How I use technology in my PhD

Keeping with our Irish contributors theme this week, this guest post is by Ted Vickey, a PhD researcher at the Digital Enterprise Research Institute (DERI) at the National University of Ireland at Galway (NUIG) whose research involves physical activity and how mobile technologies
can increase exercise adherence.

I first read this post on Ted’s blog a couple of months ago and was happy to say “yes please” when he kindly offered to cross post it here. Ted, although a PC user, has an ipad and knows how to make it work for him in his research. Here’s how:

While at the Greek conference in June (yes the same conference at the time of the riots), people were sharing how they have structured their research and what technologies they use to keep organized – from iPads to websites.

I pulled out my laptop and soon had a dozen people watching over my shoulder too see how I have set things up.  This system might not be perfect and might not work for everyone, but it has worked great for me.


I am lucky enough to have a forward thinking advisor (Dr. John Breslin) who is on the cutting edge of technology. Since I already had a laptop when I started my PhD, he allowed me to use the funds that would have paid for a laptop for an iPad.  I’ve always been a Windows kinda guy, don’t think I will be switching anytime soon, but do enjoy my iPhone and iPad and would be lost without them.  Having my research on my iPad makes working too easy.  I often take my iPad to bed with me, read a few papers before drifting off to dreams of how my research will make a difference in this world…..

Drop Box

Since I love being virtual and working from anywhere (be from my home office in Galway, at the office at the University, a train in China, the airport in Athens or even from my Dad’s 10 acre 150 year old farmhouse in Erie, PA), I wanted a place to store all my files. Any file you save to Dropbox also instantly saves to your computers, phones, and the Dropbox website.  I’ve found the site to be a fantastic and as you will see below, many of my research tools connect somehow to Dropbox.

In fact, I use it so much and have so many saved papers to read, I had to buy additional storage.  I love that I can save a paper in the Dropbox folder on my laptop and within seconds, the paper is synced to the cloud and available from a secure log in, my iPad, my desktop, even my iPhone.  I can also share papers with collaborators.  Super easy to use.

Google Scholar

Most of the papers I use for research purposed I’ve found using Google Scholar.  I find the university library system to be too confusing.  90% of the papers I want are free to download from Google Scholar, those that aren’t I pull from the library.


A real time saver in my opinion.  iAnnotate turns your iPad into a world-class productivity tool for reading, annotating, organizing, and sending PDF files.  Rather than printing papers to read, I use iAnnotate on my iPad to pull my saved readings from my Dropbox and read on the go.

No hassle of stacks of papers to carry around.  The handy annotation tools allow me to highlight pieces of text I want to reference, email the newly saved highlighted paper with all of the highlighted text pulled out of the PDF and placed into the body of the email.  From my Outlook, it is a quick cut and paste into my master notes files.


I call Mendeley my LinkedIn profile for my academic life. Not only does it allow me to connect with fellow researchers from around the globe and gives me a custom website to showcase my research, it also keeps track of every saved PDF that I read for research.  I’ve tried EndNote a few times but had major issues.   Mendeley connects directly to my Dropbox, and runs a comparison check with Google Scholar for verification.  Not 100% accurate, but good enough to get most of the information populated. For those papers I end up using, I can quickly modify as needed.


In my corporate career, I learned the importance of having some sense of order in how things get done.  I am a big fan of David Allen’s book called Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity (See all Time Management Books),but wanted a portable real time system where I could create my projects and decide on my next action items from my iPad.  I recently found Nozbe and it does just that.  I’ve planned out my research using this online tool, from deadlines to meetings, word count goals to paper submissions.

There you have it, the six tools I use to manage my PhD research.  Do you have a system of your own that you’d like to share?  Editor’s note: Ted’s system runs largely off the ipad, I wonder if anyone else out there uses Android wants to tell us in the comments about equivalent apps for that system – or do a companion post? 

