The tools of my PhD trade: referencing, reading, writing, and productivity

Photo:Todd Quackenbush

Recently , I’ve invested a bit of my time in organising my reading, research, and writing work-flows and digital tools. I am acutely aware that I need to get these habits and practices bedded down soon to avoid breakdowns, flare-ups, and run-arounds later on in the doctoral journey.

Here’s a quick run-down of the main elements of my toolbox.

Zotero for reference management

I’ve used Endnote and tested several others (Endnote, Mendeley, Paperpile, Citavi, Docear), but I’ve settled on Zotero for a couple of reasons.

  1. It’s free, open-source, and developed by the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media, an organisation that has education, access to information, and democracy at the core of its mission. As opposed to, let’s say, Elsevier, who owns Mendeley and is known for its rapaciousness.
  2. I have set it up, with an add-on called Zotfile to download citations, along with the full-article .pdf, from academic databases, store the files in Dropbox, and rename the file and the Dropbox folder according to my set style, all in one click of the mouse.
  3. I have also set it up so that I can open the .pdf, annotate and highlight it, save it, and then extract those notes and highlighted sections as plain-text files to be stored in the Dropbox folder as the .pdf and attached to the citation record in Zotero (see image below).
  4. It just does citation management, .pdf wrangling, and light .pdf annotations. Other tools include deeper .pdf annotation and note taking, social sharing, mind-mapping, writing, and all sorts. But I kind of prefer to take a one-tool for one-job approach.
  5. Zotero works well with the plain text approach that I’ll speak more about. I can export my library as Bibtex and any annotations are plain text. This means that I am not beholden to any one system: plain text can be read by pretty much anything.
  6. I dislike the things I dislike about Zotero less than I dislike the things I dislike about the other reference managers that I use.

Drawboard for  Reading and annotating .pdfs

When I bought a Microsoft Surface recently, a demo copy of Drawboard came pre-installed. I usually consider this bloatware and will uninstall it immediately, but I bought the surface specifically for reading .pdfs, so thought I’d give it a spin. I agree with the good reviews it gets: it’s an easy to use, simple, and effective .pdf reader. It’s designed especially for use in tablet mode, with a stylus.

 

 

Writemonkey for note-taking and early drafts

For a while there I was trying to use Scrivener, the preferred tool of many academic writers, for my writing, but I just couldn’t get past the overwhelming interface and array of options. I’m a minimalist in many areas of my life, and I’ve decided to go with a plain text editor, Writemonkey.

Plain text has many benefits over many more complex writing software tools. Most importantly, it is open and ubiquitous: it works on all operating systems and can be opened in any number of apps. The simplicity of plain text, free of all but the most basic formatting, makes it perfect for note-taking, generative writing and early drafts. Plain-text editors are microscopic in comparison to more developed (one might say bloated) software. This makes them lightning fast and portable.

Writemonkey works for me for a couple of reasons:

  1. It’s fully portable: the whole program lives in Dropbox or on a USB stick. This means I can run it on any windows computer without needing to install it or otherwise impact that computer.
  2. It is as simple or complex as you want it to be. If you choose to, you can get into Markdown , use Regex for navigation and filtering, or even use the Writemonkey API to  develop plug-ins.
  3. Some writing software that I have used is extremely obtuse about where your work lives on your computer. As with everything else, I like my stuff to be in Dropbox, and Writemonkey doesn’t fight me on that.
  4. Built in Pomodoro timer to encourage and track productivity, white noise generator to help focus, and clicky-clacky typewriter sound effects, which I thought were a gimmick but are actually kind of motivating to hear, indicating lots of precious words being written.
  5. Writemonkey is owned and developed by one person. It’s nice to use something that isn’t the product of some vast corporation, but rather the fruits of one person’s vision and labour. I know I’m straying toward hipster artisan territory with that.

Microsoft word for final drafts

There’s no getting around it. At some point you’ll have to send a .docx file to someone. In my case, I can use plain text up until the point I need to send a draft to my supervisor, share anything with my colleagues, submit an article to a journal or an abstract to a conference, apply for a scholarship, or… any number of other things. Luckily, plain text makes this as simple as select all, CTRL+C, and CTRL+P.

Todo lists and light project management

Plain text again. I’ve lost count of how many productivity apps I’ve tried and abandoned. Some proved very tricky indeed in extracting my data from in any usable form. I’ve also found that the more feature-rich the app, the more likely I am to spend my time fiddling with it (I prefer to say “optimising it”) than actually doing the stuff I’m listing in it.

