Signal to Noise

How to cope with work, family, and being a (online) graduate student…

This is a working document (means it is subject to change and be updated) of the ways I’ve found to lifehack my day-to-day input output into something that helps me get and keep things organized in a semi chaotic but very useful way!

Before I begin – here are a few things to consider since the last time you were in college…

  1. You are not as young as you used to be and neither are your fellow classmates.
    • Though there will be those straight out of undergrad – many of us, especially in the online program, have careers and families as well as other life experiences beyond college that will shape what we bring and take away from the program. The best piece of advice I can give here is to keep an open mind to everyone’s input as even if it doesn’t directly relate to your particular frame of mind or subfield of study it can lend insight in ways you may have never imagined.
  2. Your professors definitely know you by your first name and you should definitely know theirs.
    • Get to know your professors! It doesn’t matter if you don’t have face time, use the phone, email or IM. They are there to answer your questions and to be a sounding board for your ideas.
  3. Technology has changed and will continue to do so.
    • Don’t be afraid to break it! – In most cases this is impossible to do to a point that it can’t be fixed. This is also how you learn.
    • Don’t be afraid to try something new. – You’d be surprised how easy something is to use once you get past the initial introduction phase.
    • Don’t be afraid to ask questions. – This is especially true in an online environment. Just ask – you have an entire classroom / department full of people who are willing and able to help. Someone will know something and even if they don’t they will know whom to ask.

Now for those of you who live a hectic life such as mine where you work a 40+ hour week, come home and cook dinner for your family every night, help your kid(s) with their homework, get the bath time, laundry time, dishes time part done then finally sit down at your own computer to start on your homework —- here are a few things that I have found useful:

1. Get a gmail/google account.
It’s free, has a minimal learning curve, you can forward your university mail to it, and it has GREAT usability features such as:

  • You can forward multiple accounts to your Gmail account.
    • First thing I would suggest is to forward your college email account to your gmail account. This way you don’t miss anything important and you only have to check one place to get all your school related email.
  • Ability to attach large files
    • You will find this especially convenient when you are passing power point files back and forth
  • Threaded conversations
    • This means that when you have several emails going back and forth with a group of people they are not only grouped into ONE thread but each participant also has their own color in the conversation
  • Search Feature
    • Makes it really easy to find what ever you need in any conversation you’ve ever had
  • Archiving
    • Gmail provides you with several gigabytes of storage space so there is no need to worry about dumping emails simply because you are going to run out of space – I suggest keeping all correspondence over the course of the semester until the semester is over and the grades are in. Some things you may even want to save for later as reference for future classes/projects/papers.
    • When you are required to email your papers to your professor use your gmail account. This way you can save those correspondences and archive your work throughout the semester. This is very useful if you do your ‘school work’ from several different places (work, home, classroom etc) as well.
  • Rules and Labeling
    • For example I have a rule that states that all incoming email from a UNT address is marked with the label UNT and that label is then colored green. I then have specific mailing lists labeled with different colors and so on and so forth. I even have specific labels for people I work with on a regular basis. This means that on first glance on my mail box I can see what I need to pay attention to immediately simply based on the way it is labeled/colored.
    • Second benefit of labeling is that you can use the labels to filter your mail box to view only email with that label (simply click on the label name on the right) – then as an added benefit you can do things like mass archive or search within that specific group.
  • Extendable and Customizable
    • You can extend and customize gmail to your own liking through the settings and labs options including vacation auto responder, signatures, and more.
  • Google Calendar
    • Every gmail account comes with access to your own Google Calendar. You can set it up with your school schedule. Keep it private or share it with your friends, family, other students. And best of all you can set it up to alert you.
    • You can setup your gmail account with most POP email applications. The benefit to this is that you can have an offline copy as a backup.
      • I suggest that if you do this you choose to leave a copy on the server.
    • You can also choose to setup an IMAP which allows you to sync with gmail from your local email application. The email stays on the server, but you can read it from whatever application you are most comfortable with.
      • This is especially convenient if you have a PDA/Smart phone that allows you to access IMAP email accounts.
    • Caveat to both of these methods is that you get the fullest gmail experience an benefit if you use these in addition to and not in place of using the site.
  • GChat
    • Gmail comes with a web based chat that you can use either within the browser, as a pop-up out of the browser, or in a chat program such as Adium for Mac and Pidgin for Widows/Nix.
    • Greatest benefit of using Gchat is that you can set Gmail to archive your chats allowing them to be searchable. VERY handy when doing group work.
  • Google Docs
    • You can use Google Docs to write and edit documents that can be used by most desktop applications. Two benefits to this are:
      • Saving the files online – no need to worry about a hard drive crash or porting it from PC to Laptop, it’s online!
      • Ability to share access to it with other Google users. This allows for collaboration on a single file within a group of people allowed access to it.
  • Google Reader
    • This allows you to read any site that has an RSS feed (such as Blogs or News sites) through one interface. Not only that but you can also share what you read with your Google friends.
  • Other Google services:
    • Video (create and upload videos)
    • Groups (similar to yahoo groups – upload and store files, communicate etc)
    • Blogger (create your own blog)
    • Picasa (upload pictures)
    • Plus lots lots more!

