Virtuosity 11.11

Where words become worlds…

Archive for the category “Grad Software Tips”

Resources for free graphics

information-1015297_640It is highly advantageous to know how to use graphics in your presentations and reports. Sometimes, building a model is far better at illustrating what you want to say than simply words. To help, here’s some places you can go to get free graphics, and to edit graphics for free:

Picmonkey – Is a really fast, down and dirty graphics editor with clip art and templates, along with photo filters to help. The paid version unlocks more features.

Canva – Is a great way to create cards, brochures, and posters with professional-looking templates to get started quickly.

Blender – Is a free and very powerful open source graphics program that can help you draw graphics, diagrams, etc.

Pixabay – Offers royalty-free graphics that you can easily pop into your presentations. There’s a lot to choose from here, and you’ll notice some of my past blogs use many of the graphics offered from this site. One of my favorite artists is 3DMan, who has a series of figurines that can be fun and very useful.

Freepic – Has some really great looking graphics that you can use in your presentations. The only disadvantage is that many of these come as packages, and will require graphics software (such as Blender) to get them looking how you want them to look.

Also, as I mentioned before, Microsoft SmartArt is a great feature to the Office Suite, and Google Images (choose, under “Tools” –> “Usage Rights” –> Labeled for Reuse).

Happy Presenting!

Presentation Software

There are several different software packages to create your presentation. By far, the most common one is Microsoft PowerPoint. PowerPoint is probably the most well known software, with many templates and options to choose from. A similar Mac version of PowerPoint is Keynote.

In terms of free software, you can use Google Slides, which has the added benefit of being able to share and co-write presentations with collaborators. Although Microsoft PowerPoint includes this feature also, I’ve found it to be far buggier than Slides, which is pretty easy, in my opinion.

Another free and collaborative software tool is Prezi. Unlike PowerPoint, Keynote, and Slides, which are linear (they go from point A to point B), Prezi allows you to present in a more nonlinear fashion. Imagine a bulletin board with all your information, and Prezi allows you to move to, magnify, and visit each part of this board.

Although each software package has many features that you leverage, stick to simple. For example, I’ve found that although you can put sounds and tons of animation features on your presentation, don’t. These features can distract from your message, and in the case of Prezi, you can actually give your viewers motion sickness!!!

Instead, stick to simplicity and your message. Use your software package in a way to focus and emphasize your message. For example, when I put bulletpoints on my slides, I have a very subtle animation, where the bullets phase into the slide as I talk about them. This keeps people focused on the slide right where I want them.



Use color to make your presentations pop

To make your message stand out, focus on high contrast, use color to highlight what you want to say, and minimize the background for clarity. For example, in my proposal presentation, I chose a clean, white background, with black font. Because my committee wanted to see that I had changed a few things, based on their suggestions, I used red to illustrate where I had made changes:


Although it does not show in the picture above, as I was doing my presentation, the bullets appeared in a subtle animation as I spoke about them, thus bringing my audience’s attention to the actual concepts that I wanted to talk about.

Now, the green you see, represents a “leaf” theme that I used throughout my presentation, which goes with this slide, below, to explain my use of constructivist grounded theory:


As you can see, I use color and visual graphics to convey my argument.

When you are considering the construction of your presentation, some pointers to keep in mind:

  • Choose a color scheme that is consistent throughout your slides. As you can see in my example, my color theme makes my story uniform from slide to slide. I use contrast and white space to make the message simple and clear.
  • Avoid elaborate backgrounds, excessive words, or unnecessary animations, sounds, or graphics. Every slide should have a focus on the message you want it to convey. Use graphics to focus on that message.
  • Keep in mind that you may have color blind people in your audience. Things like red, green, and blue may be difficult to see, especially if they are the same shade (and may look grey to someone).

I’m not a fan of the black background in presentations. This is probably biased on my part, but to me, black is rather dark and ominous. Plus, for some people, colors are more difficult to see against the dark.

Don’t be afraid to experiment. The advantage to using a presentation program (I will talk about a few of them in tomorrow’s post) is that you can switch colors and themes rather easily to take advantage of the effect you want.


Using visuals in your presentation

As a rule of thumb, each slide should have no more than 50 words on each, otherwise, you’ll lose your audience because they are doing two things at once: listening to what you are saying, while reading what is on the slide.

Stick to pictures on the slide, while using a script to guide what you say. That way, your visual compliments your words, and add to them, instead of conflicting them (especially when what you say is slightly different from what you’ve written).

Use color, charts, and white space to focus on your message. When your slides have too much clutter, people will not be able to follow along. For example, if you look at the image below:


You just see the red dot. Your message should be the focus, and anything else will distract.

Bullets should be minimal, and you can include key words, short sentences, bold and color to convey meaning and focus the eye.