So my todo list is just one text file living in Dropbox. If I open it in a plain old text editor, it looks like this:

Which is a perfectly functional, if tricky to read and use, todo list. But if I open it in an app that recognises the todo.txt formatting rules, such as the tiny, portable, and lightning-fast Todo.text.net, it looks like this:

The trick is that by appending + for projects, @ for contexts, or (A) through (Z) for priority, I can filter or sort in a million useful ways.

Keeping it simple

A clear theme of these tool choices is my desire to keep things simple. I prefer one tool for one task. Plain text and Dropbox go a long way to keeping the integration of these parts simple. In the past I’ve searched for the one comprehensive tool to rule them all, but all tools that claim to do that either suck badly or require their own PhD to learn how to use them.

I’m sure this set-up will evolve somewhat, but I hope by not too much. I no longer have the time to mess around tinkering with my system, I’ve got a PhD to write.

Career Ready at La Trobe

I hate those blog posts where the author apologises for not updating their blog in a while. So I’m not going to do one.

I’ve been working. Reading, writing. Riding my bike. Work got intense for a time which means my doctoral studies were sidelined and my exercise habit got disrupted somewhat.

CAreer REady

It’s exciting times for the La Trobe University Careers and Employability service. We’re now called Career Ready, which is the brand of a large initiative on the part of the university, which has included:

  • a major expansion of our team, from around five to more than 15 staff.
  • the development of the Career Ready Capability Framework, which represents the language we’ll use around employability.
  • The Career Ready Advantage scheme which rewards students for learning or life activities that improve their employability
  • An app which gamifies the Career Ready framework and constitutes a kind of reflective portfolio.
  • A curricular framework which we will use in our work with academic course.
  • The renovation of a student consulting space, at the heart of the campus.
  • A lot more besides, the topics of other posts

It’s a little weird to be honest, because we’re the belles of the ball at the moment, which is not normal for university careers practitioners. It is offering up a lot of great opportunities for research related to my doctoral studies (or not so related, but still interesting and purposeful). Again, the topics of other posts.

 

 

Reading, writing, reps: 20/02/17

Reading

With a bit of time before I start work on the final coursework component of my doctorate, I’ve been taking it easy on the reading. I’m reading around a couple of key areas:

  • Dialogical self, to make sure I’m up to speed for the rewrite of the chapter I’m co-authoring
  • Threshold concepts, which I have a feeling will form a cornerstone of my research.

Writing

Writing. At the same time, it’s one of my strongest strengths and weakest weaknesses. Once I get going I do well, but the getting going isn’t always easy. I’ve been making good progress in changing my habits and making small improvements. A couple of things I’ve been doing to help:

  • The 30 minute time periods of #readingwritingreps help by letting make incremental progress without feeling the need to sit down and write a whole paper in one sprint.
  • Similarly, the pomodoro technique helps me stay focused and mindful of how I’m spending my time.
  • I’m learning the value of generating text: reading notes, emails to my supervisor and peers, scribbles in my notebooks, these blog posts, and so on. Any text that can be used to contribute to papers and therefore save me time and effort later one. I’ve described it to someone as like making regular savings. Not to mention the value it has for consolidation of learning.
  • It’s occured to me several times that this blog could be used to much better effect for generating text, if I were to blog some key ideas or problems, share my essays, and just generally get more of my thoughts out on this platform.

REPS

Where the reading and writing can be a struggle, my exercise regime has become a real pleasure and I’m having no problems with compliance. It’s a rare day that I miss my daily goal of 30 minutes of exercise. I hit the gym about three days each week, bike to work about the same, hoist my kettlebell once or twice a week, swim once a week (just playing with my son, mostly, but occasionally I do a few laps), and use my stretchy bands every so often. The image above is my workout this evening with my 20kg kettlebell, and yesterday in the gym I did:

  • Barbell back squats: 80kg, 1-2-3/1-2-3/1-2-3
  • Bench press: 52.5kg, 1-2-3/1-2-3/1-2-3
  • Dumbbell row: 26kg, 5×10
  • Squats again, 60kg, 3×10
  • Incline bench, 40kg, 8/8/7

I’m really enjoying the lifting, I think because I’m not trying to follow a strict routine, such as Starting Strength. Rather, I’m following a set of principles that keeps me on a certain path and keeps me moving forward (putting more weight on the bar), while allowing me some freedom and variety.

I’m enjoying it so much, I’ve been toying with the idea of entering a powerlifting meet, as a challenge to myself and to give me motivation to train hard.

 

Reading, re-writing, reps: 12/02/17

READing and Writing

I’ve drafted my first ever academic publication and had my first ever experience of peer-review. The feedback was that we have some work to do. Not that our manuscript was bad, just that it’s focus wasn’t well matched with the intent of the book. After reading the feedback and considering how I’d go about revising our manuscript, which I think turned our pretty well and has something useful to say. I actually felt that it might be a better use of my time to rewrite the chapter from scratch and submit the manuscript for publication elsewhere. So while this is, on the face of it, a knock-back that entails a bit of work, I feel pretty positive about it.

