How To: Streamline the Graduate Student Office – Tech Advice

Because I am a major computer nerd, people often ask me what programmes I use to streamline my work in graduate school. Here is a fairly comprehensive list of my most-used programmes (not guaranteed to work in the same way on a Mac) and how I use them together.

1. MS Word (2007 or higher)

Say what you will about previous incarnations of this software, MS word now provides a great platform for word processing and document creation. If you glance over my shoulder, chances are I have either word or excel open and am working away. My favourite new-ish features include full-functionality bibliography and citation imports from Mendeley (more on this in a moment), easy importing from excel (more on this in an even briefer moment), and the ability to set document styles to your personal (or departmental) preferences. For example, my father prefers to have all of his work full-justified (I don’t understand it either!) but hates having to highlight everything and justify it when he opens a new document (like I said… it is hard to justify) so I showed him a quick way to pre-set his style options so that all new documents he works on can have fully justified body paragraphs with no effort on his part. Fun! I can show you how to do this in a later post.

2. Excel (2007 or higher)

Much like Word, Excel just gets better with each new incarnation. It is easy to import files from other programmes (I talk about .csv data files here), create excellent data tables, and craft works of computing art (my budget comes to mind!). I seriously recomend that every graduate student spend some time getting to know Excel as it has the capacity to make everyone’s life much much easier if they give it a chance.

3. Mendeley

I have mentioned Mendeley in previous posts but it bears repeating. This program is well organized, aesthetically pleasing, and has fairly cost-effective platforms for group and collaborative work (a pretty big deal if you are in graduate school). A PI with whom I have worked recently has adopted the software and is particularly happy with the Mendeley Groups option which allows for multi-person (unlimited) sharing and collaborative annotation.


If you are going to do statistical analysis at or past the graduate level, it is time you put away SPSS and find yourself some big-kid software. I am a fan of STATA because it offers a fairly friendly user-interface, the programing language is easy enough to learn, and there are more options than most users are aware. Many people in my discipline (and others… here’s looking at you, bio-informatics) tend to use R because it is free and largely user-designed or shaped. On the other hand, a colleague (/professor) with whom I was recently speaking described R as “re-designing the wheel,” and he has a point.

5. Windows Live Mesh

Not everyone has two computers, but for those of you who do (and for whom at least one is a PC), Windows Live-Mesh is Microsoft’s kick-ass answer to “I-Cloud”. I am always surprised by the number of people who do not know that this amazing cloud/sync platform is available with a hefty amount of space… for free! If you are syncing between two personal computers (i.e. rather than sharing documents with a colleague as you would do with Dropbox or even Mendeley), Live Mesh allows you to select which folders you want to share and with which computers you want to share them. Everything is password locked. What’s more, you have the option of sharing those folders online so that you can access certain folders remotely. The best part is that if I create a document at home (say, I start writing a paper on my desktop) and then head out to the library and do some more work (on my laptop), the version on my home computer and online will automatically update to reflect changes made on my laptop. Yay, cloud!

Note: You can also use Live Mesh to sync between a PC & a Mac

6. Dropbox

I won’t harp on this one since most people already use it. The bottom line is that there are few simpler ways of sharing documents, photographs, etc. with other people. The ability to share large files is particularly key (gmail file restrictions used to drive me bonkers!)

7. Kindle DX

Okay, okay… this doesn’t really count as a programme that I use. On the other hand, my Kindle DX has become a major money & time saver for me as it allows me to read and annotate PDFs without the added eye-strain of working off my computer. I especially like that notes I create on my Kindle are sent to a magical running text file that is easy to copy & paste into Mendeley (as notes that can then be exported into annotated PDFs (if you want to get super-fancy). I now run a paperless office and never have to carry around large stacks of PDFs & text books.

Note: lots of texts are available online as digital copies or e-books. If you cannot find it through the Amazon kindle store, try Google Play (only in the US) or the publisher’s website. Digital books are often much less expensive (often less than 30% of the print-price) and are always lighter!

8. Adobe Acrobat

Last but not least, Adobe Acrobat is very definetly worth the investment (especially if you have access to a student or teacher licensed version which start around $100). Aside from allowing you to save data typed into forms & create your own digital forms (i.e. if someone sends you a document to fill in and you don’t want to expose them to your embarassingly bad hand-writing), Adobe Acrobat gives you access to the wonderful world of “Print to PDF”. If you are interested in moving to a paperless office (and you should be… both for the environment and for your own financial stability), Print to PDF is a great place to start.

Hope the above list is useful to those graduate students seeking to “Go Paperless” or just to streamline their digital work-space.


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