I’m finally wrapping up my program, and even now, my system for effective and efficient study is evolving. Here are some things that I wish I did from day one:
Local Search So many times while writing, I’d have certain phrases or snippets in mind, but no idea where they came from. I installed a local search engine (Google Desktop in my case), and those callbacks became trivial. I’m sure this helped me pick up points in exams and other time-sensitive assignments. This tool let me search downloaded documents as well as those I’ve written.
Reference Snippets Now that I’m getting better at this, I save every document that I’ve archived with a corresponding text file that I can use for referencing. So, for so_and_so.pdf, I’d have so_and_so.txt with “20100315 http://resource.com/so_and_so.pdf”. That would allow me to easily make reference to that document at any time without figuring out where I got it. There are some advanced tools that essentially create a database, instead of my simplistic system — check out Bibtex and the bibliography functions in OpenOffice.
Physical Filing I ended up with a lot more hardcopy than I expected. Since I frequently annotate as I read, it also became important to be able to quickly search and recall paper copies. I ended up building hanging folders for each type of document (my essays, my papers, assigned reading, misc. articles, federal standards.) At the top of each document, I’d put the week that it goes with (s5_w2) and a circled ‘R’ to indicate that it was read. Finally, any particular notes or comments on the paper as a whole. This made flipping through the hanging files relatively painless.
Digital Filing It took me a couple of tries to get things how I like them. I finally ended up with three major filing categories: papers directly from the program, federal standards, and miscellaneous papers. Program papers were filed by seminar, and then their given names self-sorted chronologically. I have a ton of federal papers, so they each went into a directory named for their agency (DoD, DISA, NIST, etc.). The miscellaneous papers just went into one big directory with a seminar prefix (s4-) to give a rough estimate of when I archived that particular document. This isn’t a great system, but the local search still helped my find the right stuff.
Backups There isn’t much that’s more worrisome than loosing work that has cost so many painful hours. I’ve got a good backup system at home, but it was nice to supplement it with service from Dropbox. They offer 2GB of free backup, and you can put multiple computers on one account. That just auto-magically mirrors your work everywhere. So, not only is it backed up, but it is easily accessible when not at home.
Word Processing It’s important to have tidy and attractive papers. Over time, I became fairly competent with styles and templates, but my advice would be to have those skills ready before you get too deep into the program. There’s enough writing that you can really pick up some time by having the right techniques prepared. I’m currently interested in Latex, but I think a standard processor like OpenOffice should be just fine.
So, that’s it — a quick summary of things that really made my work at Norwich somewhat easier. I really believe that organization is the key to a less painful graduate experience. I’m not sure I’d ever want to do it again, but if I did, I sure would want to know these things going in.
Let me know if you have comments or more advice to add.