Tech Savvy: Apps for Grad Students


I have a deep, dark secret, especially for someone in an English department: I love technology.  No, seriously.  I don’t think you understand.  I love technology so, so much.  In fact, I’m almost ashamed (okay, I am definitely ashamed) to admit to how many gadgets I own.  There’s not a single room in my house that doesn’t have some kind of high-tech gizmo in it.  And even worse–I’m an early adopter. 

That’s why this recent article/video about must-have apps for graduate students piqued my interest.  I subscribe to the “work smarter and harder” mentality, so I’m always sniffing out new software that can help make my life easier.  As any graduate student will tell you, we have less than no free time, so anything that can help squeak out a few extra hours for a Game of Thrones marathon extra dissertation research is fine by me. Apps have quickly become the most affordable and convenient option for streamlining graduate work, but they aren’t always a perfect solution.  The biggest problem is that there are millions of them and most aren’t free.  As a poor doctoral student, it’s hard to justify spending $30 on five PDF readers only to find that none works.  That’s why I was so excited about The Chronicle’s article; I figured that I’d stumbled across a veritable treasure trove of information.

Unfortunately, that wasn’t quite the case.  Though the piece pinpoints a few fantastic, must-have applications–Notability and GoogleDocs are especially great–the article and accompanying video are pretty light on the suggestions.  Thus, I thought I’d continue the discussion and share some of the apps I find indispensable.  Here are some that I’ve integrated into my daily workflow:


1. GoodReader: Having tried at least six different PDF management apps, this is my absolute favorite. If you convert your PDFs to OCR copies using Adobe Acrobat or a copy machine, it’s even better. GoodReader lets you manage large numbers of PDFs by sorting them into folders, highlight and annotate documents, add long notes, the whole nine yards. Even better–your annotations are formatted beautifully.  I’ve tried other mark-up software where you basically use your finger like a pen, and all of your notes end up so messy.  GoodReader helps you keep your notations legible, and you can share annotated documents quickly and easily.

2. Pages & Keynote: These are hands down the most powerful apps for your iPad. Pages is as robust as Word, and it’s really easy to use.  As for Keynote, it’s now the only thing I use for presentations.  It absolutely blows PowerPoint out of the water.  I mean, honestly…look how pretty it is: 

Keynote for iOS

Keynote for iOS

You don’t have to be a graphic designer to make your slideshows look professional anymore.  Bonus fun thing: you can pair Keynote on iOS with the free Keynote Remote app to control your presentations from your phone.  Let me tell you, it’s refreshing to lecture without being tethered to a podium.

3. Evernote: A great snippet management tool that works like an extension of your short-term memory. It stores notes, websites, and images in the cloud, and it integrates with lots of other apps.  This is especially great if you’re constantly trying to compile information on the go.  I use Evernote pretty much exclusively on my iPhone, but I hear that their website is super robust, too.

4. Dropbox: A cloud storage system that works much like GoogleDrive, DropBox lets you drag-and-drop files easily and sync them without fuss. I store everything from student papers to my dissertation chapters there with room to spare.  Pro tip: every summer, DropBox has an online scavenger hunt that lets you earn extra free storage space for every clue you solve.

5. Feedly: A replacement for the now-defunct GoogleReader, you can use Feedly to amalgamate posts from your favorite websites one simple place. I use it to pull articles from The Chronicle and Inside Higher Ed, and I subscribe to my areas of interest on the UPenn Call For Papers site. Feedly makes sure I never miss a CFP; the fact that the interface is really clean and easy to use is just a bonus.  I was shocked at how much time I saved by switching to an RSS reader.


NoteBook JPEG

CircusPonies Notebook

1. CircusPonies Notebook: This is the best note-taking software I’ve been able to find for Mac since Microsoft’s OneNote isn’t available for OS X*, and I really like it. It works just like a physical notebook except that every single document is easily searchable by keyword, capitalized word, and/or tag.  Additionally, you can easily embed .pdfs and images, and you can link between sections and pages. For example, if I’m taking notes on a a huge novel like Dickens’ Bleak House, I can add a hyperlink connecting similar ideas so I can easily jump from place to place without scrolling. I love it. (Note: there’s also an iPad app that works very well and integrates with the desktop version through iCloud or DropBox).

*NINJA EDIT: Microsoft released OneNote for Mac a few months ago.  It doesn’t really matter, since CircusPonies Notebook is still better.

2. Scrivener: Okay, so when I first took a shot at Scrivener, I wasn’t sold.  It offers a completely different approach to writing that is modular rather than linear, which was a total switch for me.  However, after using it for a little while, I like it so, so much better than Word.  I mean, it’s not going to be what you want to use for making class handouts, but it totally reshapes the way you can approach long-form writing projects.  It helps you break big writing projects into chunks, allows you to manage and organize your research documents, and it exports your final document in a variety of styles (like MLA, APA, and Chicago).

3. Timely: A freemium web app, it’s basically a friendly timesheet. You can track up to three projects and see how you divide your time, and it really helps with efficiency. You can even set up payment options, so if you’re tutoring or freelancing, it can help you bill  (I charge dissertation hours to myself like I’m self-employed, which keeps me motivated).  I’ve been using their free services to fit my needs, though subscription packages are available.  The one thing I wish this app had was weekly hour budgets.  I like to schedule my time in blocks (2o hours for teaching, 15 for dissertation, 5 for freelance, et cetera), so I’d love a recurring time tracker.  

4. Gingko: Another freemium web app, this is basically a visual outlining tool. This is great for those of you who run personal or professional websites, though I think it would work great for visual ideation, too.  In fact, I used a Gingko tree to outline and organize this website.


Obviously, not all apps work for all people.  For example, Notebook and Scrivener are not for everyone, especially not people who hate learning new software.  The same goes for Keynote.  Even though it’s powerful, there is a decent learning curve.  However, these are the apps that work for me, and I hope you’ll give some of them–especially the freebies–a try.  It’s amazing how much you can accomplish when you have some powerful tech tools at your fingertips.  I mean, I’m caught up on Downton Abbey thanks to these guys.

I’m curious about your workflows.  Are there any apps that you think I’ve missed?  What important software do you use for teaching and research?  Do you find technology helpful or distracting?  I’d love to hear what you think.

Posted in Graduate School, Tips & Tricks, Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , , , .


  1. My goal before I really get my thesis research going is to truly understand scrivener. I bought it for my last year of my Master’s but didn’t get enough of a grip on it early enough to get the efficiency I needed. Even though the author who recommended it did warn me to take the time to learn it. I guess I’m one of those kids that has to learn that the burner is hot the hard way.

    I’ll definitely be keeping that circus ponies thing in mind if my advisor succeeds in getting me a Mac. Thanks for the tips!

    • Sure! I absolutely love Scrivener, though it does have an unfortunately huge learning curve. I still suspect that I’m not using it to its full potential, but it’s been really nice so far.

      If you’re not on a Mac, you should 100% check out OneNote for organizing all of your course and research tidbits. Notebook is the Mac solution to OneNote (though I guess the latter is out for Mac now. It has lots of functionality issues, though). I think it works just as well, if not better, depending on the type of information you’re compiling.

      If you find any other productivity apps that work for you, let me know! I’m always looking for new ones that make life easier.

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