starting the PhD – tech matters

These days, researchers are very dependent on their hardware and software. If you are just starting on a PhD, there are some tech matters that it’s good to sort out now. Many of these are hidden costs associated with doing doctoral research. They’re inequitable costs too of course, as people have varying capacities to pay for computers and the like.

It’s important to find out what your university offers by way of hardware, software and support. Most universities offer full time students a desk, chair and a computer, with access to a printer. Part time students might get access to a hot desk.

Well this may not be quite what you need. For instance:

  • 3952548811_4820993cb4_bI hate to say this, but your university supplied computer may be fairly old and/or slow and sometimes the printing might be less than reliable. (Don’t even start on the copier.) You may want something different, faster, more efficient.
  • And you might even need a fast machine with lots of puff because of the kind of research that you are going to do – you will generate big files and/or need big processing capacity. If this is the case, you may have to negotiate for this – and if so, the sooner the better.
  • Maybe you going to be on the road doing field work or sitting for a long time in the archive. You’ll need a laptop or a tablet. You need to check out whether the university will provide this.

Chances are that you’ll also want to work at home. It can be difficult working in shared office space – even with headphones on. Lots of people like to do their heavy duty reading and writing at home. So, is your home tech up to it?  Can you afford, or can you get a loved one to buy you, a new machine to get you through the PhD? You don’t want to have to deal with a crashed computer half way through. Or are you best served by a laptop you can carry from university to home? Is your idea of heaven to have a big screen on your home desk? These are things to think about now, at the start.

If you are going to work at home, then you need to consider how you will deal with with having university supplied software at work – but maybe not at home. If you need portable software, or you need to use a particular programme both at work and at home, then you need to plan for that. Maybe you have to buy a home license, maybe you don’t. You need to think about this as you decide what bibliographic and data analysis software you choose to use.

Think too about your internet connection at home. Of course you have access to university inter and intra-net while you are there, and you can access everything the university has remotely. But to do this, you do need to have access to a good home internet connection if at all possible. Part time students really must have good internet access because that will be a key way that they stay in touch. And even for full time doctoral researchers, supervision often takes place via Skype these days. And you may be in the position where you need/want to do some of your data work – interviews or surveys – online. What’s more you don’t want to wait forever to download a particular PDF you have just found. Slow or intermittent access at home will make things harder and frustrating.

Don’t forget you’ll need to sort out your email addresses. If you already have a personal email account and want to keep it, then you need to hook your provided university email to it, or be prepared to check your university email very regularly. Universities now communicate with all staff and students almost exclusively by email and if you aren’t checking your university account often you can miss important deadlines.

Then there’s storage and back up. One of the things that keeps doctoral researchers – and indeed many of us – awake at night, is the prospect of losing work. It’s really important to get your storage and back-up system sorted early on. Your university might provide you with some storage space – so check that out now and start to use it asap. But you might want to buy an external hard drive  that you can use. And/or you might want to use a version of the free cloud storage that is now available – although do check out data security and the Ts and Cs and make sure you’re happy with them.

But that’s not all. Do you need additional kit – audio recorder, microphone, camera? If your phone won’t do the job you’re hoping , then do take this up with your university now –  see if they have equipment you can book out. If not, tell all of your relatives what items you are putting on your Christmas list! And if you are entitled to specialist kit or support related to a disability, the sooner the appropriate university services are onto it, the better. Unfortunately, you may have to chase this.

Do take a moment to look at some of the apps that are available to help you organise yourself – diaries, time management, fitness, organisation and communication. These apps might be something you want to play with at the start so you can find the particular combination of app-roaches that works for you. You might want to check out blogs that talk about PhD friendly apps, like this one from Alex Strick. 

Your colleagues will certainly have more to say about the tech. Start the conversation. It’s good to talk with people who are further along in their PhD than you are – initiate talk about hardware and software issues. Your peers may not only know ways to manage the situation in your university and have good tips and tricks, but they may also be plugged into networks where you can get some quick advice about a software or hardware issue and/or find out about potentially useful and interesting apps.

And check out these other Starting the PhD posts:



About pat thomson

Pat Thomson is Professor of Education in the School of Education, The University of Nottingham, UK
This entry was posted in PhD, starting the PhD, technology and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to starting the PhD – tech matters

  1. Charlotte HL says:

    Storage. . . .our university expects you to use theirs. However they do not provide enough for audio or video files. We are not allowed to use drop box or similar so I ended up using an external hard drive locked up at home with a back up in locker at the grad centre. This passed ethics. I am pleased to say that IT have now caught up with the problem and it is possible to get extra storage. BUT it is only temporary. So I guess I am saying check out the policies of IT and your Ethics Committee as they won’t necessarily match.


  2. rivathuds says:

    Thanks for this post, very helpful. I’ve just started looking at free trial of Scrivener which comes with an extensive beginners guide. It looks amazing, although a bit scary at this stage because so many functions, menus etc.


  3. Jane S says:

    ‘Après le déluge’ of inductions, initial drafting of ideas, and re-drafting, drowning in info, reading, writing, and then wrestling with chunks of text, let alone familiarising myself with the protocols of how this arcane process actually *works*, some years down the line I find myself with a very large, very heavy tome, currently dubbed ‘the beta thesis’. Quite how I got here from there I’m not sure, but I read through your ‘don’t panic’ post, Pat, (Oct, ’15) and recognise all the things you mention, albeit with the 20/20 benefit of hindsight vision.
    I wish I’d had a mentor, say two or 3 years further on, who could have enlightened me about so many of the pitfalls.
    One post I do particularly recall is the one where you talked about piling up .pdfs or off-prints and kidding ourselves this is ‘working,’ when it’s not ~ not unless you put the research to good use. I have boxes full of such print-outs.

    Where you choose to work: I would say yes, we work best at home, within our own routines. Hot-desking is fine in theory, in practice sadly not: not if the previous user was eating a muffin …
    Take from the tech only what you need / can use ~ just because something is available doesn’t mean we HAVE to use it, not if it doesn’t contribute. (Personal ‘bête noire’? P/point presentation).
    I bought language licenses for laptop and home PC, from Hobart, Tasmania (Tavultesoft Keyman), and was then advised not to employ the software tho’ I did love it. It looked so pretty on the page. But, of course, one’s computer has to ‘talk’ to other computers, and if they don’t have the same specialist software installed, you’re sunk.
    The best decision was the purchase of a shiny new desktop PC. I didn’t wish to spend three or 4 years keeping my IT-man in business, rescuing me from crashes, glitches and software conflicts. It has been worth it.
    But heavy hints dropped to nearest and dearest about birthday / Christmas presents didn’t bear fruit. Probably because my wish-list was mostly academic books. At doctoral level these can be very, very expensive.

    How you work: While this has been one of the richest and happiest times of my life, the effects of writing a thesis have been physical. I’ve put on over a stone in weight, my sternum feels as if it’s sunk somewhere below my ribcage, and at the very least I now have rounded shoulders and a marked scholar’s stoop.

    You learn as you go along. Overall, my message is a truism: ‘KISS’ ~ keep it simple, student. The simpler the better. OK, store everything meticulously ~ one copy on your desktop, one in Dropbox or the cloud, one on flashdrive or CD, etc. Back-up regularly: once a week suited me, if / when I remembered, which wasn’t all the time. The sooner you begin writing the better. You can waste a lot of time reading around the field and suddenly find yourself with a mere 12 months to complete. Writing up takes longer than you may imagine at the start. Much longer.

    Happy PhD~ing. 🙂


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