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  • Writer's pictureEllie Atayee-Bennett

Useful Software for PhD Researchers

I have been asked what my top software picks for prospective and current PhD researchers are a few times now, so here's my answer!

Microsoft Office

The Microsoft Office package is extremely useful throughout your PhD, so it is definitely worth spending some time familiarising yourself with each of the programmes. It's very likely you will be writing your thesis and other important documents up in Word, whilst Excel is great for planning (I use it to create Gantt charts to plan each academic term/year) and PowerPoint is also really useful for designing research posters and presentation slides.

Referencing Software

Referencing is an important part of your PhD thesis, and something you'll do throughout the duration of your degree. Referencing manually is extremely time-consuming, increases the risk of making errors, and doesn't allow you to keep all your notes or PDFs in one place. Here's where referencing software comes in. I personally use EndNote, but there are various others to choose from as well, including Zotero and Mendeley


Before starting my PhD, I'd never used Microsoft OneNote but now I can't live without it!! I have 3 notebooks - one for my PhD, where I store a whole variety of notes linked to my research, training notes, opportunities, etc, as well as useful links, document attachments and checklists. I have another where I store my notes from readings. OneNote is excellent for this, as there is a search function making it easy to scan for keywords in all of your notes at the same time, as well as the ability to tag key theorists, titles, or keywords that you may need to come back to. I also have another notebook for personal things like my shopping list or ideas for family days out, as well as for my writing, such as drafts for this blog, picture book ideas, writing opportunities, etc. If OneNote isn't your cup of tea, there are other great note-taking options out there, such as EverNote.

Organisational Tools

I admit I don't actually use software for this - I use a paper diary (well it's the family organiser so it's easier to have everything in one place and we're all at home presently so it works!) but I would definitely recommend looking into a digital alternative. I've heard Trello and Microsoft To Do are great for making to do lists and managing your time and tasks.

Virtual Meeting Software

Virtual meetings have been the thing for 15 months already! So you've probably already familiarised yourself with many of the main online meeting platforms. But if you haven't, it would be a good idea to gain some familiarity with the key ones - for example, Microsoft Teams, Zoom, Webex, and Google Meet, as I doubt they'll be going away any time soon! It would also be useful to have some knowledge of these platforms if you plan on attending a variety of webinars and meetings, or even organising your own online meetings or interviews.

Research Skills and Databases

Developing research skills and the ability to locate important papers, statistics, and information relevant to your research, is an invaluable skill for PhD researchers. So one of the first skills you want to master at the start of your PhD is how to use the library search functions and how to use the key databases in your area of research. In addition to the library search function, I use Web of Science and on this platform, I've set up alerts so whenever a paper is published relating to the keywords I have set, I get an email. This saves so much time as I don't have to trawl through the millions of papers out there looking for updates each month. It would also be wise to familiarise yourself with Google Scholar, ResearchGate and which are also very useful for finding resources too.

Professional Development

Professional development is such an important part of the PhD journey, and one that often isn't given as much attention as it deserves. The first port of call should be the trainings organised or shared by your university, but I would also strongly recommend complementing your professional development activities with free courses from places like LinkedIn Learning (most universities subscribe so you can access the videos for free), Coursera, FutureLearn, and

Social Media

Social media isn't an essential part of the PhD journey but it is super useful for connecting with other PhD researchers and academics, creating a web presence for yourself, assisting with public engagement and looking for future opportunities. Twitter is probably the overall best for academia, but other sites like LinkedIn and are good too. To help you get started, look for trainings on effective social media use and personal branding on the sites mentioned previously.

Graphics and Design

Depending on the nature of your research, you may or may not get opportunities to design images and graphics. If you do however, and especially if you use social media, it can really help to use dedicated software to produce professional-looking images. My favourite application is Canva as you can produce so many amazing designs for free, from social media posts, to research flyers, to infographics.

Discipline-Specific Software

In addition to all of the programmes I've mentioned above, there will undoubtedly be others specific to your discipline, your research methodology, and your research activities. Find out what software is commonly used in your discipline - I'm a qualitative researcher in sociology so the software I make most use of is NVIVO but if I did quantitative research, I would be using SPSS. Each discipline has its preferred software programmes, so try to find out which ones are common in your discipline and get familiar with them.


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