Over the past few years, I’ve been mentoring current Princeton graduate students through the GradFUTURES Mentor Collective. While all my mentees have various career aspirations — both in and out of the academy — one thing has been recurrent. All seek guidance on how to complete the most crucial task of graduate school: the dissertation. While I have a forthcoming article about this due to be published in PMLA, I figured it might be worthwhile to resume my blog posts with a bit of advice about some digital tools and the accompanying strategies that helped me complete my own dissertation. While I wouldn’t say it was perfect (I did a lot of revisions when it came time to publish it as a monograph), it did allow me to win the Peter Lang Young Scholars Competition, as well as get two postdoc offers and invitations to two campus visits for tenure-track positions. While I ultimately did not stay in academia, many of these tools have helped me in my non-academic work as well, so I hope they will be useful to more than just my mentees.
This is an obvious one, of course. Everyone nowadays seems to be aware that citation softwares such as Zotero (but this is by far not the only one available) are time savers. That said, I’ve noticed that many do not use them. In my case, I started using it later than I should have, once I had a complete draft of the dissertation. When I realized what I was missing by not using a citation software, I meticulously reread the draft and input each source manually (or using the browser connector if possible). While this tool might have better served me earlier in the process, I found that rereading the draft I had with citations in mind was actually a useful exercise. This allowed me not only to streamline my citation process, but also to evaluate how I was using citations in the work and if each reference was really pulling its weight. Furthermore, when the time came to revise the dissertation into a book and my publisher required a different citation style (Harvard rather than MLA), changing this was as easy as a click of a few buttons!
I’m lucky that my friend and former colleague suggested Scrivener early on in my writing process. While I had been used to drafting everything in Microsoft Word, Scrivener allowed me to focus on the essential — outlining and getting words down. How? Well, first off, it was a fantastic tool for outlining. By organizing my work in its online binder, I was able to determine as many subsections that would allow me to make my arguments across my five chapters, while also uploading and classifying my digital sources. Scrivener’s split screen option then allowed me to draft each of these micro units with my sources right there, all in one window. This was groundbreaking for my process! For each section, I would first give myself a target number of words, then go from there. With no need for formatting and no pressure of perfecting citations and footnotes (I could include them, but didn’t need to divert from my main tasks to reformat everything — Microsoft is so bad with formatting in my opinion!), my mind was freed up to focus on what I was actually saying. When I reached my target number of words and was happy with the draft, I could easily export it and then assemble entire chapters in a Word document to send to my advisor. While once I had the Word documents, I abandoned Scrivener, I suspect there might also have been a way to continue using this tool for the rest of the process. Indeed, now that I am working on my second academic project, I intend to use Scrivener the whole way through!
You might have heard of the pomodoro technique, a tool that does not need to be digital but does allow you to ensure you don’t get too engrossed in your work to take a short break and stretch your legs. For me, this was a big problem and when I learned about this technique, I immediately looked for an app that would allow me to put it into practice. I found Pomotodo. This (mobile or desktop) app combines the power of a to-do list with the pomodoro technique, allowing you to log 25 minute work sessions on any item in your list, then suggesting (but not forcing you to take) a 5 minute break. The app allows you to record very granular details about what you did in the work session, and I found that including multiple smaller, but specific subtasks for each larger objective I had (for instance, not just dissertation chapters, but also subparts) allowed me to ensure that I made the most of each 25 minute interval. Once you have logged a sufficient amount of work, the analytics available on the app can also provide insight into your work process. I, for instance, learned that I was most productive on writing tasks in the morning and that I would spend the whole day on lesson planning if I let myself, even when all that time wasn’t really necessary. The data visualizations helped me realize how I could make myself work more efficiently. While I no longer use this tool, it was very useful when I was juggling teaching, research, and the job market and the more I used it, the less I needed it.
While I started using Trello as a collaborative tool for the Oulipo Archival Project, I quickly realized that it was the ideal free tool for me to keep track of all my varied projects and deadlines. When I learned many years after completing my dissertation about the Google Drive integration, I realized just how much more powerful this tool could be, especially for my work at SAE Institute or Crimson Education where we work entirely in the Drive. I use Trello as an interactive to-do list, with the lists being categories of work (I have “academia,” “consulting,” and “personal” at the moment, but I believe at the time I had “dissertation,” “teaching,” “job market,” “articles,” and “conferences”), with each card on the list being one project, and with each card containing relevant notes, links, and to-do lists. This is a tool I still use today in all aspects of my life, whether collaborative or not. For instance, my husband and I have a shopping list Trello, and I even have one for my baby!!
These are just a few of the tools I remember using to improve my dissertation work, but this list is clearly not exhaustive. What tools did you use to streamline your research, teaching, or even your work beyond the academy? Leave a comment below! I’d love to learn more!