Using the iPad to hack the grad school workflow

My Productivity Apps for School

I am lucky to be a member of the inaugural cohort of the hybrid Phd in Ed Psych/Ed Tech at Michigan State University. Not only do we do the majority of our coursework online, but we were lent an iPad to assist in our studies.

As I’ve gotten to know said iPad, I’ve discovered a way to hack my workflow with it in ways that I can’t on my laptop.  I like working on the iPad for things like reading and annotating. A few things about my set-up: I use the iPad apps in conjunction with web-based applications to seamlessly sync between the two. Also, I am a working mother while in grad school, so I am often reading while cooking dinner or while the kids play (I have three-year old twin boys): basically I like snatching whatever moments I am able for reading for school.

So, let’s begin with Mendeley. Mendeley is a social network for researchers that stores your articles and books on your desktop, on the web, and on your mobile devices like the iPhone and the iPad. Mendeley will also do your citations and syncs with Zotero.  I have set up groups to share my readings with my advisor and classmates. I can add notes, tagging systems, and make groups. I can also annotate within the desktop and mobile versions. I can not fully explain my deep and abiding love for Mendeley.

Mendeley on my iPad: I can read/annotate here or open in another program, like GoodReader

I hate doing searches for articles on the iPad, so I generally do library or Google Scholar searches on my laptop, save them using the Mendeley toolbar and then also save any PDFs to Dropbox.

Once I have an article I want to look at in Mendeley, I generally annotate in GoodReader. I like that I can import from DropBox or from Mendeley and then save my annotations as a new copy, thus always keeping one version clean of notes and scribblings. GoodReader has more robust annotation features, including drawing, notes, underlining, highlight, and shapes.

The annotation toolbar in GoodReader for ipad

All in all, I’ve found this Dropbox/GoodReader/Mendeley trifecta highly useful and productive, especially since I am not quietly reading in a sunny corner somewhere, but usually reading in the midst of barely controlled chaos.

Other apps I’ve found useful:

  • SoundNote: take notes and record; when the recording is over, the individual notes sync with the place in the recording when you wrote (think like the LiveScribe pen)
  • WordPress: love this way of blogging on both my iPad and iPhone. I also have a bluetooth keyboard to assist with typing on both devices.
  • Instapaper: for all those articles on twitter I would like to read later
  • Kindle: I read a lot of books for school on my Kindle. They are cheaper and I like the way the highlights and notes can be pulled out and looked at later as one list.

Any other suggestions? I would love to hear them in the comments! 🙂

POST EDIT: A twitter conversation reminded me of SpringPad which allows you to create sticky notes/notebooks/tasks and more. Similar to EverNote, but I like the way I organize the flow on it better than EverNote.  Both programs integrate between the web and the devices.


  1. I’m with you on iPad awesomeness for managing the insanity of grad school. I, too, like the aggregated highlights/notes the Kindle app provides– have you found a way to print these? I am also a Goodreads-DropBox advocate, but Mendeley is new to me. I plan to check it out IMMEDIATELY.

    1. Karen, I think that you can view the Kindle annotations on your account on the website: it would be easy to print from there. Be sure to friend me on Mendeley: we could exchange scholarly stuff there 🙂

  2. Thanks Andrea! I love my ipad for school 🙂 Totally going to try Soundnote… seems like my answer to Livescribe pen

    1. I really like SoundNote, but the actual writing with a stylus never works like I want it to. I end up typing the notes either on the touchscreen or on the bluetooth keyboard. Since you have the recording right there, you don’t have to write as much. I have a Griffin ipad stylus that I really like. It was around 10 bucks. Great to hear from you, Lacy!

  3. I’m using iAnnotate for annotations of PDF in conjunction with Dropbox. It too does easy syncing. I’ve also tried PDF expert but I found that it crashed if the PDF was too picture based (like a scan) or too long.

