Ladies and Gentlemen embarking on a degree, masters or PhD course.
Use a citation manager.
The benefits of using a citation manager have been proven by academics the world over. The rest of my advice about what are useful tools is somewhat subjective and possibly sub-discipline specific. But trust me about the citation manager. For academia, it’s more essential than sunscreen.
A Citation and Reference manager
A program which sorts out all your citations, stores them in a logical fashion and automatically creates a nice list of all the papers you’ve referenced. Without a citation manager, that 50 reference list will become an unwieldy liability and you will never remember where that quote was from. The best citation managers work in your browser (as that’s where we get papers from these days); work with latex and word; are easy to use; are free. Zotero fulfils all these criteria, but other citation managers are available. Opinions vary on which one citation manager to use – see for instance thesis whisperer on this subject.
AN INTERNET/DISTRACTION BLOCKER
Most people, at some point, will need one of these. They block either all internet access, or particular sites which you specify (facebook for instance….). The better ones work within your browser (I don’t need to tell you to use a decent browser, do I? Chrome, Firefox. Not IE.) Ones that work from the computer itself tend to kill the proxy server, so do beware.
A really good mail client
A good email client will save your time. Time searching for email addresses, typing out things, scrolling up emails to check what other people said. And all other email clients seem clunky and difficult compared to google mail. It will send mail as any other mail address that you have access to easily. The user interface is so neat and the ‘conversation’ ordering of emails is really useful. There is almost unlimited space. I’ve never found anything to touch it, though thunderbird is good if you really like your email on your computer rather than your browser.
A file syncing system
Before Dropbox, I used to email myself files that I wanted to use in other locations. Other people use usb drives, or other unreliable systems. Dropbox solved all that. Dropbox is a way of keeping key files (or all your files if you can acquire enough space) perfectly synced between all your computers (home, uni, etc.) and also your mobile devices. It doesn’t get upset with latex files or other non-standard file formats either. It just sits unobtrusively in your home directory, being awesome. (BTW, It’s not often that I say that Google does something badly, but Google Drive is terrible compared to the elegant seamlessness that is Dropbox.)
A PLACE FOR YOUR NOTES
There’s so much information when doing a PhD. Oodles of the stuff. You find yourself making so many notes. 6 months later, you’ve probably forgotten that you ever made those notes. If you can remember you made them, where are they…? A note book feels nice and old-school, but isn’t searchable. Simple text files can be good, but are a bit limiting. Your own wiki is a nice way to keep your notes, but is a bit public. Evernote is great for this. It’s searchable and it syncs across all your devices and you can put in tables and images. Google Keep is apparently a fair alternative. I don’t use Evernote for to-do lists, I prefer the calendar integration of the simple google tasks, which works with google calendar. But for all those bits and pieces that need to be remembered, Evernote is it.
A command based plotting, mapping and Data crunching tool
By that, I mean not a point and click. So not excel. Sometimes, excel is necessary, but for processing large amounts of data, it’s a dog. R, Matlab, NCL, IDL, Python are all popular here. For me, R or python are the tools of choice for starting out. They’re both free, so you can install them on as many machines as you like. IDL and Matlab are popular, but really expensive. R and python are also well documented – R in particular is brilliantly documented. If you have a question, someone has already asked something relevant on stackoverflow (which is also awesome).
A quick way to look at netcdf files
Big maps and climate model output tends to come as .nc files, and often you want to have a quick look at them before you do anything else. For that, there’s XCONV, Panoply and ferret, more or less in that order.
I really think that these tools make research significantly easier. It’s up to you, of course. But trust me about the citation manager.
What, you want more? Sure! Alyssa Goodman’s software ‘Desk’ is well worth a browse to see what she uses and recommends. She’s particularly partial to Tripit. Insistent even.