Dissertating in the Digital Age: Research and Writing Tools for Organization and Productivity

This post was written by guest contributor Bihter Esener. Esener is currently a Freer Visiting Graduate Student Fellow in the Department of the History of Art at the University of Michigan, and a Ph.D. candidate in History of Art at Koç University, Istanbul. Her dissertation aims to contextualize bronze mirrors within the lives of the inhabitants of medieval Anatolia. Her research interests are the visual and material culture of the medieval Islamic world, including the collection and display of Islamic art in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, digital art history and visualization. You may find out about her research on Academia, and follow her on Twitter and Github.

Technology changed how we create, produce, and organize our ideas. It also changed the ways in which we write a dissertation during graduate study. A dissertation is indeed a large endeavor, but it begins with small steps. It evolves over time, and small steps eventually turn complicated research into a cohesive project. As graduate students delve deeper into writing, there are many digital tools that can assist and create a more productive writing experience.

I am a Ph.D. candidate in Art History in the final year of writing my dissertation. Both here at the University of Michigan and at international events, I am often asked about the digital tools that I have found helpful to organize my work and time. Since I have a long-lasting interest in online technology and resources, I have compiled my findings over the years and now hope to make them freely available to others.

Digital research tools have become increasingly critical to graduate students in the wake of the COVID-19 outbreak. As they have found themselves in new isolated settings, remote from universities, research institutions, and libraries, students are uncertain and anxious about how to move forward effectively with their research and writing. This short essay aims to give graduate students some simple but effective strategies to break through such blockages during these difficult times

While graduate students check out many books and journals from libraries to keep at carrels, grad lounges, offices, and homes, they also download a substantial number of digital sources through institutional library membership accounts. Portable Document Format (PDF) is a digital file format introduced by Adobe. This is the most common file format to save digital sources, such as personal notes, documents, and academic publications. Advanced digital research and writing tools help to edit, extract, highlight, take notes, and search within PDF files for research and writing purposes.

But how can we organize all these digital files to research and write more efficiently? How can we be creative and productive while we research and write in the digital age? In this short essay, I will explain some of the digital tools that I have been using to make my dissertation research and writing more organized and productive. As a “dissertating” graduate student in art history, I have found it useful to work with a number of digital tools, including citation management, note-taking, mind-mapping, scanning, graphic processing, back-up and storage applications and software.

Documentation and organization are important phases of research and writing. Adobe Acrobat Pro is a useful tool for combining, editing, exporting, and organizing single or multiple PDF pages. Acrobat Pro has an optical character recognition (OCR) feature that turns scanned documents or image files into searchable digital texts. Acrobat Pro also enables to highlight text with comments, which helps you to scroll through all your annotations in a separate section.

Acrobat Pro

Another helpful component for organization is to set up an archive system for your sources in PDF files. You may build a folder database in your computer that you can back up in different external storage units. I have found efficient to create chapter-based and thematic folders with multiple copies of original and annotated PDF files. My research and writing folders increased in number based on new ideas and themes. I found this system more organized and effective for my workflow. Multiple copies of PDF files may take up some space in hard drives; however, this is not a problem as a terabyte external storage can solve this issue.

Like PDF files, keeping and managing archival and visual sources is an important component of research and writing. A graduate student in art history may also need a visual content research management tool. Tropy is a useful tool for this task. It is a free and open source research photo management software. Imported photos of the sources can be used with a custom metadata template, tagged research notes, and various annotations. Another software is Evernote, a note-taking tool with a simple database management feature that allows for the creating of different notepads, uploading images, and tagging options. This is a commonly preferred tool because of its easy synchronization with different devices.


There are several free and open source as well as paid applications and software for documentation to help improve your creativity and productivity. To organize your research and writing, brainstorming and outlines are helpful to work on the framework of dissertation chapters. Mind-mapping and quick note-taking tools may be useful to manage and organize your ideas. SimpleMind, for example, helps to map out and organize your ideas as soon as they pop into your head. Google Keep and Simplenote are quick note-taking applications that can be synchronized and reached from different devices including your phone, tablet, or computer. There are also more advanced but still user-friendly applications for note-taking such as Goodnotes, Notebility, Evernote, and Microsoft OneNote. For example, Goodnotes can be used with a stylus pen for quick handwritten notes. This application can also be synchronized and reached from different devices. Handwritten notes can later be turned into digital searchable text in PDF files to be easily searched and reached during your writing phase.

