Creating a thesis toolkit

Tools for tackling your thesis or dissertation

Organization is key to maintaining some semblance of sanity during your thesis or dissertation. It also ensures that your research and methods are accurate; if your data and resources are all over the place, it becomes much harder to revise later on, which means important details can fall through the cracks.

If you’re about to start your thesis process, take a day to assemble your toolkit. It’s never too late to get organized! Here’s a list of recommended tools — digital and analog — that current and former graduate students use and love.

Word processor

What do you plan to use to actually write your paper? There are many options besides Microsoft Word (which is a good option, too!). I used a mix of Google Docs and LaTeX while writing my thesis. Google Docs was great for keeping my drafts and ideas stored in the cloud, but it’s not the best to use for formatting requirements. This is where a tool like LaTeX comes in handy, although there is a bit of a learning curve. Take the time to try out a few options. You should find something you love, because you will be spending a lot of time with this program.

Word processing software:

Ulysses app

Ulysses app

Citation manager

When you start writing your literature review, you will collect a ton of documents that you’ll need to cite in your paper. Managing your citations and references early is a life-saver. Be consistent in using a citation manager so you don’t have to scramble to put together your reference page at the very end.
Recommended app: Zotero. Free and open source, Zotero makes it easy to manage and organize your citations and references.

“Zotero. May the Gods bless Zotero.” — J. Saperstein, Master of Arts in Geography, University of Missouri

Style guide

The internet has plenty of great resources for citation style, but I highly recommend investing in a print copy of your required style. It’s much easier to flip through it on your desk then to have to constantly tab back and forth on your computer. A style guide also has more information than just citation formatting; there will be important information about how to structure and report your research.

Recommendation: Check out a copy from your local library.


I love digital tools, but I never leave my house without a notebook, and they are super useful to document notes or progress. You may try documenting your search terms, informal research observations, ideas for your defense, and so on. Brainstorm on the go.

Recommended: Word notebooks. I love their bullet journal-esque layout, and they are small and durable on-the-go.

Cloud-based notetaker

Even if you use a notebook, it’s helpful to have a web version for general outlining, planning, and note-taking. Use a cloud service so you don’t have to worry about losing any of your notes. Cloud notetakers tend to also offer options to upload other file types, including spreadsheets or images.

Recommended apps: Evernote or Google Keep.

External hard drive

Yes, I just said how wonderful cloud services are, but I (along with thousands of other writers) cannot stress this enough: BACK UP EVERYTHING YOU DO. There is nothing more terrible or demoralizing than losing time or data that you can never retrieve. Don’t even put yourself
 in that position. Be extra careful and get an external hard drive to store everything you’ve worked on, including all of your research articles used for your literature review. Use it in conjunction with cloud storage. Don’t risk it. Seriously. Can you tell how serious I am about this?!

Calendar app

Find a calendar app for desktop or mobile that you absolutely love, or invest in a nice planner — you’ll be using it a lot. I prefer a calendar app because I can set reminders for all of the many deadlines that arise during the thesis process.

Recommended app: Shift. Switch between Google accounts easily, including Calendar, Inbox/Gmail, and Drive. A must-have for those who use more than one Google account.

Download the free Thesis Survival Guide for more tips, tricks, and tools.