Life hacks for graduate students

November 23, 2021

I’ve picked up some tips and tricks along my graduate studies that have made my life easier and research more efficient. I thought I’d share in an effort to educate others about some helpful graduate student life hacks!

1. A Reference Manager. I honestly don’t know how I functioned before I got one. In the first year of my PhD I downloaded Mendeley, a free reference manager that easily organizes journal articles. It allows you search your personal library, annotate documents, and cite as you write. I have about 30 different folders pertaining to different research topics where I organize hundreds of papers that I’ve downloaded over the years. It is so helpful to know where a particular paper lives, allowing you to easily pull it up when in a meeting or when you need a quick citation. Mendeley Reference Manager can be downloaded on Windows, Mac, or Linux operating systems. You can also synchronize your data across devices so you can access papers on different computers. I have Mendeley Reference Manager on both my Mac laptop and Windows desktop. When I press sync, the data is stored on Mendeley servers (i.e. in the cloud) so you can access it on any machine anywhere you go. All your papers are stored on the cloud so it also doesn’t take up room in your local storage. There is also a phone app, so you can access and read papers on your phone.

There are other free reference managers such as Zotero and EndNote. I’ve never used anything except Mendeley so I cannot write about how they compare. However, I think they all do the same thing. This article and the references therein explain the differences.

2. Google Scholar alerts. If you have a Google account, you can set up Google Scholar alerts which sends you regular emails about new published papers in topics you are interested in. To set this up, go to Google Scholar (which is a good bookmark to have) and select the menu at the top left (three horizontal lines) and select ‘Alerts’. You can type in keywords relating to your research which will prompt Google to send you a list of recently published papers relating to that keyword. For example, I have three Google Scholar Alerts set up with the keywords ‘ocean color remote sensing’, ‘phytoplankton functional type’, and ‘drone water quality’. I get automated emails with a list of new published papers related to these topics 2-3 times a week. It’s a really helpful way to stay updated with the current research.

3. Connectedpapers.com. I found out about this website from another graduate student at Horn Point Lab (thanks Hannah!). It’s an awesome and really efficient way to conduct a literature review. On the homepage, you can type in a ‘paper identifier’ which can be a keyword, author, or a title of a paper. I find it easier to type in a title of a paper I have already found and then explore all of the other papers connected to it. An example of a graph can be seen below. Each node is an academic paper related to the origin paper. The size of the node is the number of citations the paper has, the color represents the publishing year with darker colors representing more recent papers. You can click on one of the nodes to pull up further information on the right hand side and then click the title to access and download the paper.

4. draw.io. This is an open source diagramming/whiteboarding visualization application. It’s an efficient way to create flowcharts and diagrams for a scientific paper or presentation. You can save the diagrams to a Google account and share with others to collaborate on one diagram. Once completed, the diagram can be exported as an image file or PDF to embed into a paper or presentation.

5. Use an online calendar system. Up until a couple years ago, I used a physical planner that I carried around with me everywhere to keep track of meetings, deadlines, etc. This worked fine, but I recently transitioned to an online calendar system that is synchronized across my personal and work Google accounts and accessible through my phone. It has really changed the game. If you have a Google account, you can find the calendar icon on the right hand side of your emails. I write in meetings, dates to remember, etc. using this sidebar feature. I can also plan and invite others to meetings, which sends them an automatic calendar invite which pops up in their Google calendar. You can also connect your Zoom account and send Zoom calendar invites. This was extremely helpful to learn during Covid and increased Zoom participation since it goes straight on people’s calendars and people are less likely to forget about it. If you expand the calendar sidebar, you can add new calendars. I have two Google calendars- one for UMCES, and one I share with my partner to upload and share important dates. They are color coded in my calendar and are both synched to the calendar app on my phone. It is very helpful to open the calendar app on my phone and quickly view what I have going on for the day or week. You can access Google calendar support here.

You might have known about some of these life hacks before, but I hope you learned some new ones to better organize your research and your life. Feel free to share any additional tips that I can add to this list!