Goodnotes 5

Like quick note-taking, scanning may also be crucial for documentation while doing research. There are a variety of different scanning tools to use for quick scans at the archive or library. For example, Genius Scan is a free scanner for both Android and iOS. It turns your scans into PDF files with different export options, including e-mail and cloud storage.

Since typewriters ceded their place to computers, word processor software became the new writing tool in the dawn of a new digital age. There are many different free and open-source word processor software. A popular licensed word processor is Scrivener. It has usually been used by novelists and screen writers. Graduate students have also found Scrivener useful to organize their citations and outlines as well as to keep track of their ideas. However, Microsoft Word (MS Word) is the most popular licensed software which is available for both Windows and Mac operating systems (OS) because all citation management software works well with it.

Citation management is the most important component of dissertation research and writing. Zotero (previously reviewed in the Digital Orientalist by Jasper Bernhofer) is one of the most popular software for this task. It is a free standalone citation management software that has plug-ins to work with an internet browser and MS Word. While the internet browser plug-in helps to pull out the sources from libraries or websites into your Zotero library, the MS Word plug-in helps to create a footnote for your text. You also can select among a host of common endnote and footnote styles.


There are two reasons why I prefer to use Zotero. First, I have added over 2200 sources into my Zotero library since 2011. Once you add a citation into your library, you can keep it forever. In this way, you build your own source library throughout the years. You can pull up the same source whenever you need it. Second, I find Zotero more user-friendly than other similar citation management software such as Endnote, Mendeley, RefWorks, and Citavi. Zotero constantly develops and supports the needs of its users. It has a simple interface to create and organize collection folders. For example, you can create different collections for your dissertation chapters while adding the sources you need in multiple collections. You can add tags and notes for each source while also making related suggestions to other sources in your library. When you make progress in your dissertation writing, you may easily forget the sources that you have already read in the beginning. In this way, you can easily make notes to go back and look at certain sources. Zotero helps to manage your sources in the ways you want. While it helps to manage your sources and citations, it also helps you to save a lot of time.

Writing a dissertation in art history means using visual sources. If your dissertation involves many images, learning how to use a raster graphic editor will help you to edit your figures and maps. Adobe Photoshop has been one of the most rewarding digital tools that I have ever learned to use. Photoshop has many functions for image processing and post-production. It might seem complex, but it is easy to learn by watching several tutorials. Another option from the Adobe family is Photoshop Lightroom, which is much easier to learn and use while providing basic editing tools for your images.


It is important to make a habit of saving your writing based on daily and weekly stints. It may also be useful to keep the main writing text and visual images separately. Creating multiple backups on different devices will secure your dissertation. This will prevent losing your research and writing as you progress. I suggest two options: an external physical device and a cloud storage. For external physical storage units, solid-state drive (SSD) technology is the most recent device for storing and backing up. SSD works faster and it is more resistant to physical shocks. A cloud is a digital pool that is used for storing data. For example, Box, Dropbox, iCloud, Google Drive, and OneDrive provide both free and advance plans. It is useful to backup your dissertation on a cloud storage in case of your external drives or computer is corrupted, lost, or stolen.

Besides creativity, productivity, and organization, time management is another important aspect of research and writing. Graduate students face anxiety and stress, both in their private and professional lives. Additionally, a penchant for perfectionism can lead students to have writing blocks. Anticipatory anxiety, surfing on Internet, and spending time on social media can be time consuming as well. There are applications based on the Pomodoro technique to set daily, weekly, and long-term writing goals in order to overcome the crippling effects of procrastination. Some of the applications include Be Focused, Flora, Focus To-Do, or Study Break. Starting with small steps always help.

When it comes to citation management, note-taking, mind-mapping, scanning, graphic processing, backing-up, and storage applications and software, there exist numerous digital tools. Each one of us has different research and writing habits and styles, so it is simply best to remember that whatever tool works best for you is always the best to use.

5 thoughts on “Dissertating in the Digital Age: Research and Writing Tools for Organization and Productivity

  1. I would like to share one tip for distraction-free writing and people who may have problems with procrastination: Deinstall your soundcard driver! You can always reinstall it afterwards. For those who do not depend on audio-files or video for their research, I promise it works like a charm.

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