My top 5 software recommendations for PhD students

Two weeks ago my laptop died. On the plus side, my University department arranged to have it looked at quickly, and sent it off to be repaired within a few days. It finally came back safe and sound on Thursday. In the meantime, West Highland College UHI lent me a laptop to use, which meant my productivity didn’t grind to a complete halt. However, the experience of using a different laptop for over a week made me realise how much I have come to depend on the software installed on my own laptop and office computer.

laptop at 3wm.jpg

I celebrated being reunited with my laptop by taking a wee trip to the local climbing wall cafe!

At this time of year, many people have just begun their doctorates. New PhD students often use social media to ask for tips on how to manage their reading, their notes, and their time. At the beginning of my first year, I took time to try out lots of different computer programmes and apps based on tips from blogs and Twitter. My recent laptop meltdown has taught me that there are now a few I can’t live without. Here are the top 5 computer programmes and apps I’d recommend to any PhD student:

1. Dropbox

I assume most people are already using Dropbox (or a similar ‘cloud’), but if you’re not aware of it, I’d encourage you to look into it. Dropbox is a piece of software which you can download to your computer and which syncs to a ‘cloud’. This means that even if your computer dies, you can still log onto the Dropbox website and access all your files.

Let’s just say that when you wake up in the morning and your laptop won’t turn on, it calms the panic somewhat to know that everything you have been working on up until that moment is stored in Dropbox. I also regularly back up my material onto an external hard-drive, but even if you do this frequently, you’ll still probably lose some work if your laptop or computer fails unexpectedly. The other wonderful thing about Dropbox is that you can install it onto more than one device, so it’s no hassle to switch between working on your laptop at home and your office computer. I use the basic, free version which comes with 2GB storage. When it begins to fill up I’ll move some files to my external hard drive, but it’s worth mentioning that over a year into my PhD it’s still not full.

2. Mendeley

Mendeley is a PDF management and referencing tool, which you can download and use for free. It works a little like Dropbox, in that it syncs between the Mendeley ‘cloud’ and the installed desktop programme on your computer (and you can install it on more than one device). You can upload journal articles as PDFs and then highlight text, ‘pin’ notes, search for specific topics or words (it’s fully text searchable!) and organise your PDFs into folders. You can also filter by author, publication, tags or keywords.


Mendeley has fast become indispensable! (Image: Team Mendeley via Wikimedia Commons)

Mendeley can also be used as a referencing management tool. Most papers I download  will populate the relevant fields such as title, author, journal and date automatically, but sometimes this information has to be input manually. You can install a plug-in for Word which allows you to import the referencing information immediately, and change referencing styles at the touch of a button. If I’m honest the referencing side of things hasn’t worked perfectly for me so far, but it’s certainly made things a lot easier. It’s possible that other referencing software has better functionality, but as I use Mendeley extensively for PDF management and note-taking, I’ll put up with some niggles around referencing.

I’d never used Mendeley before, as much of my reading for my Undergraduate & Masters degrees had been from books or archival material. Now I still read books but have more papers to read than before. I type up my notes from books and convert the Word document to PDF before saving to Mendeley. This means I have all of my reading material in one place, and it’s much easier to keep track of.

I use the free version, which comes with 2GB storage space. You can upgrade to different packages if you need more storage space. I haven’t had to do this yet, and I have 700 papers and reports saved in mine!

3. OneNote

OneNote is a computer programme which comes with Microsoft Office. It’s very easy to create a filing system which is easy to navigate even when there are lots of ‘pages’ (which are essentially tabs across the top like an internet browser) and ‘sections’ which are tabs going vertically down the right-hand side of any opened page. It’s also fully searchable, so if I want to search my notes for a particular word or phrase, it’s very easy to do so. I paste from a lot of media articles into OneNote, and it automatically creates a link back to the original web page. It’s extremely flexible, so you can make a page as large as you like, you can insert images and if you have a tablet and stylus you can even write notes rather than typing.

I’ve been using OneNote to keep my research journal since the first few weeks of my PhD, but at the beginning of my second year, I also realised I needed a better way of keeping track of my reading notes. Now, in addition to the notes I take on Mendeley I’ve created new pages and sections in OneNote which are organised around theme and author. It’s almost like having a digital lever-arch file with lots of different tabs which are easily accessed. It’s been a great tool for organising and keeping track of my thoughts, ideas and reading notes.


OneNote is such a flexible note-taking tool, it’s hard to remember what I did without it! (Image: Microsoft via Wikimedia Commons)

4. Wunderlist

This is quite a new one for me, but Wunderlist is a great app for keeping track of the many things on my to-do list. I’m a huge fan of comprehensive lists, as I get quite stressed when I try to keep everything in my head. On Wunderlist you can create different lists, so I have a long-term, short-term and immediate list. It’s a useful tool for project management as you get deeper into your PhD and the tasks begin to pile up! At the moment I only have this app on my phone, but it’s possible to install it onto your laptop or PC too, so it works across different devices (in case you hadn’t noticed, I use a lot of cloud-based technology as I move around a lot!).

5. Google Docs

I have a vivid memory of the first time I used a shared Google Doc on my Google Drive. It was early in my first year, and I was working on a collaborative funding application with other PhD students based across Scotland. We all connected on Skype and discussed the application which we all had opened in Google Docs. As we decided on what to write or how to phrase things, we went in and edited the document right then and there, with the other members of the group able to see the changes immediately. Gone are the days where you have to edit a document, save, email it, and then wait for a response. We could easily have all been in a room together! It was so efficient and quickly became one of my favourite ‘remote researcher’ hacks.

Final thoughts

Despite my best efforts, throughout this article you may have been able to tell that I’m not the most technologically savvy person out there. I’m very much the sort of person who would rather plod through a task which takes longer on a computer programme I’m used to, instead of using a platform which is more efficient but I’m not familiar with. I made a decision at the beginning of my PhD to overcome this mental block and spent at least a week comparing referencing, note-taking and time-management software. I knew it was important to be organised from the very beginning, because a huge part of a PhD is about project management skills. I hope this overview of my favourite digital tools is useful, and I’d encourage you to spend the time to explore the options out there. For those of you who have already done so – what are your top recommendations?

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