Software and Apps that helped me during my PhD

There are so many apps and types of software available to help make PhD life that little bit easier. In this post I will share some of the most helpful ones.

Image of a laptop and hand holding a smartphone

iCal

I used to be a paper calendar person and then towards the end of my undergraduate degree I switched to putting everything in my digital calendar – I think it was partly because there were SO MANY CLASSES in final year.

I could integrate my university email to iCal so I never missed a meeting or coffee catch up with someone on campus. While I didn’t quite join the ranks of the calendar blocking crowd, I know many find that a useful way for planning their day.

ToDoist

I fell in and out of love with To Do list apps like ToDoist during my studies. Sometimes it’s just nice to have your to do list on a post-it note. I did find it useful for keeping track of stuff I needed to do outside of the PhD though!

NMR Peaks

This app is a very niche app for chemists in particular. I’m pretty sure everyone who uses NMR analysis as part of their work has a tab/print-out of this paper that summarises impurities in NMR samples. Somebody wonderful converted that very detailed table into an app to make finding out what those mystery additional peaks are much easier!

Audible/Podcasts/Apple Music

Sometimes PhD work is dull and autonomous. You can do it without having to 100% focus on it. This is where having something interesting to listen to makes the mundane act of writing up dozens of similar experiments much more bearable. Some favourite podcasts of mine include BBC Radio 4 Comedy, Hollow and Substantial, and Dear Hank and John.

Mendeley

Mendeley should pay me for the number of people I’ve told about their software. Gone are the days of manually referencing papers in a report. Mendeley and similar softwares like Zotero/EndNote are designed for you to keep track of papers you read so you can cite them directly into Word. When I was introduced to the idea of this reference managing software it genuinely felt like my life had changed.

It has its bugs (particularly when dealing with patents) but using Mendeley made referencing my MChem and PhD theses SO MUCH EASIER! It automatically extracts info from web pages/pdfs, stores those pdfs in the library and automatically renumbers references and the bibliography when you change the order of your sources in a document.

I also found the tags really useful for finding papers later when you couldn’t remember the title/author. Just simple tags like “synthesis” or “cancer” helps group particular papers together under a common theme. If you’re not already using a reference manager I can highly recommend it.

ChemDraw

Every chemist’s friend/nightmare. ChemDraw is the software used by many chemists to make those pretty molecular structures for your reports. I can highly recommend learning a few of the keyboard shortcuts. Just hover your mouse over a carbon atom, don’t click, and type a number/letter on your keyboard. You just got a lot faster at drawing chemical structures. You’re welcome.

Skype

When your project collaborator lives in Brazil and you live in Brighton, you need some video calling software. We’ve all become much more familiar with these in recent months due to Covid-19 but these tools are invaluable for making interdisciplinary work, well, work. There comes a point where e-mail just won’t do.

Apple Mail

Have you guessed what kind of phone I have yet? I like that I can integrate multiple types of e-mail address into my Apple Mail inbox,

During my PhD I flitted between having my university e-mail on my phone. Sometimes it was handy for remembering what a particular meeting room was but more often I’d find myself peeking at it over the weekend and be particularly put out by emails saying I needed to change something in my lab book. You know yourself best. I found it was helpful to take it off my phone at the weekend and when I was on holiday.

Forest

Sometimes, apps and software aren’t helpful and you just need to get off your phone for a bit. Forest allows you to set periods of time where you agree you won’t open your phone and it will in turn plant a digital tree which dies if you unlock your phone before the end of the time slot. It’s fun to see your garden grow over time and you can also collaborate with others to hold yourself accountable.

I’ve listed quite a few bits of kit here. Some are only really helpful for chemists, but I hope the others are useful for you to know about if you’re trying to get a bit more organised. I decided to leave out some more obvious software like Microsoft Office, but believe me, many a report and slideshow have been made using that.

What apps and software do you find particularly useful in your work? Let me know in the comments below

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