Tech for Success: 15 Productivity Apps for Graduate School

Oct 18, 2022
Female grad student relaxing under a tree with coffee and her books
The pace and demands of graduate school can be overwhelming. Shaquilla Harrigan, a doctoral candidate in Sociology at the University of Pennsylvania, shares her favorite apps for staying organized and productive as a graduate student.

By Shaquilla Harrigan

I must admit, I was a total Luddite as an undergraduate. I handwrote all my class notes, and drafted essays on notebook paper before transcribing them in Microsoft Word, I  reluctantly used Google Calendar/iCal. However, the pace of graduate school rendered these previous methods ineffective. In the short run, I could not accurately capture concepts in class or develop complicated arguments in my essays without technology. In the long run, I knew that I needed more detailed notes and references for large milestones like comprehensive exams and dissertation proposals.

Over the last four years, I used several different apps catered towards productivity and organization. Some of them I found via internet searches for solutions to “keep track of the time I spend on projects that are linked to my to-do list” and others I found through friends and Twitter recommendations. I use these apps primarily for my graduate studies and research, but they also help me manage my teaching responsibilities and research collaborations. 

As you figure out which of the following apps or tools would best support your workflow, keep in mind which hurdles you need the most help getting over and what that help should look like. Some of the hurdles I need help with are note-taking, task/project management, file management and organization, transcription, research management, and coding. In overcoming these hurdles, I knew that I needed apps/tools that were customizable, available across devices, and could easily integrate with each other. Another bonus is support that has student discounts.


My collection of Notes app lists and sticky note to-dos became unwieldy. In a strong bid to organize my tasks in a non-overwhelming way, I asked several friends for their tips. My roommate suggested I download Todoist. With this app, you can create to-do lists that are sorted into different projects or buckets. Some examples of projects I created in Todoist are the titles of each of my main research projects, the classes I’m TAing, and my household chores. You can assign dates and even make recurring tasks. One of my favorite things about this app is that you can sync it across your phone, tablet, and laptop. I also love that I can integrate Todoist with other productivity apps.


I integrate Clockify with Todoist. While Clockify seems like a virtual timecard for the corporate world, I’ve found this app helpful for allocating how I spend my time during the week. It is also useful to track hours for some of the consulting roles I’ve taken on as an advanced graduate student. As I noted in my article about how to succeed in graduate school, which discusses the importance of assigning tasks relative to your active brain time or passive brain time, Clockify provides weekly reports on how you spent your time across different tasks and when you spent the time during the day.


I love, love, love this notetaking app! You can sync notes from your laptop and tablet, making it easier to have hand-written tablet notes alongside typed notes. Your notes are also backed up to DropBox. I’ve organized my notes into dividers (major categories) and subjects (specific classes or research projects). I made sure my Notability and Todoist have similar organizational structures to minimize confusion. Other apps that friends and colleagues suggested similar to Notability include EndNote, Microsoft OneNote, and GoodNote.


If you are looking for a simple task list, or you like to give yourself time limits, I highly recommend Pomodoro-Tracker. You can make a (realistically long) list and guestimate how many 25-minute segments you will need to complete your tasks. After each segment, you will receive a 5-minute break. When you create an account, you can access your list from day to day.


Accountability to others helps me get through difficult situations like taking an intense fitness class or writing my dissertation prospectus. FocusMate expands your network by matching you with a stranger who is also trying to #GSD (get stuff done). In the free version, you can sign up for three work sessions. The way it works is that you sign up for a 50-minute or 25-minute session, get matched with someone through the internet and then keep your camera on while working. These matches helped me through many a paper and the mountains of revisions for my dissertation prospectus.


Look at your phone or computer right now. If you have less than five tabs currently open, you have immense self-control. However, if you have what seems like dozens of small squares lining the top of your browser, this web extension is for you. Pocket allows you to organize the rabbit hole of tabs that are kept open. Once you have the extension added, you can add the site to your list and add tags. 


I’ve said it before, and I will say it again and again; Zotero is a great reference manager. Zotero allows you to save journal articles, books, websites, news articles, podcasts, interviews, and many other forms of media. You can then export bibliographies and create in-text citations in tens of citation styles. In Zotero, users can annotate and make memos for each reading and read entire papers. I highly recommend getting the Zotero plug-in for your internet browser and Microsoft Word. I also suggest organizing your Zotero library according to the classes you’re taking at the time and the names of your research articles. 

Thread Reader

 Academic Twitter put me onto this helpful Twitter Bot that collates Twitter threads. If you make an account, the app will keep all the “unrolled” threads and allow you to download them as a PDF. This acts as a  great tool for collecting examples to present to my students.


From day one, you need a file management system and a way to reliably back up your documents. I like Dropbox because you can download the app onto your laptop and sync documents live without having to upload each document every time. Dropbox works well with the Microsoft suite and looks very similar to how I would organize folders on my desktop. Sometimes universities provide free cloud storage through Box or Google Drive. While both these tools are good, you want your information saved somewhere that you will always have access to. I learned this the hard way when my undergraduate email address expired, and I couldn’t access documents saved to the associated Google Drive account.

 If you are a qualitative researcher or record voice memos, this app will transcribe your recordings using artificial intelligence. This site will save you hours of transcribing and reduce the cost of transcription services. You can connect your calendar and Zoom account to You can also make shared folders for collaborating with others. You can transcribe up to 300 minutes for free each month. 

Small PDF

We have all experienced the frustration of trying to compress a PDF, convert a word document, or extract specific pages from a large PDF. Small PDF makes these tasks and others so simple. You are granted 2 free tasks a day or you can pay a small monthly fee for unlimited access to all the functions.


WeTransfer is a super simple site that enables you to transfer large files easily. All you must do is upload your document to the website and put it in the email of your intended recipient. They will receive the file and be able to download it uncompressed.


As you begin circulating your work and wanting to present neat tables and perfectly formatted equations, many people will point you toward LaTeX. While it’s a great program, the learning curve, especially if you’re new to coding, can be difficult. Overleaf is an interface that simplifies the steps needed to create documents in LaTeX. Overleaf and sites like GitHub have templates to help you get started with resumes, papers, and tables. 


This simple Google Chrome extension spell-checks emails and documents within the Google Suite. Grammarly has free and premium options.


 PerfectIt uses artificial intelligence to edit and proofread your work. This goes above and beyond the regular spell check and suggested edits in Word. When preparing a major manuscript, like a thesis or dissertation, this is helpful as a precursor review before sending it to professional editors.


Shaquilla Harrigan is a doctoral candidate in Sociology at the University of Shaquilla Harrigan Pennsylvania. Her research focuses on education and training programs for Kenyan youth. Prior to beginning her Ph.D., Shaquilla was a Princeton in Africa Fellow in Nairobi, Kenya. She graduated with a B.A. in Social Studies from Harvard University.

Want more advice from Shaquilla? Check out her other article, 5 Tips to Succeed in Social Science or Humanities Graduate Programs.

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