When I first commenced my studies as an undergraduate student, I did everything manually. I thought that we had come a long way since people submitted hand-written theses and kept printed out copies of every article they referenced in their bibliography. Wrapping up my PhD thesis, just over a decade since I first set foot in a university lecture hall, I have now come to learn how much further technology has advanced since I first started. But I am also surprised to learn how many people are still stuck in the dark ages.
Having just wrapped up my second and final Mendeley workshop for postgraduate students this year, I thought it would be an opportune time to write a post about further aspects of our research that can be automated using modern-day technology. Given that many academics are themselves still doing things manually, it is not surprising that so many students are also wasting time completing tasks over the course of a few days or weeks that can be completed in less than a minute with a click of a button.
In this article, I will discuss some of the aspects of their work research students can automate. As you read, do bear in mind that I am not a tech-head, but simply someone who has an interest in increasing my own productivity as a researcher and seeing others do the same.
Let’s get into it, shall we?
Referencing is a no-brainer. I wrote a ±30 000 word master’s research report with 7 pages of references in my bibliography. It took me an entire day to fix these up before submission. My PhD document has 45 pages of references! Imagine how long that would have taken me?!
You especially don’t want to be stuck with references if you only have a few days to submit. Besides, if you only have a few days left, you certainly want to be focusing on more important aspects of your document than referencing.
There are a number of tools that can help you automate your referencing. The two most popular free ones are Mendeley and Zotero. They are relatively easy to use and there are many online tools that can help you learn how to use them. I have presented a workshop on how to use Mendeley, you can access it here when you have time.
There are also paid tools. The most notable being EndNote. Have a look at this article, if you wish to compare the various reference managers. Whichever one you wish to use, stick with it. It is life-changing!
I did a coursework master’s while working full-time, and if you’re anything like I was at the time, your only interest would have been making sure you got to class to get your notes, submit assignments and made sure you were ready for exams.
I didn’t really think about engaging beyond was what immediately important to finish my degree. However, as a presently active researcher and teacher, I often find myself going back to the course outlines my lecturers provided back then and looking for the notes about what they said.
Luckily, I had the foresight to use my Samsung tablet (which had a stylus or s-pen) to take notes. I didn’t realise it at the time, but it was probably the smartest thing I could have done. What this means is that I have access to all my electronic class notes, and because I dated them accurately, I can easily match them to the dates in my course outlines (which I also have stored in an online folder).
The point is, you don’t know where life is gonna take you and when you might need to refer to those old notes and readings. So try and digitise them as far as possible and file them in a way that you can find them in the future.
There are a number of tools that you can use for this purpose. You can use Notion (which is free and what I am currently using to do my weekly planning), as well as Evernote, which has a paid subscription and for some reason does not work as well as it used to. You can also use note-taking apps on your Android or Apple device. Although I would urge you to use tools that can be used across devices (of different types) and which sync to a cloud, so you don’t lose your work.
For a longer list of apps as well as a discussion on their pros and cons, you can consult this article.
I have personally never collected qualitative data, but have heard many stories of the hours researchers spend transcribing their interviews. Luckily, there are a number of apps that can help out with this too; unless you have research funds to pay someone to do the transcriptions for you.
Ah, data analysis. Probably one of the most important steps in your research process. It always surprises me to learn how many people are using Microsoft Excel for this. While Excel is great, many people do not use it to its full potential and they consequently might as well be doing stuff on paper.
Luckily, there are a variety of apps that can help you with your data analysis and that are more user-friendly and intuitive than Excel in relation to the available tools.
For quantitative researchers, some of these include Stata (my personal favourite), R, SPSS, and Eviews, to name a few (there are MANY more). Some of them are free and some of them are paid, but the upside is that once you know how to use these, you can add them to your CV as one of your technical skills. Some jobs require it. You can have a look at Statistics South Africa’s vacancies, for instance. They will always list competency in SAS as a requirement for their technical jobs.
For an overview of some of the qualitative tools, consult this article.
Last, but not least is automating your document processing. For many people, this might be taking it a bit far, because the only document processing tool many of us have known is Microsoft Word. However, there are other ways to create documents.
One such way, that is very popular amongst people who make extensive use of mathematical notation, is Latex. Learning how to use Latex involves a huge learning curve and there are many applications that you can use to create Latex documents. Some are online and others desktop-based, some free and others paid. These include Overleaf and ShareLatex. Have a look at this video to get an idea of what it’s all about.
Latex is an excellent tool if you are writing a large document, which can often cause Microsoft Word to malfunction, or if you have a lot of equations in your document. There are a number of templates available as well to create CVs and other types of ordinary documents. It’s worth a look, trust me.
If you are writing a less technical document and just want a tool that can organise a large document such as a thesis or book, there is also Scrivener. This tool allows you to break your text into bite-size pieces, taking the intimidation out of a 100-page plus Word document.
There are a number of downsides, of course, to making use of the tools mentioned above. The most notable being that using many of these tools involves a steep learning curve. However, once you know something, you know it and you cannot UNknow it! So if you have time (being at the beginning of your degree generally qualifies as ‘having time’), do try and set aside about 30 minutes a day to get to know the in’s and out’s of these tools.
Give some of these tools and try and see which ones work for you. You don’t need to use all of them, but some of them will undoubtedly make your work as a researcher easier.