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Tools and ideas to improve academic efficiency

Making the switch to Linux Mint

Nearly two years after my original post on Linux software for academics, I’ve officially made the switch to Linux. To be specific, I installed Linux Mint 10 as my primary OS. I was originally planning to go with Ubuntu, but after reading this interesting post over at Lifehacker (“Why Linux Mint Might Be a Better Beginner’s Linux Than Ubuntu”), and doing a bit more research, I decided to go for the latest version of Linux Mint instead.

So, how am I dealing with the switch? Surprisingly well. I’m thoroughly enjoying the interface of the new OS– Linux Mint 10 (“Julia”) is beautifully designed. My main concern was that finding replacements for favourite and often-used Windows programs would be something of a challenge, but so far so good.

Here are my suggestions for replacement or equivalent software alternatives for academics making the switch from Windows to Linux:

Task Windows Software Linux Replacement
Document management and note-taking Evernote Nevernote
Notecase
Reference management and PDF organizer Endnote Zotero
Referencer
Mendeley
Email Desktop Client Microsoft Outlook Evolution Mail
Mozilla Thunderbird
Text Editor Notepad++ Kate Editor
Word Processor Microsoft Word Open Office
AbiWord
LibreOffice
IBM Lotus Symphony

Happily, Firefox runs wonderfully in Linux (hurrah for open source!). I’d miss my plugins, especially customized searches for Google Scholar, WorldCat, and Wikipedia.

There are some interesting Linux-compatible programs in development right now that hold potential for academics switching to Linux. I’ll be keeping a keen eye on updates for the following:

Zotero Standalone
“We are excited to announce the alpha release of standalone Zotero, part of the larger Zotero Everywhere project. Standalone Zotero Alpha does not require Firefox to run and is available for Mac OS X, Windows, and Linux.”

Scrivener for Linux
“Scrivener isn’t meant to replace OpenOffice Writer for dedicated word processing needs but rather for help in ‘structuring and writing those difficult first drafts of long texts such as novels, scripts and thesis’.”

LyX-Outline
“LyX-Outline is a forthcoming add-on to the popular document processor, LyX, that will give it many of the same features as the writing tool, Scrivener. This add-on is a recognition that writing is about more than just plugging away at a piece of prose until it is finished. It’s also about tracking down loose ends, trying to visualize structure, and avoiding as many dead-ends as possible. In a word, it’s about getting from first to final draft by the quickest route possible, which may not necessarily be a straight line.”

Filed under: Academia, Bibliographies, Bibliography, Computer, Email, Files, Linux, Open-Source, Organization, PDF, Research, Software, Ubuntu, Writing

Divide and conquer… your workweek

I was recently re-inspired by this post over at Academic Productivity. I had tagged it ages ago, but never gave serious consideration to putting the work schedule into practise. My schedule has changed significantly over the past year, and I now often find myself concentrating so much on the day-to-day minutiae of academic work to the point that I too often get distracted from my long-term projects.

This post by Cal Newport is entitled How Do the Best Professors Work?, and tries to demystify the structure of a working day of some productive scholars.

The take-away message that I found most helpful was the idea of The 3 + 2 Graduate Student Work Week:

a) Designate one day each week to be your Administrative Nonsense Day

Spend this entire day taking care of any work on your plate that doesn’t directly connect to the task of conducting research and writing research papers. This is when I fill out forms, return library books, hand in reimbursement paperwork, call the cable guy, and add new publications to my web site. You get the idea…

b) Designate one day each week to be your Big Idea Day

Spend this entire day doing literature search and brainstorming on that research project you’ve always day-dreamed about, but have been to afraid to mention to your advisor. If you don’t set aside this time, you will get stuck in the rut of happenstance papers — the projects you fall into out of convenience or advisorial coercion. This work is fine. It’s how you earn your research stripes. But some time along the way you have to be fighting to make your own mark.

c) Use the Other Three Days to Get Your Normal Work Done

Most of what we do as graduate students is working on various stages of the paper-writing process. This spans cleaning up numbers in Excel to editing the related work section of a journal submission. Use these three days to get this work done. Because you isolated the administrative nonsense on another day, you might be surprised by how much gets accomplished in just 60% of the week. I like to make my Admin Day on Monday and my Big Idea Day on Friday, so this work can happen consecutively in the middle of the week; but preferences differ here.That’s it. A simple structure. But sometimes it’s the simplest changes that yield the most consistent results over time. This approach, of course, gets complicated by classes, group meetings, and collaborators who don’t know about (or, frankly care) that a certain day is your big idea day. So it will never apply perfectly. But even the attempt can make a difference…

[from How Do the Best Professors Work? ]

In the discussion following, commenter mom suggests an alternative, though similar, type of time-grouping:

Great in theory, except that administrative nonsense doesn’t behave sometimes… I am a young prof at an R1 and I save 3-5pm, my least productive time of the day, for administrivia, coffee mtgs, etc. I’m on leave so now I do it 5x a week, but when teaching I do it 3x a week, and have office hours on the other days during the same slot.

This approach is supported by a recent post over at Signal vs. Noise, 37signals’ blog (the makers of my beloved Backpack!):

And the primary observation that comes out of all this is that multitasking is the fastest way to mediocrity. Things suck when you don’t give them your full attention.

I’m not thrilled with the work I’ve been doing lately.

This isn’t a breakthrough, it’s just a reminder. If you want to do great work, focus on one thing at a time. Finish it and move on to the next thing.

[from Multitasking is the fastest way to mediocrity ]

So: divide, time-block, conquer… and theoretically have weekends free. Sounds good; let’s see if this works.

