Over the years I’ve gotten great tips from colleagues and students about the tools that have helped them become more productive researchers. Below is a list of the 44 tools and resources that have changed how I do research.
Get teched up
Excellent technical skills are the bedrock of a successful research career. Today, publishing requires both the understanding of theory and the ability to tease out meaningful insights from complex data sets. Even before you start your Ph.D., tool up. Here are four resources to get you started
- R: is perhaps the only statistical programming language you really need to know. It is free, comprehensive (you can do visualization, machine learning, traditional econometrics, or write your own custom algorithms.) Even if you don’t use R that often, it is one language that all social scientists must learn.
- R Studio: will make it easier to use R, and for some use cases, R studio is substantially faster. For academics, R studio is free so its worth a shot.
- Machine Learning A to Z: Hands-on Python and R In Data Science: OK, you so you don’t know R and can’t figure out where to start. Start here. This is a comprehensive online course to get you up-to-date with some of the major functionality in R and Python (the other language of data science).
- Stata SE or MP: If you are an economist, or generally estimate Y = B0 + B1X type equations with worries about clustering standard errors or endogeneity. R may sometimes feel like overkill. Stata is my go-to software for most of my analysis. I learned Stata by working with a collaborator. With great Stata code, you can go from your raw data to publication quality tables with a press of the “do” button.
- The complete web developer bootcamp: So you want to do online field experiments, but you can’t build a website? Fret no longer. I recently completed this Udemy course called “The Complete Web Developer Bootcamp” and was up and running with an excellent quality web application in just two weeks. If I can learn it, you can too. In this class, you’ll learn about some cool environments like c9, mLab, and Heroku that can get you started on a slick web application with little setup time.
Communicating more effectively
Academics have two products. They write and they present. By honing these two skills, you can become a star. Polish your writing and presentations skills with these resources. I’m always on the lookout for great resources to help me improve my writing.
- The Art of Styling Sentences is the book I recommend to all my Ph.D. students. Like most skills, you can improve your writing dramatically by following a few simple rules. Check out this book if you want to have prettier sentences.
- Ninja writing: The Four Levels of Writing Mastery: Mark Twain once said that the difference between the right word and nearly the right word is the same as the difference between lightning and the lightning bug. Shani Raja’s Ninja Writing and Writing With Flair have given me some handy tools for editing my academic writing.
- Writing With Flair: How To Become An Exceptional Writer: This is a superb class, and worth every penny.
- Hire a copy editor on Upwork: When I got my first “conditional accept” at a top journal, the editors asked me to get my paper professionally copy-edited. I was offended. Today, I almost always send my paper to a copy editor before I submit it to a journal, and always before I send the final version in for publication. I’ve used several copy editors throughout the years, but if you are looking to experiment with finding a copy editor, try Upwork.
- How to make a great presentation and TED’s secret to great public speaking: When I was a graduate student at Carnegie Mellon, I was fortunate enough to take a class on public speaking taught by the late Pamela Lewis. Her insights on how to create a powerpoint presentation, how to present ideas, and how to make your ideas stick have been invaluable. Today, you can find excellent resources on public speaking online. The founders of the TED conference, where slick presentations abound, have great resources to help you improve your presentation skills.
Develop a writing workflow
Building a process for clear and well-produced writing is paramount for success. Here are a few tools and resources that can help you improve the quality of your written work.
- Latex: Robert Hall, the Stanford economist in an article about becoming a professional economist said: “Pay close attention to the appearance and dissemination of your work. I hold the following controversial view that my economist wife thinks betrays a lack of spiritual development: There is a separating equilibrium between researchers who put out nicely typeset papers in Latex and those who struggle with the infirmities of Microsoft Word.” Learn Latex, your readers will appreciate it.
- Overleaf: Once you learn Latex, start using Overleaf. It is like GoogleDocs for Latex and helps you write beautiful latex manuscripts in a collaborative environment. Version 2 is even nicer with the ability to add comments.
- Grammarly: I am a fast typer and sometimes I forget to include words in my writing. Grammarly is a bit pricey, but I use it all the time so it has been worth it for me.
- Ulysses: I started using Ulysses a few years ago to organize my writing. Ulysses is the app I use when I want to start on a project or work on a revision. Its a great tool for breaking up a long project into manageable chunks.
- esttab: I can’t believe I used to create regression tables manually. If you are still creating tables by cutting and pasting your regression output into MS Word tables, please join us in the 21st century. Esttab will help you make beautiful Latex tables and the best part is, you can link these directly to your latex files using the \include command so every time you update your regression your manuscript updates automatically too!
- Grammark.org: Another automated (but free) grammar tool. It is worth a try and it is especially useful for writers who struggle with wordiness.
- Endnote: Some people still use endnote to organize their bibliographies. I don’t.
- Mendeley: Mendeley is a free bibliography tool. The best part of Mendeley is its integration with Overleaf.
