Inside the toolbox

Before I started college, I worked a job most people don’t know about.  I started leaving it off my resume years ago (not leaving it off, but I stop my work history when I started college so it’s not on there). When I was in high school my plan was to be an electrician. So, I learned quickly you had to have the right tool for the job. While it was possible to rewire a phone jack with a pocket knife (trust me, I’ve had to do it) it is a lot easier and quicker to get the job done with the proper set of Kline tools laid out in front of you.

As an academic, I’ve not needed my toolbag that often. Well, my background did come in handy when the department copier started jamming on a regular basis, but as I said, not often.  Today, I use a tool set of a different type. GEARS got me thinking about this with his post about tools of the trade.  I, like him hope to upgrade computer systems in the next few months. So, I’ve been thinking about what I would need to load onto the new machine.

This is the list I’ve developed so far:


  • Microsoft Office – It seems most academics use some variation of LaTeX.  Yet, Office has always worked for what I need, so until my needs expand to need something more, I’m going to stick with it.  Typically, I use Word and Excel quite often (okay, read constantly).  PowerPoint I use whenever I need to update lecture notes or something.  So, I could quite easily get away with using the Home and Student edition. But, every so often, there’s something I need Publisher for as well. So, especially with academic pricing, I will probably go ahead and get the Professional edition. 
  • Adobe Photoshop – Okay, so this isn’t exactly academic software, but it is something that I use quite often.  I developed the hobby of photography over the course of grad school. I’ll probably do a post about it later, but suffice to say, every picture of mine has to be converted from RAW format and minor editing if nothing else.  This is my tool for that job.
  • Mendeley Desktop – This is my citation management system. The software is free, and it comes with a basic level of online backup.  This can be upgraded for a fairly nominal fee for more online storage space when the need arises. 
  • iTunes – I admit, not actually productivity. But, it is for me. Music is in my blood as much as academia is, and for the same reason.  My uncle was the Chair of the Department of Music and Theater my alma mater when I was growing up. I’ve been going to live performances as long as I can remember.  Also, thanks to him, I have acquired a massive music collection.  While sometimes it can be distracting, if you have the right style playing, and can easily lend itself to the background and make the workday more pleasant.  

Internet and Communication

  • Chrome – What can I say? It’s a Google browser. It also has quite a few powerful apps and plugins which make life very easy.  For example, with cloud print, I can print something from my netbook, and it’s waiting on my desk when I get back to the office. You can sync bookmarks, add-ons, and even browsing history across multiple machines. 
    • Add-ins:
      • Mail Checker – Displays on my browser toolbar when I get a new email.
      • Calendar Checker – Displays the time to my next calendar event.  
      • TweetDeck – Just like TweetDeck the desktop application.  Allows you to post to Twitter and Facebook at the same time.  Also manages multiple Twitter accounts (which I have).
  • Trillian – This is an application for instant messaging.  Never heard of it? That’s okay.  I’m sure you’ve heard of GTalk, AIM, MSN, YIM, and many others including Facebook Chat.  Trillian integrates all these clients into one contact list. This has been a lifesaver for me. I have one contact that uses AIM. I have a few that use only Google Talk. I have quite a few who use Facebook Chat. If I had separate applications running for each client, my computer would start pouring black smoke. They have a free version, but it is well worth the $15 to buy the pro version. One other feature? You can log in from your desktop, laptop, and smart phone at the same time.  If you’re currently using one of them, it will only notify that machine.  If you’re not active on any of them, it will alert all of them. Never miss a collaboration chat again.
  • Thunderbird – This is the Mozilla email application. I’ve just started using it instead of Outlook, and while it doesn’t have all the flashy features, it is solid for what I wanted. It allows me to manage massive amounts of email AND it will sync contacts with my Gmail account. 


  • SPSS – They tried changing the name to PASW, but it was always be SPSS to me.  I guess that was a good thing, since now apparently they have changed it back to SPSS for everyone. I use the Grad Pack, and it does everything I’ve ever asked it to do.  
  • OurStat/Excel – This one doesn’t have a link, and you can’t buy it anywhere.  But, I use it quite often, so I feel compelled to mention it. Back in 1992, Dr. Jan Mabie developed a DOS based analysis package.  In 2008, he finally updated it to Windows, kinda. It is now based in Excel and runs off micros, but if you’re looking for a quick estimate before coding the data in SPSS, this will do it without a problem.  Working with these workbooks also taught me a lot of formulas which can be used in Excel, so oftentimes, I don’t even have to run the “software.”

Escape from the office!

I was very lucky when I was going through my program. I had an office (at least most of the time, there was one semester of transition where I worked out of the conference room).  But the point was, I had a home base.  I had a place where when I got there, I knew it was time to work.  And it was wonderful, most of the time.

There was one slight problem.  This office was a windowless six feet by twelve feet, and I shared it with two other people, plus who ever had stopped by to hang out or for tutoring.  If someone was meeting with one of the other GAs, I was in the way. I was distracted.  I couldn’t get my work done.  So, office or not, I had to find another location. It turns out, it was one of the best things that happened.

Even if I had been alone in “The Bunker” as we called it, I still would not have been as productive as was necessary sometimes.  So, what’s a deadline-pending grad student to do? Unless you’re running code or models and just HAVE to have your office computer, escape.  Now, I know not everyone has an official office.  But everyone has SOMETHING that is their office.  It’s where you do most of your work. It may be a spare bedroom, a corner of your bedroom, or your kitchen table. The principle is still the same. Change your surroundings.

It doesn’t have to be drastic. Sometimes, I’d go use a study nook on another floor of my building.  Our library had some pretty nice study rooms that I frequented quite often.  But even if your school doesn’t have those resources, there are alternatives.

There are very few college towns I’ve seen without a coffee shop. Milledgeville was actually one of them for a long time, but that has long since changed.  Now, in the downtown area, there are three different ones and another on the north side of town. My personal favorite (yes, I’m giving them a free endorsement) is Blackbird.  It’s small, local, and was the first to venture downtown.  As such, it’s a staple of downtown culture. They have a bit of everything, from students, professors, administration, to other downtown merchants. They have caffeine.  They have comfortable couches.  They have free WiFi.  What more could a nerd want?

There is one other place that I really enjoyed escaping to for study time, or now, research and grading time.  I am obviously a self-described nerd.  But sometimes, I feel the need to get outdoors. When this happens, I head to the local park.  The Oconee River Greenway is along the Oconee River, has walking trails, and plenty of tables and benches to sit and read.  On thing that is missing at this park, and most parks, is WiFi.  But with 3G technology becoming more and more popular, it’s becoming less of an issue. My netbook comes with 100 MB per month free.  Now, that’s not a lot.  But WiFi is so popular, I don’t have to use my 3G that often. Most of the time, I just venture to the Greenway when I have something printed that needs to be read.

I know every situation is different, but this has worked for me.  I used these escapes to be able to refocus on my work, instead of people constantly stopping by to talk, or for tutoring (after I completed my weekly hours, of course).  It was also amazing how many times an new location provided a new perspective on whatever was my task for the day. Sometimes a quick lap around the building, downtown, or the Greenway got the blood flowing again, woke me up, and gave me a chance to thing about what needed to be done without a blank screen glaring at me.