Productivity tools for every PhD student

Life is too complicated not to be orderly. --Martha Stewart

Hey there! Today I will give you a list of essential software tools to increase your productivity as a PhD student or researcher. This guide is written based on my experience as a graduate student in systems research. However, some points made here may be applicable to a broader audience. I classify these tools into 6 main categories:

Notes taking

As a PhD student or researcher, note taking is very essential, and you need to keep track of your ideas and thoughts as you go along. I recommend having both digital and manual note taking systems. For digital note taking Evernote is my favorite. Evernote is a very popular note taking software, is very flexible and helps you easily create notes with lists, images, links, etc. It synchronizes your data across various devices and provides browser plugins to search your notes via a normal google search, which I find pretty cool!

In spite of the flexibility provided by digital note taking apps, sometimes its easier or more practical to write things down manually. For your manual note taking please get a book! Do not make the mistake I made of using sheets of paper because they will eventually pile up into a difficult-to-manage clutter.

Evernote is also great for TODO lists, however the two I recommend for this purpose are Asana and Trello.

Reference manager

Getting a reference manager is vital and will prevent you unnecessarily filling your folders with PDF files, or trying to manually organize scientific papers. This will always cause lots of confusion eventually (e.g. due to poor naming). I have been there and I can attest it is painful to manually scan through folders searching for paper no_name.pdf you downloaded on date i-cannot-remember. Getting a reference manager will help preserve your mental sanity and save you valuable time.

For this my top recommendation is Mendeley. It is very intuitive, free (up to 2GB of cloud storage) and helps maintain your bibliography in perfect order. It also provides browser plugins which help you to easily add PDF references to your library. A simple click in the desktop app synchronizes your online references with those locally stored on your PC. This is especially useful when you work on different machines. Mendeley also enables you generate reference lists automatically, which comes in handy during thesis and paper writing.

Other good reference manager apps are Zotero and Endnote.

Typesetting software

As you may have guessed, you will be doing lots of scientific writing as a researcher and PhD student. For this I recommend using LaTeX. LaTeX is a high-quality typesetting software and is the de facto standard for the communication and publication of scientific documents. Luckily I got a good grip of LaTeX early on as a student; if you haven’t yet, fear not :hugs:, it isn’t too late. You can find great LaTeX tutorials online on Overleaf and Youtube. Overleaf provides you with a complete, ready to go LaTeX environment in the cloud, and nice templates to start off your LaTeX projects; isn’t that cool ? :nerd_face:

I invite you to investigate LaTeX and learn how to use it; it is much better than MS-word, which is clunky and slow.

Plotting and data analysis

As a researcher (especially in the sciences), you will need tools to analyze your data and plot graphs for you presentations, posters, papers, and thesis. A good free tool for this is R. It is a programming language used for various kinds of data science, statistics and visualization projects. The learning curve is a little steep but it is worth learning. There are so many Youtube videos and online tutorials which will make learning R alot easier for you.

More particularly for plotting, a second free and useful tool is Gnuplot. The learning curve is also a little steep, but the great plots you will produce are worth the time and effort.

Diagram software

For your research, you will need to create beautiful figures for papers, posters, presentations, and finally your thesis. For these you will need good image creation software; don’t be that guy who scans hand-drawn diagrams and integrates these into his presentations :roll_eyes:. Two free image creation apps I recommend for this are yEd and Inkscape. yEd is my personal favorite: it is simple yet powerful, very intuitive to use and lets you create decent figures in a very short time once you get a hold of it. On the other hand, Inkscape has great online tutorials which will help you learn quickly. I recently came across, a free online tool for making decent figures; you should check it out.

If you use macOS, another alternative (not free) is OmniGraffle.

Video conferencing and Team communication

The recent health crisis and lockdowns forced many out of the office, and kept us confined to our homes, away from family, friends and team mates. Thus, there has been a rising popularity of video conferencing and online communication tools.

For video conferencing and team communication, I recommend Discord and Slack respectively. Both have free versions which are good enough for everyday usage. Another great free tool you can try for video conferencing is BigBlueButton. Other alternatives include Zoom and Whereby. These have free and paid versions but the free versions are good enough for small and short online meetings.

Now thats all I have for you today. I hope you find these tools useful for your work. Stay tuned for the next tips in my tech diaries :v: .

Enjoy Reading This Article?

Here are some more articles you might like to read next:

  • Programming with Makefiles
  • a distill-style blog post
  • a post with code
  • a post with math
  • a post with diagrams