REps

While reading and writing sides of this scheme are ebbing and flowing, I’ve been pretty consistent in getting my reps in. I’m riding my bike to work fairly regularly, hitting the gym three or four times a week, and getting in brief workouts at home with my kettle-bell. Not to mention visits to the pool or playground with my energetic three year old. Today’s workout:

  • Barbell squats: 72.5kg, 1-2-3/1-2-3/1-2-3
  • Bench press: 52.5kg, 1-2-3/1-2-3/1-2-3
  • Dumbell rows (superset with bench): 25kg, 10/10/10
  • Farmers walk: 30kg each hand, 5 trips of about 40 paces.

Reading, writing, reps: Waitangi Day edition

It’s both Waitangi Day and Bob Marley’s birthday. If I were in New Zealand I’d be enjoying a day off and hopefully getting some writing done. But here I am in Melbourne, so I’m at work. Nonetheless, I’ve made some good progress on a key project.

REading and writing

My supervisor and I a co-writing a chapter on Dialogical Self Theory in Career Education. My contribution is basically a potted-history of key approaches to career education: Cognitive Information Processing, DOTS, career-learning theory, and what I’ve termed dialogical career-learning theory. This last one is where Frans Meijers, Reinekke Lengelle and others have integrated Dialogical Self Theory into Laws’s career-learning theory, arguing that “the development of a career story must be understood not only as a cognitive learning process but as a dialogical learning process as well” (Meijers & Lengelle, 2012, p. 169).

We’ve completed a first draft and are now editing for cohesion. The last step will be an introduction and conclusion and then we’re done. All going well, this will be the first publication for me in this doctoral project.

REps

I enjoyed a morning in the gym yesterday. I have been trying a new rep scheme from this article by Dan John:

Do a single, rest a bit, do a double, rest a bit, then do a triple. That is six total reps and the quality should all be excellent. For a solid workout, run through this three times: 1-2-3-1-2-3-1-2-3.

Yesterday I did this with:

  • BB squats: 1,2,3 for 3 times around
  • Bench: 1,2,3 for 3 times around
  • Bent over barbell rows, 1,2,3 for 3 times around
  • Single arm landmine rows: 3×10

I also had a short ride on my new bike.

Read, write, reps: crisis writing edition

 

Reading and Writing

So a deadline sailed past me and I’m riding pretty high on the terror curve. I’m ostensibly coauthoring a chapter with my doctoral supervisor, but my imposter syndrome and procrastination monkey are ganging up on me.

I’m confident about my cognitive abilities; I know I can read and write well. It’s the doing it, or not, that is doing me in. It’s something I have to address, and soon. With a full-time job and a family that I want to be present for, I need to build some more sustainable habits.

REPS

It’s not all doom and gloom, however, as I’ve been pretty good on this side of the ledger. I had a good workout on the weekend:

  • Barbell squats: 72.5kg, 5/5/8
  • Bench press: 47.5kg, 5/5/12
  • Seated cable rows: a bunch
  • Close-grip bench press: 40kg, 12/12/10
  • Face pulls: a bunch

I’ve also been enjoying riding my new bike. The single speed can be hard work sometimes but somehow it’s a lot more fun than a geared bike. I got a pair of clipless pedals and some snazzy shoes to go with them, which has made my pedaling a little more efficient.

 

 

Reading, Writing, Reps; 24/01/17

My gym. 

I’ve been chugging along since my last post, but haven’t felt the need to blog every day as that would get awfully repetitive (more so than it is already).

REading and Writing

I’ve been continuing to edit a literature review of career education, alongside migrating my reference management from Paperpile to Zotero and then again to Citavi. I’m exploring Citavi and like what I see so far. It’s as much a knowledge manager as it is a reference manager. It seems to me to do in one app what I have been using two or three apps to do:

  • organise PDFs
  • maintain references
  • take notes on readings, including exporting highlights and notes from PDFs
  • organise and collate these notes into essay and article skeletons

It’s not perfect, particularly the citation download feature, but not so much as to be a deal breaker. I’m going to use it to read and draft an entire project so see how it goes.

Reps

In addition to gym visits and some kettlebell slinging, I’ve gone out and bought a new bike. I sold my comfortable but dorky and slow commuter on Gumtree and replaced it with a sporty single speed. I was a little unsure about getting a single speed, but a few test rides had me sold. I actually find it easier to ride than my old 8 speed, although hills can be work. Nonetheless, I see it as a good example of what Josh Hillis and Dan John call inefficient exercise, which they claim is fundamental for fat loss.

