I have been thinking for several years that I should put together a series of blog posts about some of the tools, applications, and computer programs that I use in my workflow. Some of these I began using when I was a graduate student, and others I have picked up more recently.
I wanted to initially do this to share these tools with our graduate students at the University of Minnesota. It seems crazy if you say it to a graduate student, but a person in academia never has any more time than she does as a graduate student; thus making it a perfect time to learn new skills and develop excellent habits. Sharing these ideas on this blog is even better. Perhaps others can weigh in and offer alternatives or (frankly) better ideas than what I posit here.
According to Wikipedia, a “life hack is any productivity trick, shortcut, skill, or novelty method to increase productivity and efficiency.” The tools I will write about have made my work and research life easier and more productive and thus I have dubbed them “research hacks”. I hope they do the same for you.
The first type of application that I wanted to write about is a feedreader. This may seem an odd choice for the initial research hack, especially given my love of R and RStudio, but I think it is apropos. Reading research and staying abreast of current work is the lifeline of academics and researchers. Feedreaders make this easier.
In a nutshell, feedreaders scan websites for new information and then present that new information in digestible chunks, often aggregating the feeds from many websites into one application. Imagine a single “journal” that showed you all of the abstracts from the journals that you read! Not only that, but it also could show you “abstracts” of any blog entries for the blogs that you read. And “abstracts” of the major news stories from the newspapers you read.
There are several options available for a feedreader depending on the device/computer system that you use. While I don’t endorse one over any other, I will tell you what I use. (If I don’t there will be questions, and it may give you a place to start if this kind of tool is new to you.) On my Mac, I use the program Vienna. On my iPad, which is where I do most of my browsing and blog reading, I use Flipboard.
Once you have a feedreader that you like, you can enter in new subscriptions. These are just website or blog URLs. If the website has a feed, the reader will detect it and add the website to your subscriptions. Then, anytime you open the reader, it will alert you as to whether the website or blog has a new post, which you can then read.
Which websites or blogs should you subscribe to? This is a matter of personal taste and also, for researchers, coverage. Onlinemathdegrees.com published a list of 100 statistics sites that might be a good place to start. Below, I list a few subscriptions that I have:
arXiv.org: Open access to 838,346 e-prints in Physics, Mathematics, Computer Science, Quantitative Biology, Quantitative Finance and Statistics
Coolness Graphed: Various bar plots of what is cool
Flowing Data: A what’s what of data viz
PhD Comics: It is funny and most PhD students (and faculty) can relate
R-Bloggers: An aggregator for several blogs about R posts
I also subscribe to blogs written by students and friends, blogs that I find interesting (e.g., The Long and Short of it All: A Dachshund Dog News Magazine), blogs that I find funny or creative (McSweeney’s), aggregators about things I like (e.g., books, design, gardening), and pretty much anything else I want to keep tabs on. I wish more journals employed feeds so that I could keep up with them that way.