I cannot stress how important having a good email tool is to being a capable and organized online student. This is your major means of communication. You will be inundated with email throughout the year. If you cannot keep it organized and readily accessible when needed, you will find being an online student much harder than it needs to be.

I will also use gmail to write drafts of papers and keep notes to myself via the draft feature. It doesn’t have to be for just email!

It is also perfectly ok and even useful to have multiple gmail accounts. I have one I use for school, one I use for bills, one I use for spam, and a personal one. You don’t have to do it this way (you could also just use the labeling feature), but if you want to you can!

2. is a bookmarking service that allows you to store your bookmarks online. I used to save my bookmark files and upload them to my server in order to be able to access them from work, home, school – then came along and I’ve not looked back! It has completely replaced saving bookmarks to my browser. Benefits of are:

  • Tagging (adding a keyword to the bookmark)
    • Allows for easy filing and searching
    • It’s a social bookmarking service so you can see what other people used that tag for allowing for a more customized search of topics that are important to you and important enough that other people chose to bookmark it.
    • I’ve also used tagging to tag things for a specific class.
      • For class or group project have everyone bookmark with a specific tag – when clicking on that tag in you will be able to see everyone’s bookmarks for fast and easy collaboration!
  • Sharing (via tagging)
    • You can share your bookmarks with your friends on This is very handy when you are working on a group project, or you just think someone else you know will find it useful.
  • Add yours or someone else’s feed to your google reader.
    • This lets you see what you’ve book marked or what your friends are bookmarking – I use this feature a lot
  • Private bookmarking
    • You have the option when you save your bookmark to mark it public or private. Private means only you will see it and it will not show up on external feeds.

3. Firefox
While the simple view of Firefox is that it is simply an alternative web browser to IE or Safari it also has several other benefits.

  • Tabbed Browsing
    • Open several pages in one window. This is very useful especially when doing research. Right clicking on any link will allow you to ‘Open in new tab’ which is very beneficial – especially from a Wikipedia, Google Search page, list of book marks, or even a twitter feed.
  • Add-ons – Ways to extend to usefulness of your browser
    • A few useful ones:
      • Delicious Bookmarks – allows you to bookmark any page you are with a click of a button in your toolbar
      • Screen Grab – saves a webpage as an image
      • TinyURL Creator – ever see those huge unwieldy URLs some webpages create – this trims those into a very small URL that you can then use in emails or chatting or twittering without worrying about it being broken in transit.
      • Gmail Manager – a notification for when you receive new gmail. Can be used with multiple accounts!
      • Video DownloadHelper – allows you to download YouTube videos.
      • NoScript – allows you to turn off javascript on websites you do not trust.
      • Google Redesigned – loads a new style sheet for google – makes your gmail look different (I prefer it but it is definitely not necessary).
      • Morning Coffee – Keeps track of daily routine websites and opens them in tabs.
    • There are many many more – I encourage you to browse the list at your leisure!
    • Caveat to Add-ons is that the more you use the more you are pulling on the memory of the application – or in other words, if you find your application suddenly crawling by try disabling or uninstalling a few.

4. Digital filing system and naming conventions

You will download a LOT of materials for class. In order to make these all easy to organize and locate I suggest you come up with a filing system and naming convention. I’ll explain what it is I do and you can modify it from there to what ever makes it easy for you.

First I create a file for the new semester:


Within that file I create the folders for my classes:

ANTH 5050
ANTH 5110

Within those folders I organize based on project, assignment, research materials and more:

Weekly Reading

Within those folders I then start with specific naming conventions. So, for my 5050 class I have one reading assignment for week 01. I’ll name it: 5050-wk01-wasson.pdf. That is the class number, the week in which it is assigned, and the author of the article. In cases where one author has multiple articles I append the last name with 01 as in 5050-wk01-wasson01.pdf. I don’t use the name of the article because it is usually too long – plus you’ll begin referencing article by who wrote them more often than the name of the article itself. It is important that you do this because when you download your files they all have the same name and will rename themselves as necessary if they are download to the same place. I downloaded 4 PDFs and they are all named 1.pdf 1-2.pdf 1-3.pdf and 1-4.pdf. Hardly useful!
(note: when I print these out I also write at the top of each print out the class number and the week it is for – this is very helpful if you print everything out at once and when organizing the physical files for later – helps keep your timeline straight)

While this may seem somewhat convoluted it definitely helps in the long run. I usually go through and download all my stuff during the first week and file it as such. This way I just go to my folder and it’s already there in the order I need to read it. Past that I will hardly return to this folder on purpose. Most likely I’ll simply search my system for: 5050 or 5050-wk05 and then come up with all the files I named as such. The key is name and file your files logically for purposes of being able to find what you need when you need it, but then to use the benefits of that monster processor you have to actually find it when you need it which you can do quickly and easily because you’ve filed it so.

