My Dissertation Workflow & Tools

I’ve just started dissertating (barely 6% of the way through…) but I’ve already been asked a few times about my dissertation workflow and tools. I spent a while planning this before starting. Honestly, I was terrified of the thought of getting 35% finished and realizing that my workflow was slowing me down or that I needed to change tools. Here are the tools I’m using to write my dissertation:

  • MS Word (for Mac, 2008)
  • Zotero
  • Evernote
  • Toggl

MS Word (for Mac, 2008)

Microsoft Word Toobox

I know that Microsoft made Office a lot faster in the 2011 update, but they also took away the Toolbox. Since the Toolbox gives me the fastest access to styles & formatting (the key to a consistent dissertation layout!) that I’ve seen in any version of Word, I chose not to update yet.

I’m aware that Word is not really a 300 page document application and will probably present some formatting problems down the road (pagination, TOC, embedded images & charts), but I’ve set up my own Turabian-compliant styles instead of relying on someone else’s template, so I expect to troubleshoot those concerns precisely.

Once upon a time, I decided I would learn InDesign or LaTex, two programs that are much better for long document work, but I never did. So I’m using Word. Also, Word lets me access bibliography information in Zotero.


ZoteroZotero is the best free way to manage a bibliography. It started as a Firefox extension. Mac users now get a standalone app with a Chrome plugin as well. Zotero automatically identifies bibliography information on any web page: library listing, Amazon, JSTOR, etc. It adds an icon to your url bar that matches the resource type (book, article) and clicking that icon saves all the data available to a new item in the Zotero app.

Zotero Extension for WordYou can then fine-tune that bibliography data in the app (not all listings capitalize titles or format dates the same way), as well as add notes to the source. Best of all, it has an MS Word extension that allows you to insert footnotes, bibliography pages, and references from any resource you’ve saved to Zotero. All the data from Zotero is linked back to the database, so if you correct an error in a resource, you don’t have to search your entire dissertation for any reference to that resource; just refresh it.

I mentioned that it does notes as well. I chose not to use Zotero for notes, because Evernote has an awesome feature that Zotero doesn’t.


Evernote Note View

Evernote is a note management software. I’ve long used it for classes, work, code snippets, project ideas, and recipes, so adding my dissertation wasn’t a huge deal. It has apps for just about any device you use, so it keeps my notes synced between all my computers, iPhone, iPad, and anywhere I use a browser.

Evernote Folder View

The feature that sets Evernote a mile above Zotero is its OCR feature. I can type quotations from sources into either Evernote or Zotero, but only Evernote lets me snap a picture of a page on my iPhone, then search the text in that image later.

To organize all my notes, I’ve got a main folder called Dissertation. Then I create a sub-folder for each source. I put picture and typed notes into their proper folder. If I had very distinct chapter topics, I could also sort the resource folders into topic/chapter folders, but my chapters have more overlap. I’m going to use tags to organize individual notes. This will let me quickly find all my notes that refer to a single tagged topic instantly, no matter what book or article they’re in.

Evernote is free to start. They offer a Premium version with some great features: 100mb uploads, increased monthly data limit from 60mb to 1gb, ability to search PDFs. I burned up my free 60mb in 2-3 days, so Evernote Premium is definitely worth it for me. You can get Premium for $5/mo or $45/yr.


Toggl TimerThere’s nothing academic about Toggl, but I am tracking time spend on my dissertation. I use Toggl for work as well – it’s a simple, free web app with desktop / mobile apps available.

At the end of this process, I’ll be able to look back and see exactly how many hours I’ve invested in it. I don’t know if that will impress or depress me, but time-tracking does help me keep moving. Knowing I’m “clocked in” goes a long way in the battle against procrastination and distraction.

5 comments on My Dissertation Workflow & Tools

  1. Great post! I’m in the VERY beginning stages of my dissertation and, like you, I also worry that I won’t find a workflow that will carry me all the way through. I’m particularly concerned because I’m doing an ethnographic study, so I’ll have TONS of fieldnotes I’ll need to organize and keep track of.

    I’ve also decided to go the Evernote route, using Zotero just to manage my sources, but I’m still not sure about my word processor choice. Have you heard of Scrivener? I’m debating using that to write the dissertation. But, in the end, I’ll have to export it to something like Word for formatting, so I’m not sure if it’s worth the effort.

    Good luck to you! I’d love to hear how the workflow is working for you and the adjustments you make.

  2. I’ve heard of Scrivener, but never tried it. It seems to be a lot more popular with non-academic writers than with APA/MLA-bound writers. I’m in Word, with each chapter as a separate doc. I’ve already helped other students with Word-formatting a dissertation, so I’m sticking with I know best.

    My only tweak so far is that I’m reserving tags in Evernote for citations that seem to be really exemplary / authoritative. I can search in notes for any word, so tags can now serve to mark things I know I want to come back to and include in a footnote or quotation.

    Thanks for your comment – if you find any helpful hints, please post them here too! I’ll be writing for another 6-8 months and appreciate all the streamlining help I can get.

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