In my experience PhD students tend to finish in batches. I wish it wasn’t that way but for me it is, mostly because of funding cycles. This means that once every 4 years I have between 4 and 8 students finishing up. It’s a stressful time for them and for me. And, unfortunately, every cycle there is a reasonable chance that one of them will experience a catastrophic loss of data, due to a hard-drive crash or equivalent, which really exposes weak backup policies. For a PhD student it can be devastating because it can mean a loss of thesis and experimental data that could in the worst case set them back years.
Thankfully it has never come to this because I always hammer home the 3-2-1 rule of backups:
3 – Keep 3 copies of everything.
2 – Keep backups on 2 different media types or at least in 2 different locations.
1 – Make sure one backup is offsite.
I use a variation on this approach as follows. First I keep a copy of my main Documents (root) folder sync’ed through Dropbox. There is a particular trick to doing this and care needs to be taken – check out these instructions – but once it is done you will have a backup stored by Dropbox. A great advantage of this is that you now also have access to all of your Document files from Dropbox on any of your other devices or through a browser.
Second, I use Apple’s Time Machine to perform daily incremental backups to a hard-drive at work. This also allows me to recover lost files using Apple’s great Time Machine browser.
Third, every week (more or less) I create a clone of my laptop drive using Carbon Copy Cloner to a USB drive at home. This means that I can boot up from this external drive in a pinch if I need to and have access to up to the second files via Dropbox.
This has worked well for me, allowing me to recover from some bad drive failures without any significant downtime.
That said I am currently evaluating how I might be able to spend more of my time in the cloud, as a strategy for ditching my laptop, or at least not carrying it everywhere. I plan using a iPad Air with a keyboard as my main machine. No doubt this will introduce some new backup and syncing challenges…