Today I was in the gym:

  • Barbell back squat: 70kg, 5/5/10
  • Standing barbell press: 32.5kg, 5/5/6; 20kg, 2×10

And that was it. Did I mention I follow a minimalist approach to strength training?

 

Reading, Writing, Reps, 14/01/17

Reading and writing

Although I didn’t do any actual doctoral reading or writing today, I did spend a good part of the day switching my reference management tool from Paperpile back to Zotero, so I’ll count it as meeting my goal. I found a reasonably efficient way to do export my .pdfs out of Paperpile and into Zotero, but it did require a fair bit of manual editing. I’ll write a post about why I made the switch back in the next week or so.

reps

A moderate intensity kettlebell day today, following Dan John’s creatively named Buttburner 4000. With my 20kg kettlebell:

  • 1 goblet squat, 1 Bulgarian goat-bag swing
  • 2 goblet squats, 2 BGB swings
  • 3 goblet squats, 3 BGB swings
  • 4 goblet squats, 4 BGB swings
  • 5 goblet squats, 5 BGB swings

All that is done without pause or putting the KB down. I did three rounds, for a total of 45 reps of each exercise. Just enough to get a light sweat up.

 

Reading, Writing, Reps: 09 to 13 Jan, 2017

Ricky Bruch

I’m not going to log my Reading, Writing, and Reps for each day, but rather write a summary of my week’s career education study and exercise efforts.

Reading and writing

I exceeded my 30 minute daily targets this week, by several hours each day. That’s actually kind of the point of having such a small target: if I’m able to sit down and commit to 30 minutes, I’m likely to continue beyond it if I get into the flow.

My reading and writing went together this week, as I’m revising a literature review on the pedagogy of career education that I wrote for one of the taught courses preceeding my candidature. While I’m reasonably happy with it, there were a couple of gaps and flaws because parts were quite rushed. So I’ve been going back and re-reading a few sources that I glossed over a little and re-writing the a few sections. In particular, I’ve been:

  • shoring up my discussion of the statistical findings in the career intervention effectiveness literature, (such as Oliver & Spokane, 1988; Whiston, Sexton, & Lassof, 1998; Brown & Ryan Krane, 2000; and Brown et al., 2003). Stats isn’t my strong suit so I need to take extra care when writing about quantitative research.
  • going into more depth about the “post-DOTS” career learning theory of Bill Law (1996a, 1999), particularly how it represented a development of the DOTS model.
  • linking Bill Law’s career learning to the more recent career learning theories of Frans Miejers and his colleagues (Miejers & Lengelle, 2015; Winters, Miejers, Lengelle, & Baert, 2011), particularly with regard to their incorporation of Hubert Herman’s Dialogical Self Theory (Hermans & Kempen, 1993).

Reps

Here are my workouts since starting this resolution:

  • 05/01/17: Barbell squats, bench press, dumbbell rows
  • 06/01/17: Severe DOMS after first day back, so just playing in the pool  with my wee boy and lots of stretching throughout the day
  • 07/01/17: Barbell press, deadlift, ring rows, dumbbell clean and press
  • 08/01/17: Bike ride
  • 09/01/17: Kettlebell swings, band pull-aparts
  • 10/01/17: Barbell squats, bench press, dumbell rows, push-up position planks, and cycling to and from work
  • 11/01/17: Kettlebell swings, push ups
  • 12/01/17: Didn’t meet the goal today
  • 13/01/17: Barbell press, deadlift, dumbbell clean and press

 

Reading, Writing, and Reps

As is the tradition at the beginning of a new year, I’ve made a set of resolutions to help me live life a little better this year than I did last year.

The rules are simple. Each day, 30 minutes each of Reading, Writing, and Reps.

Reading

This will be mostly academic articles, chapters, and books related to my doctoral studies, with a good complement of blog posts and books on academic writing, research. I hope to get a little recreational reading in there somewhere.

Writing

The biggest challenge for me in my doctoral studies so far has been building and maintaining healthy writing habits. Academically, I’ve been a lifelong crisis writer and really need to make a change if I’m to survive the next few years.

Reps

I spent more time out of the gym than in it in 2016 and want to get back to some exercise habits. I’ll be basing my workouts on Dan John’s writing, particularly Easy Strength, with its focus on consistent, moderate effort with barbells, kettlebells, and bodyweight, rather than screaming intensity. For the purpose of this resolution, “reps” refers to any kind of physical exercise, not just weights.

I’ve also been trying to figure out what to do with this blog. A Reading, Writing, and Reps journal might be the way for me to ease back into it.