Ask LH: What Tools Should I Use For A Computer Science PhD?

Dear Lifehacker, I have decided to start a PhD in Computer Science. Everyone knows starting something new can be overwhelming, and that's especially true of a PhD, as it requires research in an unstructured environment, not just turning up to classes anymore. I'd like to keep track of what I am doing my research in, why I am doing the research and how to achieve my PhD. Are there any good technologies and tools out there (apart from lovely Evernote and Dropbox) that might make my four-year journey a bit less bumpy? Thanks, Researcher

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Dear Researcher,

We'd definitely like to open this one up to the readers for specific suggestions. But we'll make a general point first: the basic tools you mention (Evernote and Dropbox) are likely to be the most important. People have been completing degrees for decades without the benefits of these tools, which suggests that a willingness to be organised (and to spend time staying organised) matters more than specific software. But there's no denying that having a good system for capturing and indexing all your notes (Evernote and similar tools), for automatically backing up everything you work on (Dropbox and its ilk) and for tracking tasks (pick your favourite calendar/to-do program) can save time, letting you concentrate on research itself rather than the processes involved.

Given your focus on computer science within your PhD, you might want to use some more programmer-centric tools (I know people who have used Git to organise their study resources). If those tools feel familiar and natural, go for it — but if you'd prefer something pre-baked with a pretty interface such as OneNote, that's OK too. The key is to use tools that you find comfortable, so you can concentrate on the actual topic you're researching.

With that said, we'd love specific recommendations from readers with recent study experience in the comments. What works for you?

Cheers Lifehacker

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    Mendeley for organsing and searching through literature as well as compiling your reference list.

      Is it possible to use Mendeley to generate a bibliography online which you can cut and paste into documents without having to install the word plugin? I ask because I'd like to use the uni computers to write sometimes, which of course won't let you install plugins.

    At my uni you were required to run linux, might want to decide on the OS first. Also, make sure you do version backups (offsite)

    Congrats on starting your PhD. I started mine 6 months ago, and went through this too.

    Mendeley is great, it puts all of your pdf research articles together, and auto fetches the meta data which can be exported into a reference manager like endnote (I assume you'll need to reference in CS?).

    Also, check out the lifehacker articles on productivity. PhD are unstructured, and tools which keep you accountable are great. RescueTime and Stayfocusd are good for this.

    Wow. Have none of you ACTUALLY written a thesis yet? How about Honours? Most basic weapon - Endnote. There you go. Just saved you 6mo on your writeup. #facepalm

      Mendeley's much the same deal except it's free...

        PhD students in Australia can get EndNote for free. I prefer Endnote myself because Mendeley seems to really struggle with book sections for some reason. That said, Endnote has it own quirks. It's all much of a muchness.

          Yep, with the big plus for Engies and BioScience peeps is that the library systems integrate with search engines really well. Medline for example --> didn't see the front end for the rest of my PhD after they updated it!

          Check out with your institution library for a license.

        Mendeley seems to have a heart attack everytime i've used it seriously - ie >150 references.

    +1 for Mendeley. I find it much nicer to use than Endnote. An iPad with Retina screen is great for reading journal articles etc - helps save a lot of paper.


      ... and BibTeX. With Bibdesk if you're running OSX. Endnote won't help unless you're typing up in Word.

      Also check out TeXWorks ( or TeXShop (

    Zotero ( is worth a look.

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