- GoogleScholar BibTex export: I write in Latex, and Google Scholar has a BibTex output feature that lets you cut-and-paste a BibTeX bib from GoogleScholar. Beware though, sometimes things missing or journal titles are awkwardly capitalized. But if you develop a good process, you only need to fix the errors once.
Improve the processes around your work. Get the technology that reduces duplication, idle time, and inefficient
- Dropbox: 8 years ago, I used to email my in-progress manuscripts to myself at the end of the day so I could work with them on my home computer. Today, Dropbox has been the singular technology that has reduced the amount of digital shipping waste that I create. I usually keep one copy of a file—whether it is my data, notes, or code. I can work on these assets from anywhere. How amazing.
- Google Docs: Writing a collaborative proposal? Responding to a reviewer letter? GoogleDocs has helped speed up these collaborative tasks.
- Sublime: Need a simple text editor with lots of power? Sublime is amazing and I find myself using it every day for the little bits of text work that I have to do.
- Master your email and calendar: A few years ago I realized that I sometimes checked 4 email addresses a day: an old Yahoo address, my work email, my new Gmail account, and a Gmail address for subscriptions or junk mail. Now, I’ve got one email address. I probably got 30 minutes of time back.
Learn to delegate
The best professors know how to break up their work into modular chunks and delegate it to others. This frees up time to do more important things. Sure, it might be instructive the first few times to clean your data, to do a preliminary search of the literature, or develop a website for your research project. But its worth learning how to delegate these tasks so you can put your energies to more creative uses.
- Hire someone: Learn to break up your work into modular pieces and delegate the stuff that is probably not worth your time. Delegating is perhaps the master skill of the productive academic. If you want to learn how to delegate better work with someone who does this well. Start by hiring an undergraduate research assistant and get them to work on a small project. Remember to manage the work effectively, ask yourself these four questions.
- Hire someone on Upwork: You can hire people to do almost task on Upwork. I’ve gotten people to copy edit my articles, build a citation database on a topic I wanted to learn about and to scrape data from a website. Start with small projects and build your delegation skills on a platform like this.
Get data and develop a process around it
Every great recipe needs great ingredients. Data gathering is a first-order skill that every social scientist should master.
- ICPSR: An easy way to get data is to download that someone has already spent the time, effort and money gathering and cleaning. ICPSR is a great starting point on your data gathering journey.
- Compustat: If you study publicly traded firms, you should learn how to use Compustat.
- Qualtrics: Learn how to run a survey on Qualtrics. You can launch a survey in just a few minutes and start collecting responses using a platform such as MechanicalTurk.
- MechanicalTurk: You need a quick and cheap subject pool? Try MechanicalTurk. There are some good tutorials online.
- Google Customer Survey: Google also has a survey service that you can use to ask questions from a nationally representative sample of Americans.
- Learn to scrape a website: Learn how to scrape
- Talk to people: The best data is often not easily available online. Talk to people in your field or in the real world at companies. You might find a gem that turns into a great research paper.
Create a comfortable workspace
A laptop is all you really need to be a great social scientist. But a good workplace can definitely improve your productivity.
- MacBook Pro: I stopped using PCs about a decade ago and my go-to computer is a MacBook Pro. The MacbookAir is a good entry point for a social scientist looking for a computer that can handle most of the software you need to do statistical analysis and academic writing.
- RAM is a barrier: If you can afford it, go for a computer with a great CPU and lots of RAM. But it is worthwhile buying more RAM for your computer as your data sets increase in size.
- Good monitor: Monitors are cheap. You can find large and high-quality monitors anywhere really.
- Get another monitor.
- Keyboard: Get a comfortable keyboard. I use the Microsoft Sculpt Ergonomic Wireless keyboard at work.
Here are two hacks to help you get up-to-date on the academic literature and also find interesting ideas in the popular literature.
- How to read an academic paper: You should be spending more time writing than reading. But having a good process for reading academic papers is key. Check out these tips from Science magazine about reading academic papers. You could also have a computer read the papers to you by using software like NaturalReaders.
- Audible: If you go to the gym, have a commute, or want to learn something new at the end of the day, start listening to audio books. A few years ago I got a subscription to Audible. I’ve been able to learn a ton of new things about topics I didn’t know much about on my drive home. The selection of audiobooks available today is remarkable and you will surely find books that relate to your existing research area or a new area you would like to explore.
Finally, there is more to life than research. Here are some resources that may be useful for young social scientists beginning their career.
- Personal finance: Be good with money. Stanford CS has a great class on personal finance called cs007. There are a lot of great personal finance blogs out there. My favorite is the Financial Samurai. I like it because it has lots of facts and figures and helps me benchmark where I should be at my career stage.
- Experiment: Try little things and see where they take you.
- Meditate: I recently listened to a great (and funny) audiobook on Buddhist meditation. It got me to try it out meditation and now I frequently use the headspace app.