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48 thoughts on “How I use technology in my PhD

  1. Jean says:

    I also posted a reflection on which technologies I use a few months ago – and the only one we share is dropbox! My number one item is the bibliographical software Zotero, mainly because of its amazing ability to suck XML data out of all kinds of atypical sources to make bibliographical entries (I’m working on new media publishing and blogs).

    Anyway my full list is at:

    I look forward to hearing what other tools people use!

    • Ted Vickey (@tedvickey) says:

      For my Masters, I tried Endnote (before it crashed and I had to do everything by hand), then found Zotero, used that for a short time, but fell in love with Mendeley. Very easy to use, simple for even an old dog like me. Guess you can teach me new tricks. As a full disclosure, since my original blog post, I have been asked to be a Mendeley Adviser.

  2. Sarah Thorneycroft (@sthcrft) says:

    Thankyou for mentioning Google Scholar and open access papers. I find that, even amongst the most tech-savvy and forward-thinking academics there is the implication that if you don’t search via ‘proper’ databases you’re not doing ‘proper’ research. My rule is if it’s not freely available via Google Scholar (or isn’t another more exciting form of media like *gasp* blogs) I won’t cite it. Library databases tend to be little more that expensive, convoluted dungeons of EZ-proxy-regulated papers – I just can’t see how that compares to a rich and diverse range of content that’s easily and quickly available.

  3. Kelly Dombroski says:

    I’d like more info about anything like iAnnotate that is useable in a windows system. I have spent most of my phd using evernote as a my main tool — writing notes on there, dropping all my pdfs and my inprogress bits of writing in there, as well as photos, web pages, and then general stuff like recipets and screen clips of important things. I normally work off two computers (at least) — an office one with a nice big screen, and a laptop for fieldwork and cafe work, as well as at home.

    But after beginning to use scrivener to write I found evernote was not useful for syncing scriv files, so I began to use dropbox. Fortunately, when I began my first job and gained another office, I was able to cope since I was using dropbox for all my important stuff already. Since I live quite far from my work place, I work exclusively from dropbox for both work and study.

    Now I feel my system is getting a bit out of control — I think if I could import important evernotes into Scrivener, things would work much more smoothly. Currently I import pics, notes, files, ppt files, scans of scribbled notes, pics of whiteboard sessions etc into Scrivener that relate to teh chapter I am working on. I still use evernote for a lot of things, but I put less time in to tagging everything so its not so effective now. I still autoimport all my pdfs into evernote from one of my computers, and use evernote to write notes aobve the pdf — can’t seem to annotate them yet.

    In the last few stages of my PhD I have come to experience traditional technology nostalgia — I’ve been printing more, carrying around more articles etc and enjoying the feeling of scribbling on paper. I’ve also come to trust my brain more — if I don’t have everything electronically and I lose a bit of paper, I am far enough along to be able to reproduce it or at least benefit from the process of reading and thinking about somethign even if the results seem to have disappeared!

  4. Cally says:

    I am amazed that you can find so much of the literature you need available for free, but I guess it varies depending on discipline/topic. I could not manage without the electronic access my university’s library gives me to core Journals in my subject. It saddens me, because that access will be lost once I finish as I have no intention of pursuing an academic career. I would love to see greater moves to open access publishing.

  5. Vidya Ananthanarayanan says:

    @Ted, nice post! I’ve been meaning to take inventory as well, one of these days. Like Jean, the only one we share is Dropbox. That said, I believe these tools should be platform agnostic (my favourite term these days ;)).

    @Sarah I concur on acces to rich and diverse content. However, separating the wheat from the chaff is not always easy, and takes time and effort. Peer-reviewed content – wherever it may be housed and I’m all for open access journals – establishes immediate credibility. Another point of note is that blogs and other similar media are often personal opinions, so you would still need to back it up with other “scholarly” evidence. I suspect however, that their time will come.