I then take this all one-step further and upload it to my own web server. While I don’t expect any of you to be this anal or even have access to your own server – I find it very convenient when traveling between work and school and home to have my files all in one place (with an identical backup on my home system and even on my ipod of course). Another option would be to carry around a USB thumbdrive (you can get a 4gb one now for about $15I use this one.) with all your files BACKED UP to it. I don’t suggest you keep that as your only version. I had a friend the day her paper was due lose her drive down a storage drain and that was that.

As soon as I finish a paper, even before I’ve edited it, I’ll email it to myself. This means I have a time date stamped version to revert back to incase I go crazy with the edits, and it allows for a copy somewhere other than my system. On that note, I always version my papers so I rarely save over something once it’s written – rather I save it to another file entirely. As I write I generally spew it all out at once then go back and make edits. When I do this I end up with a file for the paper, then a file for scraps that I’ve cut out of the paper, but may want to use in whole or in part later. Then I make iterations of my paper as I make edits. So I end up with something like the following:

Final Doc: Harrelson-5050-midterm

Anytime I turn in a paper it will always have my name first, then the class #, then the assignment. This helps my professor and I keep it straight.

Other things I do are give my folders unique icons and/or label them with a unique color to tell them a part from the rest of the things on my computer.

5. Collaboration
Before I delve into this I want to state plainly that collaboration is important. It is important in to your classes, this program, and to your future as an anthropologist in the field. That being said, in the end you are responsible for your grade. Don’t let that scare you, rather let it inspire you to bring the most you can to any group situation. Not only are you counting on your partner, but they are also counting on you. There may be times where one will have to pick up the slack of the other.
The key to maintaining a balance in the partner relationship is to openly communicate. Communicate early and communicate often. Communicate with your partner, your professor, and even the rest of the cohort if necessary. No one can help you and you cannot help anyone else unless you speak up!

  • Make sure everyone knows what each is responsible for, when it is due, and who will be the person to turn it in.
  • Setup group checkins – times when you can all meet online or over the phone.
  • Be proactive!
  • Be flexible!
  • Figure out the strengths of each member and utilize them.

** I cannot stress this enough, make sure EVERYONE understands what their part is and has a firm grasp of what the assignment entails. Nothing like being the one setup to turn in the assignment that you get all the pieces for only three hours before it’s due to find out that the rest of your group did not follow the directions and now you are the one that has to correct their mistakes because there is no time to send it back to them and your grade depends on it.

We all have a life outside of school, it is important to know that and take into consideration everyone else as well.

Other than Gmail, and Delicious I have found that Basecamp is a great tool for collaboration. There is a free version that comes with a few limitations such as only being able to create one project at a time, but that aside I’ve used I successfully and definitely recommend it. Two of the most useful features include a versioning Writeboard and a timeline notification system. Think of the writeboard sort of like a white board that people collaborate on except that what is ‘erased’ while editing is actually just saved to a previous version. Timeline notifications means that you setup your calendar with tasks and due dates in the system and it will email notifications to people you setup to receive them.

The other Another useful tool is Skype, which is a VOIP (voice over IP) service that allows you to make calls for free to other Skype users via your computer (everyone must be on Skype for it to be free). All you need is a headset with a mic and you’re set. Other than free calls another great benefit is that you are hands free which means you can type notes at the same time!

6. Analog tools
While this is an online class you will also benefit from a few offline tools.

  • Printer
    • If you have one great, if not keep these things in mind if you are considering purchasing one:
      • Ink is expensive, get one that has ink cartridges that last a long time and are fairly inexpensive to replace.
      • Consider a printer that has ink that can be purchased from your local Wal-Mart at 1am, because that is when you will run out.
      • Paper – keep an extra ream on hand
  • Binder Clips and Staplers
    • You will need to keep everything together and in many cases the printouts are so thick that your standard stapler will not cut it
  • Pencils and Flags
  • Post-it Notes – Stickies
    • For those that choose not to write in their books you can use stickies instead.
    • They also create lined sticky pads that are 4×6 and perfect for most books. I find they are very convenient to take notes on then slap them on the page to which they pertain.
    • 3M has a commitment to sustainability!
  • Filing Box
  • A room with a door
    • This may sound silly, but I soon realized after starting grad school that the only room in my house that has a door on it other than my bathroom is my bedroom! I found that with a five year old it is very important to establish my time and space when I need to get my stuff done. This is usually after she has gone to bed, but in cases where I need to work during her waking hours (weekends for example) she knows that if that door is closed I’m busy and cannot be disturbed unless it is an emergency.
  • A headset
  • A digital recorder
  • A digital Camera
    • Not necessary, but always quite useful.
  • A laptop
    • Also not necessary, but quite useful.

Part 2 will include a portion of how to communicate successfully online and how social networking sites can help you as a grad student! I’ll post a link to it here when it’s finished!

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