PGR software - from reference managers to note-taking apps
Being a PGR student involves reading. Lots and lots of reading. And taking notes. And keeping tracks of all the reading and all the notes. Keeping a handwritten lab book can be a really good idea (I write in mine daily as I do experiments or analyse data), but they’re not always the easiest to carry around in case you need them at meetings or conferences. Some electronic note-taking can be really helpful here, whether it’s experimental summaries in good old MS Word or the latest writing and note-taking software. The same can be true with papers, printing and highlighting the really important ones works quite well but during our PGR degree we read so many, printing them would kill whole forests and turn our offices into fire safety hazards. Using reference managing software can help organise papers by topic, author or any other ways you like to sort them to find them quickly.
We’ve put together some of the apps and pieces of software we’ve used, and we’ve got some recommendations from our former blogger Jiska as well as from Mary Beth Kneafsy, the Postgraduate Research Strategy Manager.
When it comes to picking a reference manager, there are a number of choices out there but most of us use Mendeley. The basic version is free, but there is an upgrade you can pay for (for example, in case you need extra space to store pdfs of your references). Still, even the free version is pretty good! When you create an account, it lets you access all your references in pdf form from anywhere and on any device (ipad, iphone, PC), and it syncs automatically with a designated folder in your Dropbox. It lets you highlight text, insert comments, add tags or notes and ‘file’ the same reference in multiple folders. It lets you search the text of a reference for keywords, as well as look for additional references related to that keyword. One of the things we really like about Mendeley is that you can create a folder with all the references you need for a specific bit of work and then export that entire reference list into your work, in a range of formats (Harvard, Vancouver and many more). You might need to tidy it up a bit and always double check it, but it’s much much better than typing out a whole reference. The plug-in for Word means that you can easily insert citations as you are writing, and if you later want to add more in between, it adjusts their numbers automatically so you have to do very little work in terms of sorting out references. Getting references into your Mendeley library is really easy as well, as their Web Importer only needs one click to add it to your library. There are other reference managers out there, and many have also recommended EndNote (needs to be bought) and Qiqqa (free) to me. It’s worth looking around and trying them for a few days (if they’re free or have free trials) to see which one suits you and your working style best.
When it comes to basic note taking during say a meeting, MS Word can work wonders, plus it’s easy to use and most people will have it or something similar. Another option suggested by Jiska is the app Evernote (again, free but you can upgrade). It lets you make notes which you can then tag and store into folders, and photos or recordings into the notes or scribe a meeting (it embeds a recording). Another advantage is that you have access to your notes everywhere you go, as it is a cloud based and syncs to any device. Jiska said that she also uses it for recipes, as it lets her tag each recipe with ingredients and categories which makes them easily searchable.
A step up from Evernote can be Scrivener, which offers a free trial but then requires purchase. Describing itself as a writing software and content generating tool, it is designed to support the creation, structuring and organisation of larger writing project. You can create flashcard-like chunks of text that you can rearrange, collect and compile in various ways. Jiska told us that Scrivener is helpful if you want to treat each section of text separately, view them side by side and move them around to organise them into a more coherent whole.
Of course, note-taking and reference managing are not the only things PGRs may use apps and software for. We want to keep in touch with other students on the courses we are on, which helps us feel as part of a community but can be a bit tricky especially if travelling or on a distance learning programme. We previously wrote a bit about using social media as a PGR student, and we think social media can come in handy especially if away from Glasgow. A distance PGR told us about how their far-flung cohort have successfully used WhatsApp to keep in touch, support each other and feel connected as a group. While Moodle is formally used by the programme for all things course related, a Whatsapp group provides an informal space using an app most of us already have for keeping in touch with family and friends. A Facebook group can fill a similar space to a Whatsapp group, so it’s really up to everyone’s preferences. When organising Pint of Science last year, we used Slack to keep in touch within our teams, as well as with everyone else in Glasgow and with the central team. Yammer can be another option. UofG uses it a lot, and there are plenty groups you can join, including one specifically for distance PGRs. UofG is quite active on social media, with over 40 official Twitter profiles! These can be a great way to keep on top of what’s going on around campus, in your research group and connect with other PGRs.
What about you? Have you tried any of the software discussed here? Do you know of any others who might be easier to use or have more functions? Leave us a comment of tell us on Twitter at @UofG_PGRBlog