15 Tools to make University Easier

Subtitle: Things that Universities should tell you about, but often don’t.

I’m in my 6th year at university now, and over the course of it I’ve assembled my suite of tools that maximize my productivity. When I meet people from outside of Computer Science, I’m always amazed that they haven’t heard of so many of these; so I’ve been inspired to create a list of things that I find really useful and hope you will too. If there’s anything you feel I’ve missed out – post it in the comments!

Collaboration Tools

Chances are, at university you’ll be doing some group work. You’ll spend ages trying to find a meeting time that works for everyone, someone won’t turn up, and at the end of the meeting you’ll wonder why you bothered having it in the first place. Unless – you use the internet to collaborate online, synchronously or asynchronously and minimize meetings whilst keeping everyone on the same page. Here are some things that can help.

  1. Online calendars. Google Calendar allows you to share with others – when you’re trying to coordinate your schedule for group projects or voluntary work you’ll be grateful for this.
  2. Google docs. Again, great for collaboration. Also, check out the widgets in the spreadsheets. You can create the awesome gapminder charts as seen in this great video from TED. It’s easier than making your own wiki (but that’s an option too).
  3. Google Wave. This will revolutionize communication and collaboration. It’s hard to get in right now but put out the word you’re interested and hopefully when someone you know gets an invite they’ll pass it along to you. If you need it now, LifeHacker has a list of alternatives here.

Organizational Tools

Poor organization is a big time sink. Staying on top of things will make your life much easier, promise! Here are some things that can help.

  1. Zotero is awesome for keeping track of your references and things you’ve read. Universities will often tell you to use Endnote or Ref Works because it’s “free”, but it’s not! When you graduate you’ll have to either find an alternative or loose everything. Zotero is free as in “free and open source”. And free as in cost (unless you end up needing extra storage).
  2. Todo Lists. There are loads of great, free tools out there to help you manage what you need to get done – Remember The Milk is a popular one. I find it helpful to set recurring daily tasks such as “Read a paper” so that I stay on top of what’s happening in my field.
  3. Open Office. Need an office suite? Open Office is a great substitute for MS Office and what’s more – it’s free (and open source). Whatever you’re using, though, learn what a cross-reference is and use it – once you know it, it’ll save you time and you won’t hand anything in with two “Figure 3″‘s.
  4. Keynote. If you’re giving presentations on a mac, don’t use Powerpoint! Keynote makes much nicer slides. I’ve spent too much time at university sitting through bad presentations loosing the will to live. Don’t do that to your peers. Take the time to read Presentation Zen, buy Keynote, and start impressing people. Given the low bar, it won’t even be that hard.

It’s What You Know – Information Gathering

I know, it can be hard just to keep up with the stuff we have to do for class etc. However, dedicating a little time every day to keeping on top of what’s going on will pay dividends in terms of being better informed, having more to talk about, and more ideas when put on the spot to think of one. I.e. instead of spending a week before your job interview reading all the career advice you can get your hands on, why not read a little bit a week? Rather than spending days thinking of a project for class, why not spend a little time keeping up with your field and keeping a list of ideas that you’d work on, given time?

  1. Blogs are an easy way to keep up with what people in your field are doing, and often people blog before they publish. What about other topics you’re interested in? Blogs can be a valuable resource for career advice or other fields that you’re interested in. Keep track of them on Google Reader or similar.
  2. Amazon. The Amazon recommendation system is phenomenal; it will recommend good books for you on the basis of what you’ve read (and will say what it’s basing it on). Read around your subject, and read books that aren’t strictly relevant – they may be really useful! Recently I’ve read Freakonomics, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, and Presentation Zen. None of them are particularly relevant to what I work on but they’ve all been helpful in their own way. You have time – if you make it – reading a chapter a day won’t take that long and will get you through a lot of books.
  3. TED Talks. These are by leaders in their field and are under 20 minutes. There’s no excuse not to find time to watch some of these. Go to www.ted.com and get watching! Particularly good ones. – Hans Rosling on stats that blow your mind, Ken Robinson on how education kills creativity. and Clay Shirky on social media making history.
  4. Are you in business but not reading Business Week, or The Economist? Are you in Science and not reading Nature? Why not? Are you reading something else instead?
  5. Google Scholar. Searches academic papers, includes the ones hosted on researchers personal websites etc so you can get draft versions before they’re published. It searches the portals like ACM and IEE, so there’s no need to visit them all individually. Also, you can import references from Google Scholar straight into Zotero.
  6. Twitter. Keep up with leaders in your field and other people you find interesting in 140 characters or less. You don’t have to tell people what you’re having for lunch, and you can talk about what you’re working on, and ask questions. I find Twitter particularly useful for crowd-sourcing the news that’s worth reading through services like TweetMeme, and following people whose opinion I respect.

It’s Who You Know – Managing Your Online Presence

Accept that when you apply for a job (or even just go on a date) you’re going to be Googled. What will they find? Your Facebook summary with the profile picture of you getting drunk last weekend? Or have you built up a professional profile that will show up as well? Facebook is fine – although I would rethink that photo…

  1. Brazen Careerist and LinkedIn. Set up profiles and start building your contact list and recommendations now, not when you need a job.
  2. Do you have your own blog? WordPress is easy to use and has some lovely designs. Blogger is good too. If you’re a grad student especially, it’s a great way to share what you’re working on. If you’re a student group, it’s a great idea to use a blog to keep in touch with your members. Check out our blog for uOttawaWISE as an example.
  3. Twitter (again) – what are you sharing on Twitter? Useful and interesting articles relevent to your industry? Good for you!

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