Filed under: Academia, Advice, Grad School, Motivation, Organization, Research, Time Management, Writing

Academic Software Roundup for Linux

The open-source spirit (not to mention non-existent pricetag) of the Linux OS is appealing to many academics, I daresay, but they (myself included) may be hesitant to switch over to an entirely new operating system, devoid of their favourite programs. Mac users have an array of delightful programs for academic work (DEVONthink, I’m looking at you), but even us Windows users have some favourite standbys. Why make the switch over to a new system if we can’t find programs to handle our academic tasks?

I did some prowling through a very useful list of Linux apps to see if the functionality of the most important academic programs could be duplicated in Linux.

Referencer
PDF Manager, Citation/Bibliography Manager
Replacement for: Yep, Papers, EndNote

Referencer

gPapers
PDF Manager, Citation/Bibliography Manager
Replacement for: iPapers, Papers

gPapers

KeepNote
Note-taking software
Replacement for: EverNote, OneNote

KeepNote

BasKet
Note-taking software
Replacement for: EverNote, OneNote, UltraRecall

BasKet

Alexandria
Book-cataloguing software
Replacement for: Delicious Library, Books, Book Collector

Alexandria

A couple of cross-platform programs to remember if you’re considering making the switch: Zotero works on Linux, as does Mendeley.


Addendum: Some bonus Linux software links from helpful commenter Xonan!

Zim
A desktop wiki under constant development

Okular
PDF reader with highlight and commentary features

cb2bib
Extracts bibtex data from the clipboard, PDFs, etc

kdissert/semantik
Mindmapping software

Argunet
Java software for building argumentation maps

Integrate Zotero with gedit
Plugin for gedit text editor that allows to add citations from the Zotero bibliography manager to LaTeX documents

Thanks, Xonan!

Filed under: Academia, Bibliographies, Bibliography, Books, Computer, Gnome, Linux, Open-Source, Organization, PDF, Software, Tools, Ubuntu

Metafilter Roundup: the Dissertation/Thesis edition

Dissertation Corner
Photo by: multifinality

Helpful Guides for Writing a Dissertation

How to plan a daily schedule for a dissertation?

Dealing with Academic Writer’s Block

Thesis Writer’s Block

How do I write a thesis?

Filed under: Academia, Advice, Dissertation, Grad School, Motivation, Organization, Thesis, Time Management, Writing

24 Hour Buddies

24 hr
Photo by: oknovokght

Mike over at Getting Things Done in Academia suggests that we should all cultivate our 24-hour buddies.

He’s not advocating incredibly short-term friendships. No, he’s making the case for creating a group of academics (preferably with different specialties) who are willing to read and informally review each other’s papers on with a 24-hour turnaround. It sounds like a great idea to get speedy feedback and light a fire under yourself when necessary.

Cultivating your 24-hour buddies
[ from Getting Things Done in Academia ]

Filed under: Academia, Advice, Colleagues, Motivation, Research, Writing

The Carnival of GRADual Progress

Working on thesis
Photo by: OldMainstream

The Carnival of GRADual Progress is a monthly roundup of blog posts of interest to grad students. Hosted at a different academic blog every month, the posts range from helpful to simply hilarious.

There are six carnivals so far:
1st Carnival
2nd Carnival
3rd Carnival
4th Carnival
5th Carnival
6th Carnival

Warning: to be approached with extreme caution. Definite time-sucker.

Filed under: Academia, Advice, Computer, Grad School, Motivation, Online, Reading, Research, Thesis, Time Management, Web, Writing

Papers (PDF organizer, Mac only)

Papers

Yet another Mac-only app for academics…

Papers is now available in public preview. It has a really lovely user interface (reminiscient of iTunes) and previewing and note-taking ability built right into the program. It was built to house scientific papers and import straight from PubMed.

[ found via announcement at The Efficient Academic ]

Filed under: Academia, Bibliographies, Bibliography, Computer, Files, Mac, Organization, Research, Tools

Love and admiration in academic tasks

As academics, we can often get stuck working on projects that we care little about. No different than non-academic jobs– except that, somehow, there is a larger expectation that we do care about what we’re working on. We’re not supposed to be monkeys working for the man– we’re supposed to be intellectual monks in a modern world, feverishly pursuing further knowledge. Okay, maybe not monks, but you get the idea.

Yet we do get stuck doing projects that we care little about– or occasionally heartily despise. A few of these projects won’t hurt you; maybe they’ll even build a little character, who knows? But consistently working on projects that we loathe, or see little point in, isn’t good for our happiness, mind, or motivation.

Dave Cheong has an excellent post about choosing things that you love doing and admire. His emphasis is on the second part of this equation.

He says, “Why do you have to admire what you do or the people doing it? If you only love what you do (and not admire it), then you may end up doing the wrong thing… If there is nothing to admire, why change? What’s the incentive to become better?”

Do something you love doing and admire
[ from Dave Cheong ]

Filed under: Academia, Advice, Grad School, Motivation

Top ten longest titles of research papers

And now for something completely different…

Top ten longest titles of research papers
[ from Trevor’s Bike Shed ]

Filed under: Academia, Humour, Research, Thesis, Web, Writing

Citavi – coming soon?

Citavi

I’m impressed by the interface and capabilities of reference manager Citavi, but for the moment it’s only available in German. However, they do apparently have plans to release an English language version.

I’m tempted to download the free version, even if it is in German, just to see how it all works together. Too bad it’s not French– I could handle working in French. But I know absolutely no German whatsoever.

Citavi [ via The Efficient Academic Google Group ]

Filed under: Academia, Bibliographies, Bibliography, Computer, Files, Organization, Research, Thesis, Tools, Windows

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Academic Lifehacker provides hints, tips, tools, and software recommendations for scholars, graduate students, and researchers.