    I’m wondering, do you use your iPad for much more than reading and annotating? I’m trying to figure out what else it does well … or is it just a glorified e-Reader!

    1. Thanks for the comments, Rebecca. I haven’t used iAnnotate, but I have colleagues who swear by it. As for PDF expert, I also haven’t tried that but it sounds like I may have dodged a bullet by missing it. Bummer that it was so buggy.

      I use the iPad especially when traveling. I invested in a bluetooth keyboard and can easily do email and even blog posts (using the WordPress app) on it. I also use it for Netflix streaming quite often (I got obsessed a bit with various BBC series that I can’t get on cable here), but that is more consuming of media.

      I think one of my favorite ways to use it so far is with SoundNote for notetaking at conferences. I also volunteer as an adult literacy tutor and have used it with my student who is an English language learner: we record her speaking and I can sync that with my note taking– a great way to track her progress with the language. I’ve also downloaded educational apps and books to use in the course of tutoring.

    1. Dropbox is nice, but not necessary. The key with using Mendeley on the ipad is that you really have to be doing most of the work getting papers/citations into Mendeley via a desktop somewhere. The ipad app is just going to mirror whatever you did on the desktop as the majority of the functionality of Mendeley requires it to be on a machine somewhere to start. I hope this helps!

  4. Does GoodReader integrate directly with Mendeley, or are you storing your PDFs on a dropbox folder and using dropbox?

    I’m currently using iAnnotate and dropbox, but then need to manually move the annotated files into the Mendeley library (replacing the non-annotated version if it already exists).

    1. I am using Dropbox to connect Goodreader to Mendeley, actually. The apps now have better integration, however, than when I first wrote that post. Your comments make me realize I should probably revisit that post. Maybe when I save up my pennies for a new iPad, right?

  5. Nice article! So here is what I did, I have a Mendeley account, a Dropbox account, and the Goodreader app. In Mendeley, I set preferences to save papers in a folder in Dropbox. In the Goodreader app, I sync the papers folder in Dropbox (I’m not sure if I’m doing this part right) from choose server then Dropbox account. Then when I open a paper from there, the papers are blurry and of a low resolution. I have the new Ipad and when I open papers from Safari for example, the retina display is crisp and sharp and really nice to read (except I can’t annotate from there). Do you have the same problem or am I doing something wrong? Thanks!

    1. Erika, I am working still on a *gasp* first generation iPad. My department lent me this iPad and I am saving my pennies for a new fancy one. I am wondering if GoodReader has updated for the stellar retina display I’ve heard so much about? Just a thought. If they haven’t, I’m sure they will. In my opinion, any annotation app that will allow you to export the summary is what to go with: I use those summary documents to integrate with Scrivener when I am writing (see my “7 Ways to Survive a Lit Review” Gradhacker post:

  6. I am new to the iPad, it did a lot of research prior to invest on buying one, the new one (chuckling).

    I am using GoodReader+DropBox+Notability. Goodreader has an update and works great on the new iPad. I am still discovering all the features but I do like the highlighting, annotations. Bookmarks and a list of annotations are also very useful.

    Great article 🙂

  7. I’m using a similar combination of apps on the iPad:

    1. Mendeley is my main reference manager.
    2. I use Dropbox and Goodreader to annotate on the iPad, once annotated I just overwrite the old PDF on Mendeley (I don’t mind not having a clean copy).

    I’m curious though: has anyone found that some Goodreader annotations are not viewable in Mendeley. This is just recently causing problems for me since I usually do two types of annotations – highlighting and notes. Highlighting will show up, and the notes icon will show up, but I can’t click on the note or otherwise access it. It’s also not available on the Notes tab of the paper entry on Mendeley.

  8. @Andrea, I noticed you mentioned you can annotate within the Mendeley mobile version – how do you go about this – I haven’t noticed any annotation tools on their iPad client – am I totally missing something?

    Thanks for the post by the way!

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