Degree In Sight

Cool tools

Smartphone apps

Details: Psychology-focused applications for the iPhone, iPad and Droid that can, for instance, help you learn cognitive behavioral therapy, memorize parts of the brain or organize your dissertation ideas.

Cost: Most apps are free or cost around $4.

Perks: Apps such as "3D Brain" and "BrainTutor" for iPhone and iPad allow you to explore maps of the brain. You can read about each region, including how it reacts when injured and is involved in mental illness, says Scott Hines, a librarian at Palo Alto University. He also recommends "PubMed on Tap," which allows you to search the medical reference database and read full-text articles on your phone, some of which are free and some requiring a subscription.

Another psychology-student favorite is "CBT Referee," which runs on iPad and Droid and introduces students to the cognitive behavioral therapy perspective and how to spot and reverse flawed thinking.

Michael Britt, PhD, a psychologist who develops e-learning software for Pearson, recommends "Popplet," an iPad app that helps you organize your ideas through digital "brainstorm clusters" or flowcharts.

If you're taking the GRE, the "Mental Case" app for iPhone has digital flash cards of GRE vocabulary words, as well as key math facts, says Lindsey H. Steding, a graduate student at Missouri State University, who also uses the app to create flash cards for her psychology classes. Psychology student David Rivera uses "PsychTerms," a free app for iPhone, to look up terminology to describe his clients at St. Luke's Roosevelt Hospital in New York City. "I had a patient who was having hallucinations when she was going to sleep and upon waking, and I was able to double-check the definitions of hypnagogic and hypnopompic hallucinations to make sure I was using them correctly in my report," he says.

Pitfalls: Most apps have their flaws. If you toss a flash card in Mental Case during a practice session, for example, the app doesn't remember you tossed it and will bring it back the next time you study that list, says Steding. Shari Kim, of Fielding Graduate University, who listens to journal articles as she drives to work through "SpeakIT!" for the iPhone, says the app has a tendency to read every bit of punctuation, such as ampersands, which can be distracting. "It took me awhile to realize there was no one named 'Ambers' in the articles I was listening to," she says.

Insider's tip: When using some apps, consider buying the extra Web-based package if there is one available. With Mental Case, for example, it's easier to create flashcards — especially ones with pictures — with the desktop version.

Diffusion tensor imaging

Details: Brain-scan technology that traces connections among different parts of the brain, also known as white matter.

Cost: Around $100 per session if your university has an fMRI machine. fMRI — which costs between $400 and $500 an hour to run — and DTI use the same scanner; getting DTI data simply requires a person to lie in the scanner approximately 6 to 10 additional minutes, says Marcel Just, PhD, of Carnegie Mellon University.

Perks: Just and other brain-imaging experts predict that examining white matter through DTI is going to answer questions that have stumped scientists for years, such as why some people can think more flexibly than others. "There are infinite possibilities for this type of research," says Susumu Mori, PhD, of Johns Hopkins University. Just discovered white matter deficiencies in the brains of children who are poor readers, findings he published recently in Neuron (Vol. 64, No. 5). In fact, he found that a behavioral intervention reduced those deficiencies and put the children's reading on par with their peers. "DTI is a gold mine for brain science," says Just.

Pitfalls: DTI is a little louder than fMRI, due to a slight difference in the way the electromagnets are energized. Also, doing a DTI data analysis is complicated and may require you to shadow a seasoned researcher who has experience with the technology or take a formal workshop on DTI to understand how it works.

Insider's tip: Carnegie Mellon and the University of Pittsburgh offer a six-week neuroimaging summer workshop that includes DTI training. There is also a study group on DTI sponsored by the International Society of Magnetic Resonance in Medicine, says Mori.

Subject pool management software

Details: Software designed for scheduling and managing research participants.

Cost: Free, if your school has its own software or a subscription to Sona Systems/Experimetrix, the main company behind subject pool management. A subscription to Sona varies depending on how many students and researchers use the software each year, but a typical annual fee is $1,000. At least two psychology departments — Colorado State University and Ball State University — have designed such software in-house.

Perks: These systems provide a centralized, online way for researchers to post experiment descriptions, list eligibility requirements, set up research appointments and administer research. They can also e-mail reminders to participants, screen potential participants and help you target a particular demographic, such as bilingual women, says Justin L. Matthews, a cognitive and information sciences graduate student at the University of California at Merced who administers the Sona software for his school.

Pitfalls: Research participants may need to reactivate their accounts if they haven't participated in a study for an extended period of time. That can cause delays and confusion. Monica Kern, PhD, of the University of Kentucky, has found that scheduling sessions for an experiment that offers different time slots at multiple locations through Sona can be tricky. By contrast, Colorado State University's Donna Merwarth, who designed the psychology department's system, can tailor the program to schedule and administer any type of study, from a simple online survey via SurveyMonkey to a lab-based memory study that requires participants to come in on two consecutive days.

Insider's tip: Matthews set up a frequently-asked-questions Web page for students and participants that has reduced the number of troubleshooting-related e-mails. For Sona users, he suggests that system administrators e-mail the company directly with any questions or concerns. "They typically respond in less than four hours," says Matthews.

Readability

Details: An add-on for your Web browser that strips out the advertisements and other graphics so you can read online publications clutter-free. Download it.

Cost: Free.

Perks: Readability can help reformat websites into whatever format you prefer, including "newspaper" font, or white text on black screen. It also it allows you to adjust font sizes and margin widths. To make copy even cleaner, it can convert an article's hyperlinks into footnotes.

Readability's designers say it's popular among people who need few distractions when they read, such as the elderly, people with cognitive or learning disabilities, and people with attention problems. Blind people can use the program to keep their screen-reading software from reading advertisements.

But it's the font size control that may offer the biggest reader benefit, says cognitive psychologist Kevin Larson, PhD, of Microsoft, who researches on-screen reading. Studies show that eye fatigue starts for most people when text size is smaller than 12 points; the text size for most online articles is 10 points or less.

Pitfalls: Readability can't be set as a default option; you must click on the icon each time you want to unclutter your prose. The software also misses a bit of graphic junk now and then. Also, taking font control away from Web designers can affect reading, says Larson. "In our studies, people are able to read faster when there is a match between the personality of the font and the personality of the content," he says.

Insider's tip: If you like to be green, Readability may encourage you to print fewer articles. When you do print, the software's ability to skip advertisements and graphics can save toner and paper.