By Drew Thomas |


With a new academic year approaching and having graduated this past summer, I thought of no better a time to reflect on the best practices that helped me earn my PhD. It’s been about three and half years since I first submitted a post to Pubs and Publications and since then I have enjoyed contributing many more and being part of the committee. But alas, it is time for me to move on and I hope some of the things that helped me complete my thesis can help you as well. The following are the five best practices that got me to submission:

1. Start Using a Reference Manager Immediately

If you can only adopt one item on this list, please let it be this. Writing a PhD thesis has evolved over the decades. Just like no one uses a typewriter anymore to type their thesis, you no longer need a filing cabinet or collection of index cards to keep up with your sources.

A reference manager is like iTunes or Spotify, but instead of songs, you save bibliographic citations. You can create “playlists” for each of your chapters or articles and attach PDFs to each record. With a browser plugin, you can just click a button when viewing a library catalogue record or a journal article and it will automatically import all the info into your reference manager. It’s like having your own personal library catalogue. I also use mine as a PDF organiser and have it automatically extract my annotations and insert them into a note with page number citations. When it comes time to writing, you can drag and drop a reference into Microsoft Word and it will automatically format it as a footnote following the citation style of your choice. Believe me, when it comes time to generate the bibliography for your thesis, it’s as easy as clicking a button. It’s hard to think of creating that bibliography now, but trust me, you won’t regret it.

So which reference manager should you use? I use Zotero, but many people also use Mendeley. Choose one and stick to it!

2. Keep Your Writing on Track

Sometimes when writing your thesis, you just want to write every possible thing you know about your research topic. But overwriting is a serious problem. It’s difficult to cut sections out when you’re past your word count. More importantly, it takes up lots of your time to do so. I was a bit hesitant at first, but I ended up using Scrivener to write my thesis and am so glad I did.

Scrivener is a word-processor and outliner that helps you focus only on writing. It allowed me to divide my chapters and sub-sections so I’m only focusing on that part. Best of all, I could assign word count goals to each section so I could have an overview of how much I needed to write and how it was going to fit into the larger whole. I always knew how many words a section was going to have before I started writing it, which helped keep me on track. Of course, I could be flexible and adjust as needed, which I did, but I was always aware of the overall shape. I only used this for writing my first drafts and then I could easily export everything as a Word document to send to my supervisor. Even if you don’t use a programme like Scrivener, it’s still good to adopt these practices to keep on track.

3. Smaller Societies Have Money Too

For many PhD students, you will need to travel for research to visit a library or archive. Many societies have funding for short-term research trips. Ask your fellow students and staff members about societies related to your research topic. These smaller societies often have grants, which are much less competitive than the larger academic societies. I study the early modern book trade and won a small grant from the Bibliographical Society. I was very grateful and these smaller societies are eager to fund research.

4. Get Involved

Speaking of academic societies, you should join them! Joining these smaller, specialized societies are a great way to learn more about your subject and to network with like-minded scholars. They often have annual conferences which you can apply to speak at and journals that usually have articles more likely to be in your area than the larger academic journals. But, as we all know, a PhD is more than just writing. There is a lot we can learn from our fellow students. Helping navigate the complicated path of a PhD is one of our priorities at Pubs and Publications. Volunteer to write a post or better yet, think about joining our committee.

5. Find a Good Pub

Lest we only talk about publications on our blog, I must emphasize the importance of a good pub. Everybody needs to take a break every once and a while. Find a pub and make it your home. It’s a great place to socialize with your peers, share in the struggles of postgrad life, and further develop the research ideas challenging you the most.


Do you want to learn more of the best tips for PhD students? Signup for our Ultimate Guide for First-Year PhDs.

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Drew Thomas received his PhD in History from the University of St Andrews in 2018. His thesis was on the early modern book trade during Martin Luther’s Protestant Reformation. He is currently a postdoctoral research assistant with the Preserving the World’s Rarest Books project at the University of St Andrews. He has served for the past three years as the Pubs and Publications Technical Editor. You can follow him on Twitter (@DrewBThomas) or


Image by Andrew Hurley (CC BY-SA 2.0)