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  • Writer's pictureSteven Lee

Low/No-Cost Resources for the Aspiring Academic

Many critics of higher education in America denounce the increasing cost to students who are often forced to take out loans at high interest rates only to spend many years post-graduation paying back the debt. Students, regardless of field, utilize numerous resources to perform a variety of tasks related to coursework, teaching, and research. Thus, it is a relief whenever students can access these tools for free or at a deep discount. In this post, I discuss several free (or nearly free) resources for college and graduate students. I have personally used (and continue to use) each and every one of these; Together, they have made my life as an academic much more efficient and, frankly, bearable. The following is my Top-10 List of free academic resources in no particular order.

1. Microsoft Office 360

Despite moving its suite of products to a subscription-based service, Microsoft permits students at eligible institutions and with institutional emails to download and use MS Office at no cost. The suite includes Word, Excel, and Power Point (among others). These are the three you will likely use the most. If you are in a business or finance field like me, you will likely use all of them nearly all of the time.

2. Dropbox

The introduction of cloud technology meant no student should ever lose his or her work again...ever. Growing up, I remember having to save term papers every five minutes and then save to floppy disks before leaving the computer lest some catastrophe such as a power surge or other defect assault my machine. Now, you can access all of your files anywhere there is Wi-Fi, which with most mobile phone plans, is everywhere. Dropbox is perhaps the best cloud-based technology available as you can share folders with others. All users of the shared folder are notified whenever files are updated. You can access Dropbox either via web browser or by downloading an application to your desktop, laptop, or mobile device. The basic plan comes with 2 GP of free storage, which is plenty for most students assuming you do not keep audio or video files in the cloud. If you require more, it costs $10/month for 2 TB of storage on the plus plan if you pay annually or $12/mo if you elect monthly payments.

3. SAS & SASeg

For most of my descriptive and econometric modeling, I use SAS enterprise guide (eg). There is other software out there, namely SPSS, STATA, and R, which may or may not contain free versions for students. SAS/SASeg offers an OnDemand for Academics program that is available to both students enrolled in a course that uses SAS as well as independent learners. There, you will also find helpful training videos and documentation for using SAS/SASeg. Keep in mind that no matter which software you use, the files tend to be quite large. When I used the free version of Dropbox, I elected to keep these files out of the cloud, or I used a different program such as Google Drive or OneDrive--both of which offer free versions. Keep in mind that storage limits on free plans are severely limited; Microsoft's OneDrive, for instance, offers a meager 5 GB of storage, which may or may not be enough.

4. Pexels

The pictures I attach to my articles when writing these blog posts are all royalty-free courtesy of Pexels. You won't find as great a selection as, say, Adobe or Shutterstock, but you also won't be paying $30 a picture (or anything, really). It is customary to give a shout-out to the artist as it helps build their brand and portfolio. On Pexels, you will find a decent selection of pictures across a wide array of topics. There are other free stock photo sites out there, but I use Pexels.

5. PDF Joiner

In pretty much every aspect of my academic life--from creating master study prep documents to tailoring my teaching portfolio for job applications--a pdf (or any type of file) joiner has saved me countless hours and the tedium of mind-numbing, repetitive tasks. is an easy-to-use online tool that will merge your pdf files for you. Simply select from Dropbox or your machine all the files you wish to merge in any order you wish. Click "merge" and then download your new file. It's that easy. Keep in mind that there are many similar sites offering this service, so you shouldn't ever need to download an application. Some sites place daily limits on the number of files you can merge. There are also sites that will split your files into single pages or slides (ex:

6. Researcher

A relatively new (est. 2017) London-based application, Researcher works particularly well on mobile devices. From anywhere that has an internet connection, you can search through countless journals by subject or keywords, bookmark individual papers, and send notifications about your chosen journals' updates and latest articles. This app is especially helpful when conducting literature reviews or searching for appropriate journals to place publications.

7. Experiment

Got a hypothesis and IRB approval for your latest project but still need funding to run an experiment or distribute a survey? Head over to where you can crowdfund your research. Think of it as the Kickstarter equivalent for academic projects. The site accepts proposals from most disciplines despite its science-themed decor. You can share your project on social media to garner attention from potential backers. Experiment allows you to spend less time on endless grant applications and more time doing research.

8. Octave

Where SAS/eg is the econometric software package for performing regressions and ANOVAs, Octave (official name is "GNU Octave") is the freeware equivalent of Matlab--a coding language for running complex mathematical operations such as Monte Carlo analysis. Octave even has plotting capabilities so you can see the simulation results in visual detail. Octave is less powerful than Matlab and takes slightly longer to run thousands of simulations. Typically, I can run 10,000 sims in about 45 seconds using Octave; If I were to pay the hundreds of dollars each year for a Matlab license, it would probably shave about 30 seconds off the time. The beauty with Octave is you can multitask by running a simulation in Octave and then spend a minute doing something else such as formatting your paper's header or consulting spellcheck.

9. Grammarly

Your word processor's spellchecker will often point out the glaring errors in spelling and, to an extent, grammar, but it won't identify basic grammatical errors in your writing. Grammarly is a free writing assistant you can install on your machine as an add-in to Word and a plug-in to your favorite browser. The free version helps you identify and correct basic errors while premium will show you advanced errors for $11.66/month. One of my bad habits (as you probably noticed reading my blog) is beginning sentences with adverbs. Grammarly helps you unlearn bad habits you have formed in your writing over the years. Generally, the more concise and direct your writing, the better; Grammarly helps with that.

10. SSRN

Also known as the "Social Science Research Network," this online database enables you to upload, share, and to a limited extent, cite/copyright your work. I say "limited" because, frankly, I am not a patent attorney, but I have read many published articles that cited other works that were posted on SSRN. It is a step up (or maybe a step aside) from both Google Scholar and ResearchGate in a few respects. First, SSRN is field-specific, focusing on Economics, Business, and other financial-based social sciences. The other two are not bound by this restriction. Second, GS is, in my opinion, not as intuitive in terms of submitting articles as the other two. Finally, RG is much more community-oriented, alerting you when others request full versions of your posted abstracts or even cites your work in their own papers. NOTE: Some academic journals do not permit the same work to be published in their periodicals and SSRN simultaneously. For this reason, many authors will post abstracts on SSRN but the full versions in the journals. Others will post early versions of their papers on SSRN with the final versions published in the peer-reviewed journal. Also, there is no guarantee that an unscrupulous author won't try to steal your work off of SSRN, so exercise caution when using this resource.

If you are financially stressed like most academics, these resources can help you advance through graduate school and even secure your first full-time job. Always realize, "You get what you pay for," and this is no exception. The difference between this and other aspects of life is that you can probably manage to get by with using free versions of the above. Remain cognizant of the fact that upgrades are often worth the expense as they expand the software's capabilities and enhance its functionality.

Do you use any freeware not listed here in your academic pursuits? Email me and I will take a look!

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