This month our blog posts are going to focus on technology and the doctoral journey so stay tuned throughout February.
One aspect of my doctoral journey that I feel always seems quite secretive are the tools and techniques, the practical methods that people apply to ensure they stay on top of their PhD. Graduate schools and supervisors could definitely provide more insight and guidance here, I think. For me, using technology has to make things quicker or easier and if it doesn’t I am quick to stop using it. After a number of years of working and studying in universities, here are some technology tools that I find helpful in staying sane and on top of things. You may notice that I’m slightly addicted to colour coding things as you read on.
I work full time, study part-time, have a 3-year-old, not to mention all the other demands life itself has. If something isnt in my calendar then theres a good chance I’m not going to remember it and its not going to get done.
I’ve used Google Calendar for a number of years and I just love how simple it is to use. It’s my main go-to calendar with my work calendar, study calendar, pubs and pubs schedule plus personal day to day calendar all synced and colour-coded to show up on the one calendar. The colour coding helps me to glance at my calendar and know what activities are going on and gauge the importance of them quickly and easily. I use Trello (more on that later) and I have my tasks in there also synched in my google calendar. Working off of one calendar helps me to take time to plan my week and make lists of things that I need to prioritise and it just helps me to see everything quickly and easily. I’ve recently synched it to my Alexa and while I make breakfast in the morning she tells me what’s in store for that day.
To set things up did take a bit of trial and error with some tweaks and changes, but there are plenty online how-to guides out there to make it easier.
If you like to-do lists combined with a reminder or nudge to actually get the task done all in a digital format, then consider checking out Trello. A super-organised and amazing colleague introduced it to me a while back and although it did take me some time to get used to it, now I have it in a format that works for me – you’ve guessed it – colour-coded, and it works well.
Trello is visually appealing and you essentially set up cards for each task and move it from column to column as you progress or complete the task. There are lots of templates to consider but I simply have 4 columns: 1. To Do, 2. This week, 3. Waiting feedback and 4. Done.
For each card or task, you can label it, set a reminder and deadline, have documents and notes attached and if you work on a project with more than one person you can also communicate with them through leaving notes and updates.
If you’re anything like me and enjoy ticking things off of a to-do list then moving the Trello cards from column to column has that similar feeling of accomplishment. My latest thing is trying to clear the ‘this week’ column by Friday every week and this really plays to my competitiveness. Trello has a free and paid version and so far I have managed to do everything I need simply using the free version.
I remember watching movies and seeing people using video calling as normal as using a phone to make calls. I always wondered what that would be like and if it would really happen. March 2020 and lockdown and I quickly got used to this new reality. Video calling has completely revolutionised how we communicate and from teaching, meetings to discuss publications, supervisory meetings to most recently, my progression review, its all moved to video calls and conferences.
I use a combination of MS Teams and Zoom for my PhD and Zoom has also become a place for social hangouts. It’s easy to share thoughts with the comments section, share screens to show and discuss draft chapters and I have even taken part in some reading group meetings on a video call.
The one downfall of all these screen meetings is that if you don’t have the lighting just right or angle of the camera just right you can end up looking pretty weird on screen, not to mention the chance of pets and kids photobombing on important calls.
When I was signing up for my studies I was slightly concerned about whether or not I would be able to successfully write with an academic tone. I also worried about spelling and grammar and all those worries went out of the window when a friend introduced me to Grammarly. This is a free writing tool that also has a paid version with additional features. It works on Microsoft Word and on Google Docs and as you write it works quietly in the background scanning your writing. It underlines errors or concerns in red and when you place your mouse over the underlined area a pop-up window suggests changes and improvements. Since using it I find my writing has improved as has my spelling. I like writing using the Pomodoro technique and I just write and then go back and make the edits and corrections. My biggest thing is using commas either too much or too little but now that Grammarly’s got my back I’m all good with my commas.
My research uses visual methods, namely participant-led photo-elicitation and there are increasingly more and more researchers using social media to highlight aspects of their work. I enjoy Instagram, scrolling through people’s posts and also looking for interesting stuff to follow. But posting on it regularly can really take up too much time. Later is a social media post scheduling tool that is free, and also has some paid plans. It is ideal for scheduling image social media posts and its calendar layout allows you to see what you are posting and when throughout the week or month. I use it mainly for Instagram and Twitter but it can also link with Facebook and Pinterest. I now try my best at the beginning of the month to bulk-schedule a number of posts for the coming month and then when I want to post additional sporadic media I can do that quickly and easily. There are other tools out there that can be used for scheduling but I like Later as its Instagram and image focussed and that works for me and my research.
Having all of my research stored in the cloud on my university Microsoft One Drive Account works wonders for me as it means that I have everything at my fingertips as and when I need it or want it. I work across devices: desktop, laptop, work laptop, tablet and phone depending on where I am working and what I am working on. Having everything in the cloud means I simply pop onto my account and open up the document I am wanting to read, the draft I have been writing and it’s there ready and waiting. It couldn’t be handier. I have also found One Drive to be useful in sharing draft documents with my supervisors as I can simply add them to the document or send them a link to it and they can read it, leave comments and track changes quickly and easily. I have to admit that I prefer the user interface of Google Drive but perhaps I am just being picky as One Drive offers the same functionality and my university account offers me 1TB of storage so I have plenty of space for notes, drafts, storing journals and other documents.
Hopefully, you’ll consider checking out some of these tools to make your PhD journey that little bit easier, more productive and certainly more enjoyable. With my colour-coding obsession, my journey is definitely brighter and happier.