers costs $42 to use, but proof of studentship can drop the price down to $25.
EndNote is a little less user-friendly than Papers, but is absolutely worth getting to know and provides a lot of the same functionality as Papers (but lacks, in my opinion, the superb interface). The key function that EndNote provides (and Papers doesn’t) is the cite-while-you-write capability. As a plugin within Microsoft Word, EndNote serves as a bibliographic manager and can automatically update in-text citations and works cited. EndNote can be quite expensive, but is available through many universities with an institutional license.
2. Google Reader
As an undergraduate, I remember being overwhelmed by how my professors and TAs managed to always seem so in touch with the latest research in their fields. Much of it probably has to do with word of mouth and extensive journal subscriptions but now, with the increasing digitalization of academic media, there is a way for anybody to easily receive updates through the RSS feeds of their favorite publications. RSS, which stands for “really simple syndication,” is an abbreviated form of updated works provided by a website. Virtually all academic journals that publish online contain RSS feeds which can deliver new articles (or media) directly to an RSS reader. Different browsers deal with RSS in different ways; as RSS readers go, however, I find that none match up to Google Reader. Within Google Reader, you can subscribe to all of your favorite journals and receive summaries of news stories and articles as they are published online. Since many journals publish online in advance of print publication, that means you can keep track of recent work in your discipline before it is circulated in print! Google Reader also lets you share and comment on your favorite feeds with your friends or colleagues. Aside from journal articles, I subscribe to a number of research and technology blogs as well as news sites.
Here are two indispensable tools for collaborators. Mediafire and drop.io both make uploading large files incredibly simple. Best of all, neither site requires a registration. Mediafire allows visitors to upload files (up to 200 Mb total) with little more than a single click of a button. After uploading, you are automatically provided with a link to your files and options for sharing your uploaded files. drop.io allows visitors to create an online dropbox (with a fancy URL of your choice in the format of drop.io/…). After creating a drop, drop.io provides options to upload files and provides administrative options to restrict or grant access to particular files. Drops are limited to 100 Mb.
4. Academic Earth
In graduate school, taking coursework without a strategic reason is rare and largely discouraged. If you need to expose yourself to material covered in undergraduate introductory classes in order to pursue a certain research topic, chances are that you will have to learn it on your own. But no longer. Academic Earth is a project that makes university lectures by a number of participating universities (see them here) freely available in video format. The project is still young and the topics covered are not exhaustive but it will only improve as more faculty and institutions participate.
Textbooks are expensive and the value of used textbooks can be a tiny fraction of the cost of new ones. In these cases, textbook rental may be a viable alternative. Chegg.com provides exactly that service, allowing students to rent textbooks, use them for a semester, and then return them. Shipping is extremely fast and they will even cover your return shipping costs.
Groupon is a free coupon service that provides one deal per day in your local area, letting you occasionally crawl out of your office or lab and enjoy your city, usually at a ridiculous discount. Daily deals can be sent to your email and can be redeemed by printing them out or showing them on your mobile phone.
Mint.com is a free budget and finance managing website that imports data from your various bank accounts, credit cards, and other sources to provide you with an up-to-date look at your finances, along with custom suggestions for adhering to your specified budget. Once you get past the horror of seeing how little you own, it is an extremely simple and useful tool for understanding your entire financial picture. For security, Mint.com indexes none of your private information and cannot be used to transfer funds. Read more about its privacy policies here (link).
Just as Mint.com offers a quick look at my finances, Supercook gives me a quick look at my refrigerator. Unlike other recipe websites, Supercook provides recipe suggestions based on what you have in your refrigerator. For me that is much more useful as it provides a means of using up the food I already have and not ending up with a ridiculous surplus of, say, parsley (don’t ever buy fresh parsley, by the way, just because a recipe requires it). You can prioritize or restrict certain ingredients and a suggestion cloud gives you a quick look at what you may need to buy in order to start working on a wealth of other recipes. Recipes found on Supercook are imported from around the web.