Starting Your PhD: Using and Choosing Your Software

It’s September, and that means that another class of PhD candidates will be entering university to embark on a research project that will take up anywhere from three years to a decade’s worth of their time and effort. Doing a PhD can be a valuable thing, but you have to do it right. Financial insolvency and project fatigue are two dangers that face the unprepared PhD candidate. In the following series of posts, I will cover the academic software options available to PhD candidates and explain how they integrate into a well-planned course of research. A subsequent series of posts will address PhD finance and career planning. (Note: while potentially useful to any PhD candidate, this advice is intended for students of the humanities, particularly those within the UK, as that is where my personal experience lies.)

There are four types of software every researcher must have: a draft editor, a reference manager, a database, and a mind mapper. While there is overlap between some of these types of software, it is best to think of them as separate items. If you can find a program that combines these functions, that’s all to the good, but don’t assume that you will. This first post will deal exclusively with drafting software – where the writing and editing of the PhD thesis gets done.

Drafting Software

Word processors, such as Microsoft Word, are good applications for short documents or final editing for publication, but they are terrible for the composition of long documents, due to their inflexibility and the limited view available of the whole document at any given time. A document extending into double digits of page length quickly becomes unworkable. Instead of a word processor, the PhD candidate is advised to purchase drafting software that will allow text to be written in manageable chunks, while also allowing a flexible overview of the entire work in progress.

I use Scrivener for my drafting needs, and it is probably the best program I have ever purchased. It is available for both Windows and Mac, published by the boutique software house Literature & Latte. Scrivener appears as a corkboard to which the user can pin notecards containing ideas, but the beauty of the program is that these notecards are merely the surface imagery of a very deep organisational program. 

Scrivener contains a multi-column view. The left navigation column allows the user to see the entire document, with the ‘notecards’ actually forming sections within the document. I adopted a hierarchical approach, with a Scrivener project for each chapter of my thesis. The chapter was broken down into folders, within which I placed notecards representing topics I wished to address, topics that soon became sections and sub-sections of the chapter organisation. The corkboard, comprising the large central column, can be toggled into an outline or composition mode, within which you can write the document itself. The right column is the Inspector, within which you can add metadata as well as footnotes and comments to the main work. On larger screens, the central column can be split into two panes, so that the text editor, outliner, or corkboard can be viewed simultaneously.

Here’s a screenshot of one of my draft chapters in Scrivener:


As you can see, this is very powerful software, and at the bottom of the navigation pane (left column) you can see that there is room for attachments, so as to keep your documents all under one project file. This is a very valuable feature that I have not yet utilised to the full, but you may find useful in your own work. Given that Scrivener is available for both Windows and Mac, and given my own high regard for it, I will leave the matter of drafting software there and turn next to reference managers.


Next to come: Reference management software.


About Daniel Clinkman

I recently completed my PhD in History at the University of Edinburgh. My academic interest is in the transition from feudalism to liberalism in early modern Britain and its empire. My non-academic interests include public policy, political thought, international politics, social institutions, and travel. I grew up near Boston before attending the American University in Washington, DC. I now live in the San Francisco Bay Area. Follow me @dclinkman on Twitter.
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