One advantage to using the Microsoft package is that it includes a SmartArt feature to construct abstract concepts into  graphics that make your information tangible. Here’s an example, for instance, of a slide that I used in my proposal presentation:


I created this slide to illustrate how Thorndberg’s data sensitizing principles could be applied to pre-existing data, and how it fit into my methodology. As you can see, I was able to pack a lot into a diagram, but the funnel helped to illustrate how data are reduced during analysis. The diagram conveyed my concept more clearly than if I had used bullet points or words.

My grad student software toolbox

On any given project, I use a LOT of programs! For example:

Research Phase:

  • Word – To summarize papers
  • Mendeley – My reference data base
  • Scrivener – To keep track of memos, and to upload my word summaries
  • Evernote – To make all my PDFs, post-its, whiteboard notes, and handwritten notes searchable
  • Topnote (on the iPad) – For hand-drawn diagramming and brainstorming
  • Inspiration – for digital brainstorming
  • Xmind – for mind and project mapping


Planning Phase:

  • Asana – To keep track of all my tasks and to do lists
  • Google Calendar – To track all my meetings and appointments
  • Apple Reminder – For things like, “Water the plants on Wednesday”


Analysis Phase:

  • NVivo – for qualitative coding
  • Excel – to track codes
  • Word – to generate the codebook, process memos, and any stray thoughts


Writing Phase:

  • Scrivener – for writing papers and keeping track of references
  • Mendeley – again for my references
  • Word – to finally polish up my document and send it out.
  • Google Docs – to collaborate with others


Presentation Phase:

I’ve learned how to use these programs smoothly to help with my workflow — similar to tools in a toolbox. Some of these programs overlap functions, but I’ve never been able to find just one program that does it all efficiently. Some programs do things a lot better than others. For example, for collaborations on writing projects, I use Google Docs because it’s the least buggy — even though both Word, Evernote, and Scrivener have these functions, as well).  It makes me wonder, though, whether other grad students also use multiple programs to get the work done, as well.

What are the programs that you use, and what’s your workflow like?


Organize your references with Mendeley

So you’ve pulled your PDF file from your library and it’s sitting on your browser. Now what?

I’ve talked about reference management software before in previous posts. Today, I’ll show you a quick and dirty way to bring them into Mendeley.

1. If you haven’t done so, download the Mendeley desktop app. It’s free, and what I love about it is that I can access my references through my browser, phone, or my other computers, too!


2. Next, download the Mendeley Web Importer plugin for your browser, and activate it. For me, it shows up as a tiny little “M” to the right of my browser address bar.

3. Then, through your Google Scholar search, bring up the PDF article that you want to use. Click the Mendeley plugin button (note: Sometimes this works. When it doesn’t, there’s a work around that I’ll mention later below).


4. If it works, Mendeley will bring up a side window with the article info. However, this isn’t always perfect, and you may need to edit the information from here, OR, you’ll need to right click, download and save your article, then import it through your Mendeley desktop (drag the PDF file and drop it on Mendeley).


For info on importing your PDFs directly into Mendeley’s desktop, click here.

Happy Researching!






Tutorial – Tying Scholar to Your Library

Most academic libraries these days are tied to online data bases where you can quickly find the articles you need by using Google Scholar. Here’s how you set Google Scholar to your library settings:

  1. Go to Google Scholar. Hit the Settings button on the menu bar.


2. Next, click the “Library links” in the left column.


3. In the bar, type in your university, and hit enter. If your library is linked to Scholar, it will come up beneath the bar. Then click on the boxes with your options (you can add more than one library to Scholar).

4. Then click the “Save” button.


5. Last, go back to the Google Scholar main page. Type in the article that you are searching for. When your search results come up, you will see a library link to them either on your right (like in the picture below), or it will show underneath the “More” selection beneath the article summary, if there are other options.

(For example, I can pull articles from both Iowa State as well as the University of Rochester. So, ISU links show on the right, and the U of R will be under the “More” link when I click it.)


Happy Researching!




Converting from one reference management software to another

During my comprehensive exams, I was not entirely happy with using Sente to manage my documents. Although the software is powerful, it seemed for me to be overly complex, and changing minor things, such as a classification as a journal proceeding to that of a conference proceeding (and the fields that corresponded) involved flipping through pages of a not-so-friendly manual to understand and do. Second, I didn’t trust it enough to build a mostly flaw-free bibliography for me, considering that it would involve about a hundred citations!

The University of Rochester offers free Refworks for its students, but because I had already had three years worth of literature in my Sente database, I held back on converting over. In fact, it wasn’t until after I finished my exams that I had considered using a new reference manager. My decision to use Mendeley came from a fellow colleague who used the program and raved about how easy it was to use – plus, it was free. The problem with using free software offered by the university is that after you graduate, you end up paying for the subscription. So… I converted over. Needless to say, it hasn’t been quite easy, and there are pros and cons to moving from one reference manager to another.


