My PhD Toolkit

I get this question asked a lot: “What (digital) tools did you use to do your PhD?

So, here’s my very short answer:

  1. Hardware (part 1): Buy a Mac. Seriously. I used a MacBookPro almost exclusively throughout the whole process and I suspect it would still be going strong if I hadn’t dropped it. I’m now using a 13″ MacBook Air. Heaven.
  2. Hardware (part 2): A mobile phone with a good camera. I use an iPhone and I’ve got Genius Scan+ installed as an app. If I need to take a scan of something (e.g. book page) I can whip out my phone, snap, enhance the image, tag and send to Dropbox (see #8 below) for later use.
  3. For writing: Scrivener. Hands down the best writing tool out there for compiling a large and complex document (like a thesis). Also, it’s relatively inexpensive, has awesome tutorials/help and it plays nicely with most citation software. There’s education pricing, too.
  4. For pdf management and referencing software: Papers 2 (NOT Papers 3). Papers 3 is still in beta and has some bugs that I’m just not happy with. The good news is that Papers also has an iPad app which has a clunky but reasonable sync system. If you read and annotate an article on your iPad/Mac, it can sync back to your Mac/iPad with all the notes/highlights etc intact. Nifty.
  5. For keeping notes and random ideas etc: Evernote. Buy the premium version. It has auto back-up and also makes the content of your notes searchable. You can make individual notebooks (e.g. ‘methodology’ or ‘thesis ideas’) and drop your stuff in there. It also has a robust tagging system. Pair with their mobile version for notes on the go.
  6. For thinking: Moleskine notebooks^. I used a combination of blank and lined depending on what I wanted to do/my mood at the time. For added awesomeness, use the Pilot G–2 pen (for words) or something like a Pentel mechanical pencil and a 2B graphite (I prefer the 0.7mm) for drawing/sketching/mapping ideas. Carry everywhere.
  7. For sharing with others (read: supervisors): MS Word. Eventually you are going to have to share your writing with someone who doesn’t have Scrivener installed. Since most people seem to have access to MS Word, it makes sense to export your work from Scrivener into a Word document and then email it to them.
  8. For accessing your stuff everywhere: Dropbox^^. I bought a subscription that allowed me to boost the amount of storage I could access, but the ‘cloud’ storage market is shifting rapidly. Consider if you really need to upgrade. I suspect that soon you’ll be able to use something like Apple’s iCloud service and get plenty of storage for free (see #1 above).

This should be enough to get you going and I’ll write more about each of these tools individually in upcoming posts – including exactly how I used them. Maybe I’ll even do some screencasts. Let me know if you would like me to do that.

^ Technically, not a digital tool. But the Moleskine ‘marketplace’ is expanding significantly to encompass digital workflows. See, for example, the ways in which Evernote and Moleskine work together.
^^ Be careful about storing sensitive data in a place like Dropbox. The service is hosted in the US and your ethics might prevent you transporting data across national borders. Also, be concerned about data security. Don’t store something in an online, for profit, service if you are concerned about the confidentiality and security of your data. These kinds of services can (and do) get hacked.