By Drew Thomas |

When you’re first beginning your PhD, it can be a bit overwhelming. How in the world are you supposed to organize everything? Not just your reading lists, but other things. I have my thesis to write, grants to apply for, research trips to arrange, Pubs & Pubs articles to write, and digital humanities projects I’m a part of. And somehow, I’m supposed to maintain an active social media presence!  To do all of that, I use a plethora of apps, tools, plugins, and websites. Below, I list items I’ve used, currently use, or know about but haven’t adopted for myself. Everyone is different and responds to various time managements tools differently. Maybe you’ve tried a few over the past semester or maybe you keep procrastinating. Remember, it’s not about the tools, but how you use them. At times I have the tendency to get so caught up in systems that I lose sight of the goal! So if they don’t work for you, ditch them. Hopefully, some will help you, even in the tiniest of ways, to progress a bit more easily to that submission deadline.


  • Google Scholar  |  A great search engine that searches universities, academic publishers, and other depositories for peer-reviewed research. A great way to find new or unknown research.
  • Zotero  |  A fantastic reference manager that lets you save references from websites with the click of a button. Great for organizing research and searching through research.
  • Mendeley  |  Similar to Zotero, a great reference manager, particularly favoured in the sciences. Also, has a PDF reader and acts as a social network for collaboration and sharing.
  • Quiqqa  |  Another reference manager with many built-in tools, such as cross-referencing articles cited in the footnotes of your other articles.



  • Notability  |  A great mobile note-taking app, specifically optimized for tablets.
  • Evernote  |  A great note-taking app that syncs across devices. You can tag and organize your notes. It even reads your handwriting!
  • iAnnotate  |  One of the best apps for annotating PDFs on a tablet. I use this regularly to read journal articles. It also syncs with Dropbox, Google Drive, etc.
  • Adobe Acrobat  |  Adobe has stepped up to gain some of the tablet market gained by iAnnotate. The new annotation features on the free version are quite impressive.
  • ZotFile  |  The savior of my PhD. ZotFile is a Zotero plugin that extracts your annotations from your marked up PDF documents. If you highlight text in iAnnotate or Adobe Acrobat, ZotFile extracts it and adds the notes to the bibliographic record in your reference manager, making them fully searchable. Never read an article twice.


Data Backup

  • Dropbox  |  An independent cloud storage device that syncs across all your devices.
  • Google Drive |  Google’s Dropbox alternative. You can directly save your email attachments to Google Drive.
  • iCloud  |  In addition to backing up all of your research, if you have an iPhone it will automatically back up all of the photos you’ve been taking in the library all day.


Task/Project Management

  • Trello  |  A great project management tool using the kanban method, often implemented with the Getting Things Done productivity hack. It’s great for collaboration and visualizing your progress.
  • Slack  |  Slack is a messaging app for teams. Instead of using email, it keeps all of your project messages and notes in one place.
  • Bullet Journal  |  Ok, this isn’t an app. It’s an old-fashioned notebook. But it’s a great analog system of keeping track of your life, allowing for constant evaluation of what you spend time on. Read Laura’s recent post on getting started. I’ve been doing it about two weeks now and am loving it.



  • Scrivener  |  A great text editor that is perfect for writing chapter drafts. It allows for shuffling around bits and pieces until your draft is in its final form. Then it can be easily exported into Microsoft Word.
  • Grammarly  |  Think Microsoft Word grammar check on steroids. Grammarly is a plugin that makes your writing easy to read and mistake free (and helped with this post!).


Travel Planning

  • Skyscanner  |  One of the best websites/apps for finding a cheap flight. You can also search prices within an entire month or find the cheapest month to travel.
  • Kayak  |  Another great website for finding air tickets. The best feature: the ability to use a flexible search, which searches the days near your selected dates for the best price.
  • Hopper  |  A great app that tells you if your plane ticket is a good deal. It shows you the best days to fly to your destination and the best day to buy a ticket for that specified route.
  • RyanAir  |  In case you missed it, RyanAir have updated their carry-on luggage policy; you can now bring two bags in the cabin free of charge. Just won my vote!
  • Airbnb  |  If you are going on a short research trip, but a bit longer than you’re willing to stay in a hostel, Airbnb is your best option. You can get a nice place for a great price, meet some locals, and learn about the city.
  • GateGuru  |  Long layover in an airport? GateGuru will show you all the restaurants and shops in the terminal.
  • Google Trips | A great new app from Google that will automatically collect your travel details from your emails and allow you to download maps for offline use.


Social Media

  • Twitter  |  Needs no introduction, but I use Twitter for purely academic purposes. A great way to network and to learn about calls for papers and jobs.
  •  |  LinkedIn for academics. It’s great for finding papers by a scholar you’re interested in. Read why it’s a good idea.
  • Buffer  |  A great app for managing your social media accounts. You can schedule posts and use their plugin to add articles on the web directly to your queue.
  • TweetDeck  |  Twitter’s user interface for its advanced users. Manage multiple Twitter feeds in one place, schedule tweets, follow hashtags, and watch it update in real time.
  • Nuzzel  |  Link your Twitter account (or others) to Nuzzel and it will provide you with a daily digest of the most popular news stories from your Twitter feed.


Stay Focused

  • Headspace  |  Need to clear your thoughts? This nifty app helps you clear your head and focus on meditating.
  • 7-Minute Workout  |  A healthy body leads to a healthy mind. If you don’t exercise regularly, try this app to help get your blood going and your mind focused.
  • Tomato Timer  |  The key to staying focused is having small, scheduled breaks. Use this timer, which implements the Pomodoro technique.
  • RescueTime  |  How much time do you spend checking your email or Facebook? RescueTime keeps track of how you spend your time so you can be more productive.
  • AdBlock  |  The best Google Chrome plugin. Get rid of those pesky, distracting ads.
  • StayFocusd  |  Another Chrome plugin that limits the amount of time you can spend on specified websites. Only 30 minutes on Facebook today! Want this across devices? Try Freedom.
  • f.lux  |  It took a few days to get used to, but I love it! F.lux removes the blue light from your computer monitor when the sun sets so the bright light won’t keep you up all night.
  • Spotify  |  Because I couldn’t get through a day if I didn’t have my music.


Staying Secure

  • LastPass  |  With all these apps and tools, you probably have way too many usernames and passwords. Never use easy passwords. Use a password manager to keep track of them all.
  • 1Password  |  Another popular password manager. Never use the same password for multiple websites.


Drew Thomas is a PhD student at the University of St Andrews. He has a Bachelor of Arts in Theology and Philosophy from Saint Louis University and a Master of Theological Studies from Harvard University. His PhD is a study of the rise of the Wittenberg print industry during Martin Luther’s Reformation. He is currently the Communications Coordinator for the Universal Short Title Catalogue and the Digital Developer for the Caroline Minuscule Mapping Project. You can follow him on Twitter at @DrewBThomas or on


Image from Jason Howie under the Creative Commons License.