  • Mendeley offers more technical support and has a more active community. That means you can get help quickly without being slowed down.
  • The reference manager interface is far more intuitive, and so far, more flexible in allowing me to make changes, annotate, and tag things the way they need to be tagged.
  • The Word plugin interface is much easier to use, and I can now build a bibliography from it. The advantage to having software build your bibliography is that you can change between different styles quickly (e.g., from APA to MLA) without getting all confused about what goes where.
  • Mendeley is free and I can access it on my phone, iPad and computers



  • I have four years of material stored on Sente, and although I can import the citations into Mendeley, it does not easily import the actual documents. So, I either have to re-import the documents, or, at times, run both Sente and Mendeley to make sure I have the things I need. This is a BIG con.
  • You lose stuff. It’s inevitable, but when converting from one software to another, it’s inevitable that stuff gets lost. Just make sure the most important stuff is filed where you can find it (that’s why I have scads of hard copy, alphabetized papers in file folders).
  • There’s always a slight learning curve when going from one software to another – however, I find that I pick up Mendeley a lot easier than when I learned Sente

Ultimately, you have to find a reference manager that works well with your own personal style. That may not be easy, and unfortunately, we may have to make quick decisions and stick with them. However, there ARE points where moving from one to another is ideal. For me, the flexibility and ability to trust that Mendeley will make a fairly accurate biblio was enough for me to switch over. I still waited until after I finished comps to do so.

For those who are thinking of moving from one management software to another, take your time and check out all your options. If you are unhappy with your current software, don’t wait too long, though, otherwise, it will be harder to switch. I’d also advise making the switch AFTER a major project, so that starting over isn’t such a big impact for you. For example, when I switched from comprehensives to thesis, my literature also took a switch from general online learning theories to virtual worlds-specific learning theories. That gap meant that now I knew where to go when I needed certain references. Albeit, sometimes, you still have to have two software programs running. It’s a small price to pay, however, for the amount of trust I have to have in my software program!

Happy Referencing!





Why use reference management software

As I had mentioned in my last post, a good reference management software program is as important to a grad student as a computer. From the first day of class, you will be inundated with various articles, book excerpts, and links that are fundamental to your studies. During my comprehensive exams, I found myself going back to material from classes that I had taken in the first year of my program! However, if it were not for my reference manager, I would have (and still did, to some extent) had to search for those references again. Although my library is very good, some of those chapters may take a few days to obtain again, so it’s better to keep them on hand.

In hindsight, here’s my advice to those taking classes:

  1. From the first day of class, put your class syllabus into the reference manager program, and tag it with labels.
  2. Put all your electronic articles into your reference manager. Use tags so that you can find things again (they may be big tags, such as “theory building,” “qualitative methodology,” or “epistemology”).

Mendeley offers an annotation feature that I’ve found is more useful than Sente. Plus, you may use your Mendeley on moble devices – which I’ve found is useful.

However, I’ve also annotated using Evernote, because unlike Mendeley and Sente, Evernote’s OCR reader can search your own handwriting! Another useful annotation app for iPad is TopNotes, which allows you to make notebooks, doodle, and export to Evernote.

In any case, do not rely on paper copies alone! Unless you have an unusually keen photographic memory, sooner or later, you’re going to forget who said what, and a good reference manager is going to help you keep track and keep organized.

Happy Referencing!8186250124_3d35de02ed_b



Mendeley Reference Software

7923439940_a4157d3a18_bAll grad students begin to amass a large collection of literature from the day they start their first classes. An older grad student advised that I should start sticking all this literature into a reference manager (i.e., bibliographic database) so that I can find stuff later. It was one of the best pieces of advice I had ever been given.

Originally, I began putting things into Sente, but never actually used it to generate bibliographies in my actual documents. However, it was very helpful for keeping things together, and for tagging and finding stuff. The problem with Sente, I found, and with a lot of other reference management software, is that powerful programs can get way too complicated. I found it difficult to change the way things were cited in Sente, and I just couldn’t trust the program to build a bibliography correctly for me.

After my comprehensive exams, it was a great time to switch to another program, and a friend advised that I try Mendeley. The biggest push for Mendeley is that it’s free! Second, Mendeley is made with far more accessibility and flexibility – something that I found lacking when comparing Sente to Mendeley. Last, the Word plugin  for Mendeley seems easy to use. At least, so far. I will know more when I finish this paper and use Mendeley for building the bibliography.

In the meantime, here’s some links to help you get started in Mendeley:

Get Started With Mendeley – PDF tutorial

Videos and Tutorials page on Mendeley

Happy writing and referencing!!!

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