    @Kelly I’ve just begun using Scrivener, but like you, everything else happens in Evernote. But I use a reference matrix to store commentary/ideas/quotes from my references, and usually, that is all I need while working on a paper or article. Things may change when I actually get to dissertation stage, still working on coursework 😉

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  7. John Cummins says:

    I use Mendeley, Google Scholar, and Drop Box all the time and would add Diigo. I will also look at Nozbe. I’ve been very unimpressed by Apple products and after using iPad awhile remain so. I’ve never seen ANY advantage of the iPad after using one a while. I am an open sourcer and find the need to go looking for apps, etc. quite time consuming and annoying.

    • ingermewburn says:

      I just got an ipad – I do find it good for reading pdfs for committee and for research, through my mendeley account. I also like it for using twitter. I think it’s more the hardware format than the fact that it’s an Apple product per se though. Either that, or my eyesight is failing 🙂

  8. Bai Rixing says:

    You lost me at the “iPad, the cutting edge of technology”. The cutting edge of marketing technology maybe, the fulfillment of every-person’s desire for an iPhone that was 4 times bigger and couldn’t make phone calls.

    When it comes to operating systems, the cutting edge is Linux. And that incidentally is what is used by most PhDs who need their computers to be more than an accessory to their Lattes in coffeeshops.

  9. Di Laycock says:

    What a timely post! Just two days ago I was lamenting to my supervisors that I was in dire need of a way to organise my documents that are spread across a laptop, desktop and Dropbox. EndNote obviously has its limitations as it can’t sync across locations. After reading this post, I started using Mendeley and love it. Thank you, thank you, thank you.

  10. coree says:

    I use:
    – Mendeley: PDF and reference management
    – GoodReeder: ipad pdf reader with awesome annotation tools
    – OneNote: to manage notes, outlines, and my research journal
    – Dropbos: to sync things across multiple computers + ipad

    However, I’m still attached to markers and sketchpads for brainstorming and mindmapping.

  11. Yann Gager @Bat_Yann says:

    Hello everybody!
    Very enjoyable post to read :).

    Here is how I proceed:
    Google agenda: for scheduling my time
    Google docs: writing papers, sharing with collaborators (online chat included)
    Dropbox: for papers, data and the new versions of my document
    Mendeley: save references (often found through Google scholar)
    Diigo: save bookmarks
    And my smartphone to check new emails out of the office
    and science news on twitter 🙂


  12. Florian says:

    I find this very interesting to read. However, as already somebody stated above, it depends a lot on the discipline or branch you do your PhD in. I’m writing my dissertation in history of the middle ages and used to use Citavi for literature management at first hand. But then I switched to mac and had to find out there is no Citavi version for mac because they stopped the development of it last year.
    Coming from a windows machine I mainly use word 2007 or now on the mac 2011 version to write my thesis, but some functions as latex-export would be great to have. I could use apple’s pages for that, but there you are limited for putting in footnotes for the sheer writing process.

  13. Sophia says:

    I’m about to buy an ipad, which I’m hoping to use to allow me to read papers in a range of locations and I’m having a lot of trouble deciding between a mini and a full size one. I’ve heard people say that the mini is a lot easier to carry around and lighter so when reading you don’t have to put it down. However, I’ve also heard that the smaller screen size makes it difficult to read papers. I want to be able to annotate the papers as well (still hoping Mendeley will do an update for this) but otherwise I’ll likely try iAnnotate. Do any of you have any comments on this? Note, my eyesight is good, but I don’t want to have to strain if reading for long periods of time.

  14. jyeonkim says:

    hi, thanks for great posting, i’m hesitating between the macbook air and ipad air for master’s thesis. i got an imac at home but occasionally i have to go to library for research so i thought maybe i need something easy to carry and write on. but i wonder if ipad is enough to text writing, i’m studying in france, so checking online french dictionary and surfing for informations is necessary. so multitasking problem is the main which makes me hesitate. do you think it can be still more useful than notebook like macbook air? i need your opinion as an ipad user! thanks

    • Rachel Hilliard says:

      I think the general advice that tablets are better for consuming content than creating content holds here. I wouldn’t do much writing on a tablet with comfort.

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