By Lucie Whitmore, with Laura Harrison & Heather Carroll |

As many of us are well aware, at least 25% of doing a PhD is remembering where that quote came from, or where you wrote that note about methodology that would be really useful right now. In an ideal world, PhD students would be given a secretary and a technical support team. At the very least, advice on how to cope logistically with the amount of ‘stuff’ you acquire over three years of intense research would be useful. I do have a vague recollection of bibliographic software being mentioned in one of the ‘core training’ programs we have to take in first year at my university, but I clearly was not concentrating.  Handily for Pubs & Pubs readers, Drew Thomas has reviewed some of the most useful software options in previous blog posts, but how do PhDs use them as part of a wider system?

The aim of this blog post is to advise those new to their research projects on some of the methods you can use to organise and manage your research, data, writing, to-do lists and all the other scraps of information that you collect either digitally or scribbled in notebooks. Three current PhD students reveal the methods, apps, software or stationary that keep their PhD in shape. Think of this as snooping around their desks, opening the recent files on their computer, flicking through their notebooks and ring binders, (and hoping you find snacks in the drawer).


I’ll start with the combination of hi-tech and low-tech options that works for me.

Lucie (3rd year PhD in Dress History) 



This is my number one essential tool. I have a notebook on Evernote for every different part of my research and I document everything I read within those notebooks. I title each note with the bibliographic information of the book or article (in the Chicago format), and keep my notes and comments with page numbers. I also put my primary research, development ideas, and pretty much everything else PhD related into Evernote. The best thing is that all the notebooks are word searchable, this saves me so much time!


I am new to this but it has quickly become an essential. I am by no means an expert, but it is an excellent tool if you write in a messy/bitty way like I do. My favourite thing about Scrivener is the split screen mode – so you can look at a piece of research or an earlier draft while writing on another document. You can also set writing goals for each session. I have a lot to learn with this software, but I already would not be without it.




I back everything up to Dropbox. Constantly. I am way to lazy to write something twice if my computer crashes and it gets lost! Dropbox is also compatible with my next essential – Notability. 


A great app that allows you to edit PDF documents. I save all my reading (journal articles) and writing drafts to Notability and use it on my iPad to either edit or highlight as necessary. Saves trees and printing costs!


Despite my use of technology I am a stationery addict. I rely on my year planner and week planner to set deadlines and fit everything in. I always have a nice notebook on the go, and not one day goes by that I don’t make a to-do list. I stick them up at eye level in front of my desk so that I cannot avoid them.



I am not going to argue that Twitter is essential to my PhD, but given the recent kerfuffle surrounding academic use of social media I wanted to bring up HOW GREAT Twitter can be for PhD students. For the first two years of my PhD I worked from home, and without Twitter I would have felt incredibly isolated. I discovered an academic community that I could connect with and all kinds of likeminded people. Not for everyone, not for everything, but helpful nonetheless.

Photoshop – If you have Photoshop it can be a great tool for managing visual source material. I use it to layout pages of images, make conference posters, and design Powerpoint slides.  (More on Powerpoint here)

Pubs & Pubs founder Laura uses a combination of slightly lower-tech methods to manage her PhD.

Laura Harrison (3rd year PhD in Scottish History)


Binders and Dividers

I am old-school in terms of how I sort my research. I prefer to take handwritten notes, which means I have big binders with a lot of dividers. Pro: I feel like I have actually accomplished something in the last two years looking at my rather full binders. Con: they are not really backed up. In a fire I would save my PhD binders possibly before my loved ones.

Bright colours distract from the tedious notes within

Bullet Journaling

I became a convert to bullet journaling a few months ago, and now I am OBSESSED. I was already a diary keeper (old-school), but bullet journaling takes it to a new level. It is a diary, to do list, journal, and idea notebook all in one. For info on how to get started bullet journaling, I wrote a post about it for Pubs and Pubs, but also see here.

Email Folders

BACK UP YOUR FILES! My computer recently crashed and for about 24 hours I thought I lost everything on the hard-drive. I spent the whole time thanking every god I could think of that my PhD files were all backed up. I used to back up all of my writing and outlines on Dropbox, but I found things got lost or I wanted older versions of drafts but had saved over them. I entirely blame myself for this, rather than Dropbox, but I find it easier to use email folders. At the end of a writing day I email myself what I’ve been working on and it goes right into the specific folders (due to the subject line).

Reading Lists

I love my reading lists. They are colour-coded and when I finish something I get to check it off like a to-do list. I keep all of these with my notes for each chapter so I can easily check what I have and haven’t read. Two years into the PhD I find myself checking these more often, as I can’t remember what I read yesterday, let alone in 2014.



I really cannot improve on Lucie’s comments about Twitter, and I have found it particularly useful for networking and CfPs. I also use Twitter beyond my personal account, through Pubs and Pubs and the Scottish History Network, and it is essential to the success of both these projects.


My dirty little secret is that I have to listen to instrumental Disney songs when I write. I have no idea why, but it has been like this for years.

Almost at the end of her PhD, Heather relies on a few key pieces of technology.

Heather Carroll (PhD History of Art, corrections)



When I was starting my Masters, OneNote was new and I gave it a try and now it’s an essential means of organising my notes and outlining my research.  Like EverNote, it’s easy to categorise notes and you can easily insert pictures as well; I tend to take screenshots of primary source material and file it in a note tab.  It’s also extremely phd-brain friendly by automatically saving as you go. I have mine hooked up to Microsoft’s cloud so that I can access my notes on my office computer, laptop, and ipad – for when I’m taking notes in the library.



This is a free (with optional premium upgrade) online service that monitors what you are doing on your computer all day.  You can mark which programmes and websites are distracting and which are productive and every time you check you get a graph breakdown of how much of the time spent on your computer was productive.  It also automatically gives you goals eg. spend 1 hour daily on distracting time and 4 hours on productive time. I’ve found this to be especially useful since so much of PhD research is about self-discipline; RescueTime is like the daunting headmistress keeping you on track.




My examiners didn’t like the citation style that my department required for my thesis so I am currently converting everything (quite rightly) to Chicago Style. This has been made so much easier with EndNote. The programme has its quirks (it still hasn’t figured out ‘ibid’ 100%) but all in all, it’s been so much better than manual citation.


Lucie Whitmore is a third year doctoral researcher at the University of Glasgow, studying women’s fashion in First World War Britain. Her research seeks to explore the social, cultural and emotional experiences of women on the Home Front through surviving items of dress in museum collections. She has worked as an intern at the Museum of Edinburgh throughout her PhD, recently co-curating a new costume gallery that opens in October 2016. You can find her on Twitter @LucieWhitmore.

Images 1-3: Lucie Whitmore, Images 4-5: Laura Harrison, Image 6: Heather Carroll