7 Essential Dissertation Writing Apps & Tools

By: David Phair (PhD) & Kerryn Warren (PhD) | October 2019 (Updated March 2022)

Completing your dissertation or thesis requires a hearty investment of time, effort and hard work. There’s no shortcut on the road to research success, but as with anything, there are ways to optimize the process and work smarter.

In this post, we’ll share with you a handful of apps, software and services that will make your life a little easier throughout the research process.

Overview: Essential Thesis Writing Apps

  1. Grammarly (language editing)
  2. Evernote (note taking & productivity)
  3. Otter (dictation/transcription)
  4. Dropbox (cloud storage)
  5. Canva (graphic design)
  6. Mendeley (reference management)
  7. Freemind (mind mapping)
  8. Bonus – MOOCs (learning & development)

#1: Grammarly Premium

Let’s face it – the spell checker in Microsoft Word just plain sucks. False positives and negatives abound, missed errors, ridiculous suggestions – you’re often better off spell checking yourself. Thankfully, you don’t need to do that, thanks to Grammarly.

Grammarly app for proofreading your dissertation on the fly

Grammarly is more than just a spelling and grammar checker – it picks up far more complex issues such as:

  • Inconsistent writing style and unclear sentence structure
  • Overuse of specific works and ineffective vocabulary
  • Impolite, insensitive or non-inclusive language
  • Inappropriate tone or formality level
  • Plagiarism

Simply put, Grammarly is the closest thing you’ll get to having a real-time editor and proofreader looking at your work. Of course, it doesn’t replace human-based editing, but its ideal for cleaning up your early drafts prior to submitting them to your supervisor/advisor for feedback. Grammarly integrates directly into Word, Google Docs and Chrome, so it’s extremely versatile.

Grammarly offers both a free and premium version. For dissertation writing purposes, we recommend the premium version as it includes a plagiarism checker, which is very handy. 

#2: Evernote & Penultimate

No doubt, you’ll be taking an endless stream of notes throughout the research process. Some will be written notes, some will be photos, some might even be audio recordings. You’ll need a way to stay on top of it all and keep things organized. Enter Evernote.

Evernote app for taking notes during your thesis

Evernote is the ultimate note-taking app, as it allows you to take notes in various formats, including text (typed and handwritten), photos (snap that workshop slide) and audio (record that interview). You can also attach files of any format (for example, an Excel data set), so absolutely everything stays in one place. The text in any note is fully searchable, and all data is synchronized across your phone, laptop, desktop and tablet.

3: Otter

Writing up a good dissertation or thesis requires a lot of, well, writing. Spending hours upon hours hunched over a keyboard can be really draining (and potentially physically harmful). Imagine you could just speak instead of type. Well, now you can, thanks to Otter.ai

Otter

Otter is an app that allows you to simply speak into your smartphone or tablet and it converts that audio into text format. This means you can get your thinking on to paper faster than you usually would and minimize the risk of losing your train of thought. It’s also great for getting work done while you’re sitting in traffic, and it can double as a initial transcribing aid for your interviews (although you should always double-check/edit these transcriptions manually). 

4: Dropbox

The number of times we’ve seen students lose hours, days or even weeks’ worth of hard work (and even miss the submission deadline) due to corrupted flash drives or hard drives, coffee-soaked laptops, or stolen computers is truly saddening. If you’re not using cloud storage to save your work, you’re running a major risk.

Cloud storage apps for your dissertation backups

If you take only ONE thing from this post, let it be this point. Go sign up for any of the following cloud services (most offer a free version) and save your work there:

Not only will this ensure your work is always safely stored (remember to hit the Save button, though!), it will make working on multiple devices easier, as your files will be automatically synchronized. No need to have multiple versions between your desktop, laptop, tablet, etc. Everything stays in one place. Safe, secure, happy files.

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5: Canva

Even the most well-written dissertation or thesis will suffer if the visuals cause retina damage to the reader’s eyes. Sadly, badly designed conceptual frameworks and document visuals are all too common in academic work. This needn’t be the case, thanks to Canva.

Canva

Canva is an intuitive, easy to use, fully web-based graphic design service that lets anyone design high-quality graphics. And yes, we mean anyone. You don’t need to have a background in graphic design or visual arts to make good looking graphics with Canva. Just drag and drop. Canva also offers a wide variety of pre-made templates, so it couldn’t be easier to create visuals for your dissertation or thesis.

6: Mendeley

Correctly formatted citations and references are essential to a polished dissertation or thesis. Even the highest quality piece of research will lose credibility (and marks) if the referencing is not on point. It’s such a shame to see students lose marks on this, as its such an easy thing to get right with reference management software like Mendeley.

Mendeley is a free reference management software that takes care of all your citations and references in Word. Simply load up your journal articles in Mendeley and then just drop in your citations as you write up in Word. Mendeley then automatically builds your reference list according to whichever format you choose (e.g. Harvard, APA, etc). Sure, there are many similar pieces of software out there, but personally I find Mendeley to be the most feature-rich. See the video above for a taste of the functionality.

7: Freemind

When you’re undertaking your research, especially your literature review, you’re going to be dealing with a wide-ranging number of theories, models and frameworks, and it can be difficult to see the big picture and connect all the dots. Mind mapping is a highly effective way to visualize (and connect) all the information, but doing it on paper is so old fashioned. Enter Freemind.

Freemind app
Freemind is a mind mapping software that allows you to easily create highly editable, visually rich mindmaps on your computer. It’s simple and intuitive to use, and 100% free.

8: Udemy & Coursera

Okay, so this is not an app or piece of software, but we couldn’t resist including it…

While you’re undertaking your dissertation, chances are that you’re going to need to learn about some niche topic very quickly in order to complete some part of your research. For example, how to use SPSS or NVivo analysis software, how to develop statistically sound survey scales, how to undertake structured interviews, and so on. However, these sorts of skills are typically not included in the university syllabus and will have a major impact on the quality of your research. Enter Udemy and Coursera.

Udemy

Udemy and Coursera both provide a wide-ranging variety of super-short, highly digestible online courses.  These courses are a great way to pick up specific skills (especially software skills) in a very short amount of time (many courses are less than 10 hours total).

Recap: Dissertation Apps

And there you have it – 8 apps, software and services that will undoubtedly make your life easier come dissertation time.

To recap:

Have a suggestion? We’d love to hear your thoughts. Simply leave a comment below and we’ll consider adding your suggested app to the list.

Psst… there’s more (for free)

This post is part of our research writing mini-course, which covers everything you need to get started with your dissertation, thesis or research project.

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