Rachit Nigam

Personal Infrastructure for PhD Students

January 09, 2022

Personal infrastructure loosely refers to all the tools and systems I have to interact on a regular basis to do my job as a PhD researcher. As a systems researcher, this includes obvious stuff like command-line tools and programming workflow as well as as the set of tools to build websites, write papers, manage TODO lists, and record videos.

Websites

Let’s get this one out of the way–as a PhD student, you need to have a personal website. It doesn’t need to dazzle, it doesn’t need to use bleeding-edge web frameworks and CSS animations but it needs to exist and it needs to be easy to find.

My website is built using zola, a static website generator written in Rust. Almost all of the styling is written in plain CSS with rules to make the website responsive. Please, for the love of god, make your website readable on a phone.

Tools. Using a static website generator, which takes all of your content written in a language of your choice and makes it web ready is going to be your best bet to have a maintainable infrastructure. Jekyll is wildly popular but provides way more features that I’ve ever needed. Previous versions of this website used:

  • Hakyll: Too slow and Haskell package management was a travesty.
  • Frog: Racket is amazingly expressive, but slow.
  • Hugo: Blazing fast but updates broke old code.

I’ve settled on zola because it’s fast and provides just enough features to maintain my website.

Styling and responsiveness. The style of your website is up to you. Many websites use templates such academic which are pretty good, but again, may provide far too many distracting features. If you’re hand rolling your own CSS, I recommend using CSS Flex and Grid to make your content responsive. They provide responsive layout features that Bootstrap provides without all the cruft.

Domain, deployment, and discoverability. I highly recommend buying your own personalized domain name–domains provided by institutions are temporary often annoyingly hard to remember. For example, my Cornell web address is https://cs.cornell.edu/~rnigam which requires you to remember what weird internal ID Cornell gave me. The second, potentially bigger reason is website deployment. My current setup uses Github Actions to automatically update my website when I push changes to my website repository. Doing this with the Cornell web hosting platform requires maintaining my own infrastructure of deployment hooks, servers, and scripts which is yet another thing to debug. Finally, discoverability makes it easier to find your website when someone looks up your name on Google. Doing this as an academic is pretty easy–make sure a bunch of .edu websites point to your website. Unless you have the same name as someone famous in which case, tough luck. Or take it as a challenge to be more famous than they are. This includes your advisor’s website, department website, research group website, etc.

All of this advice generally applies to project websites as well, which again, I highly recommend to make your research more visible and approachable.

Software

I use a fairly minimal set of software tools to do my day-to-day work, make presentations, and manage tasks.

Slides. Most of my presentations are written in Apple Keynote. People I know are divided on the use of animations in slides but I’m staunchly in support–it gives your slides that much more polish and forces you to memorize the transitions resulting in an overall better talk. I have yet to see a good talk made in LaTeX beamer; my unscientific belief is that beamer encourages adding too much math on your slides which is often the wrong thing to do for talks where the goal is to give an intuition behind your work. For teaching, however, I’ve found beamer to be a pretty good tool.

Recording. I’ve had to record talks for virtual conferences in the past and have used Screenflow for this. It works for what I do and I haven’t needed anything more. There might be better alternatives out there.

Task Management. Before and during my PhD, I’ve used a string of task management systems, from Todoist, Wunderlist, and even Github projects. I’ve settled on Omnifocus for the last two years and am quite happy with it. It uses the Getting Things Done school of task managements where you recording everything you need to do, file it under the right projects, and complete it when needed. Omnifocus’s most powerful feature for me has been the defer action which hides unactionable tasks from my list and makes them visible on the right day–providing an almost inhuman ability to recall commitments and tasks.

Technical Writing

Technical writing is the bread and butter of researchers–I’m always writing documents, either to discuss ideas with my team or to polish them up for a paper. I make copious use of Notability to jot down notes on my iPad and Markdown to write down ideas about systems I’m building.

Papers need to be far more polished and therefore I’ve only ever used LaTeX to write them. When starting a new paper, I copy over the bibliography file from the most recent paper and a pervasives.sty file that contains all the accumulated LaTeX hacks I’ve ever had to do. I tend to write everything in one giant file which makes it easier to track down a phrase in the paper and start editing it. Many people prefer separating out each section into a new file which might suit your team’s contribution style better.

Graphs and figures. Papers often need to contain visual elements like system diagrams and measurement graphs. I use OmniGraffle to make diagrams and use python scripts that use seaborn or Vega to generate graphs.

Programming Workflow

Onto the good stuff and things most likely to cause a flamewar. My configuration for various tools is publicly available.

Editor. I use neovim which is a modern rewrite of the vim editor. If you’re interested in emacs, I’ve heard good things about spacemacs. If you like the 21st century, you may use VS Code instead.

Shell. zsh has been my favored shell for a long time. It provides a bunch of quality of life improvements over bash owing to its powerful plugin system. Oh my Zsh is a popular addon for zsh and adds a bunch of nice features to it but can often be slow and bloated. antigen is a plugin manager for zsh that mostly circumvents these problems by only installing what you need and aggressively caching slow things. In a past life, I used the fish shell but got frustrated with the POSIX compatibility problems which would break a lot of build scripts.

Tmux. Tmux is a powerful terminal multiplexer that allows you manage multiple shell sessions side-by-side. When programming, I usually split my terminal into three sections: one for the editor and two for interactive commands. My tmux configuration changes the default keybindings to be easier to remember as well as some visual elements to track the current window, name of session, time, and date.

Miscellaneous.

  • fzf is a generic fuzzy-finding tool that supercharges your search history command among other things.
  • entr watches for file changes and executes a command.
  • autojump is database-backed cd alternative.
  • rg is a modern grep alternative which much, much faster.
  • fd is a find alternative with saner defaults.

Have comments? Email or tweet at me.