How to get the most out of your software to help your academic research
There’s a wealth of software out there, and yet many of us only ever use the same few programmes. A web browser, a word processor, maybe a spreadsheet, a database, perhaps some software that is specific to your field or the type of analysis you conduct.
Even within that limited range of software, are you getting the most out of it? Most popular software has a range of features which most users never look at and, while some of it won’t be of any use to you right now, there are almost certainly some features that could save you time, or open up new possibilities.
If the software that you use doesn’t do what you need, or doesn’t do it very well, it’s time to find something new. Most institutions have access to a wide range of software, and there are free options, as well. Learning how to use it varies from easy to frustrating, but there are sources of information that can really help you get to grips with your software and make the most of it.
Which software will help you work productively?
It’s safe to assume that you already have a web browser, something like Google Chrome, Microsoft Edge or Apple’s Safari. You’ll also have a word processor, perhaps Microsoft Word, and if there are specific programmes relevant to your research, you’ll be using them.
If you’ve got Microsoft Office, along with Word, you’ve got some very useful programmes. Excel, the spreadsheet software, makes it easy to work with small amounts of data and produce decent graphs and tables. PowerPoint is the most popular way to put together your presentations, and Publisher is great for producing posters and documents combining text and graphics. Access is a basic database programme, and some people like OneNote for notetaking. You’ll find similar programmes in the free LibreOffice, and it’s good to at least familiarise yourself with what they can do, so that you can benefit from the functions when you need them.
Beyond these common programmes, it’s worth thinking about what you’d find useful, and there’s almost certainly a programme or an app for it. For example, there are project management tools, like Trello. There are tools like Todoist that help you produce and manage to-do lists, tools like Stretchly that remind you to take breaks or like Freedom that block social media for a set period to reduce distractions. Mendeley is a popular piece of software for managing the literature you are using, while Pocket can help you manage bookmarked websites.
Which of these sound like they might be useful for you? Download them and give them a go. If they don’t work for you, there are plenty of alternatives for each of them. (If you are looking for a tool to help you find the right target journal for your research, you may use our Journal Finder tool here.)
How can you get access to software?
If you’re working on a computer managed by your institution, you can’t just download any programme: you’ll need to pick from an approved list. Even if you have your own machine, you can often use your institution’s subscriptions to a wide variety of programmes. Have a look at your institution’s IT services, or equivalent, to find out what’s available, and how to access it.
Nowadays, many software packages are available for free, or have an open source equivalent, which you can download for free. Before downloading anything, check that you’re getting it from the official source, as untrustworthy websites might host versions that don’t work, or will infect your machine with viruses – this is why you can’t just download anything onto your institution’s computers.
If you need, or really want some costly software, take a look at the deals. Some software is available for free, or at greatly reduced prices, to students and academic staff, because the software company hopes that it will help it become an industry standard. Other software offers a free trial, which can allow you to decide whether you really want to pay for it, and if your need is only short-term, it might provide everything you want.
When should you update software?
Your institution will decide when to update its own computers, but if you have your own machine, it’s something to consider. Some software, like your browser, and many of the apps on your phone, will auto-update for free. For other programmes, there’s an increasing movement towards subscription models, where you pay monthly for ongoing access to software and get all the updates. But if you have to pay for updates, you might want to hold off.
In most cases, when software is updated, the old versions will still be supported for a set period. Files should remain compatible with newer versions of the programme, and you’ll get any critical updates to fix security problems. If you’re in this period, take a look to see if the new version offers any additional features which you’d really value. If not, why pay for it? If your version of the software is no longer supported, then there’s a strong reason to upgrade, but first, take a look to see what alternatives are out there. Perhaps there’s now a superior equivalent, or a free one which does everything you need.
What features allow you to use existing software more effectively?
Most software has a wealth of features which many of us never use. For example, in Word, there are advanced options to paste in different formats, apply text styles to keep your document consistent and automatically generate a table of contents, turn a page to landscape format to better display a graph or image and a load of keyboard shortcuts to use features without going through the menu. In Excel, you can even write programmes to manipulate your data. You can find out about some of the options by looking at online guides, but if your institution offers training on software you use, take advantage of it. Chances are, you’ll learn some useful new techniques.
You can also expand what your software does by adding extensions. There are thousands of these for browsers, offering features like automated translation, blocking unwanted adverts, providing a newsfeed or checking your spelling. For Chrome, you can search here, for Microsoft Edge here and for Safari here.
EndNote and Mendeley offer popular reference management add-ins for Word, while other add-ins are available to help with formatting, adding mathematical formulae or finding free images. You can browse the full selection for Microsoft here.
How can you get assistance with using software?
Your first port of call when you need help using software can be a quick search online. Most programmes have documentation explaining their features, and discussion forums where users can ask and answer questions. Do check that the information you are looking at relates to the version of the software that you are using.
If you can’t easily find the answer online, see if your institution’s IT department can help. They are often able to give assistance with commonly-used software, and may provide training courses.
If all else fails, try asking online. The official support site for the software may give you a quick response, or you can use a site offering general support, like Tech Support Guy or Reddit, with thousands of often-helpful users.
There’s so much software available, most of it for free. Once you’ve got a feel for what’s possible, think about what you want to use it for, and you should be able to find a programme or extension that does what you need. It may even be that the software you’re already using can do much more for you. If it can’t, just ask your IT department or a tech forum for advice, and you’re bound to find something similar.
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