Hindsight 20/20: University Productivity Tips and Tricks

This May I started my Master's in Electrical Engineering. My supervisor is very supportive of me reading anything that might be related to my research but also things that interest me. One of my favorite things is his insistence that I read at least one paper a day. I generally end up reading more than one most days as well as reading chapters from numerous textbooks.

I enjoyed most of my undergraduate degree but found that the purpose of it was to follow a curriculum. My experience with grad school so far has been nothing but self-guided learning. In the Fall and Winter semesters I am taking some courses that are required for my studies but for the most part my learning will be managed by myself and guided by my supervisor. Due to a number of professors in department getting to take their sabbaticals in consecutive years, I will miss out on taking a few courses that I really wanted to take but my supervisor has given me access to all the course notes so I can teach myself.

Some of you may find it rather preachy to be a brand new grad student and be already giving suggestions but I have talked to a lot of grad students and personally use these tools myself. Here are some software tools that I find really help boost my productivity. 



Managing your reading sucks. Keeping notes on all the things you have read that might be relevant and being able to easily find your notes for each article is extremely tedious. I had several grad students suggest this tool to me for bibliography management and am very appreciative now that I use it.

Zotero is a bibliography management tool for Windows/Mac/Linux which then has plugins for a large number of browsers. Why Zotero is so powerful is it will synchronize your documents between installations with all the reference material. Yes, I suppose manually setting up a Google Drive folder and having a good naming scheme would work BUT that does require some manual work. With Zotero I can simply go to a journal article (IEEE or other journal), click my magically browser button, and magically my article and reference information have been imported into Zotero where I can add notes, tags or anything else I might want.   


Time tracking is something I thought was incredibly stupid until I started doing it. Who would track time without actually being clocked for work purposes? For my senior design project for my undergrad one of my group mates really insisted that we track our time for two reasons. One reason was to see where our time was being spent and the other was to ensure that we are using our time efficiently and the workload was evenly balanced.

My main use of Toggl is the same as it was before except now all the work is being done by me. I only track time that I feel I am being productive. If I am talking to another student or something else, I stop tracking, if I end up browsing the internet instead of working, I stop tracking, etc. This allows me to see how much 'productive' work time I have and try and plan my work time accordingly. Right now I am shooting for 5-7 productive hours of work a day, be it sitting at home on my couch or huddled behind my desk at work.

I ended up using Toggl at the suggestion of a professor who uses it as a time tracker for a company he is a co-owner of. The interface is intuitive and rather simple so you can simply track and get back to work without much hassle.



If you have to do any coding projects that involve a large number of revisions and sharing of code between group members, you NEED to use some sort of version control tool. I am really mad that they didn't teach anybody how to Git in my undergrad (ECE profs probably didn't think it was relevant enough) because it is now a tool that I use daily. I have done or am working on four large software based projects. A control system for an antenna testing device, a home heating control system, a micro-satellite prototype, and now simulations for graduate school.

Being able to track, modify, undo, and share your changes is an incredibly powerful tool. Git is really easy to use in either terminal or the Windows desktop tool so not using Git for a complexity issue is not a valid excuse. There is lots of support online and if you have any question, feel free to reach out to me!



Having something to put on for some background noise is pretty awesome. This is the first paid service I have bothered to get for streaming. I got in on a promo for $0.99 for 3 months and it has been great so far. After the promo is up it is half price if you are a student. Not a whole lot of money for a whole lot of music. It really helps me get through the day.


Taking time to do repetitive tasks sucks. Taking time to manually process data also sucks. Why not use a free tool (programming language) that will let you do just about anything you want.

Even though my university has every MATLAB toolbox under the sun and licenses for all students I still found myself needing things that MATLAB lacks or is just overkill for. My supervisor has a shared directory for me to access all the simulation files he creates. I found myself having to go and tediously download each and every file when changes were made. Doing this multiple times a day was annoying and definitely ruined my groove (if I was in one). My solution was a script that automatically went and pulled all the files and stored them in my simulations folder.

Python may not be a perfect solution to everything you need but it is a nice scripting/programming language that it never hurts to be good at. I talk about setting it up in more detail here


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