My Current Top 5 Doctoral Student Must Haves & “To Dos”

As an upcoming third year doctoral student it would be wrong of me not to share some of the best strategies and resources that have got me this far. My goal is to help other doctoral students take a step in the right direction no matter the field of research.

As a former teacher of 11 years, I have to be honest, I thought I knew everything there was to know generally speaking, about the field of education. I had a bachelors in middle childhood education, a masters in gifted and talented instruction, was National-Board Certified, earned a special education endorsement, an English to speakers of other languages endorsement, was Nearpod certified, obtained my first-aid mental health training, Crisis Prevention institute training, and numerous other certifications and digital badges here and there along the way. Man was I wrong. Any doctoral student in any field of research would probably agree that a doctorate takes place in a vastly different world. It pushes the mental limits beyond anything you could ever done as a practitioner in your field. There are not enough words, youtube videos, or blogs that can really prepare you for what is needed to make a doctorate look or feel easy, but I hope my current top 5 must haves or “to-dos” that I use to help keep myself on top of my research, progress, and learning will help you as well.

(1) Business Card Binder or Neat Desk

It sounds cheesy, but it works. When you start a doctoral program a whirlwind of information comes at you from a million different directions; you take risks you never dreamed of, travel to unknown places, and meet some of the most amazing people across multiple fields. After my very first conference as a doctoral student I came home with about 20 business cards. I had 5 more conferences that year to go. I had the hardest time figuring out who I talked to, when, at what conference, and where. The best decision I randomly started doing one day was that every time I would collect a business card, at the end of the session or day, I would write on the back of the card 1) the conference/location, 2) the date/year, and 3) the connection(s) made (e.g., research, content, future projects, interests). It has saved me 100 times over these past 2 years in tracking contacts and building meaningful relationships.

If you prefer to avoid the paper business cards and keep an electronic copy, I do recommend the Neat Desk Company. They have high quality products where you just scan in the business cards and it stores electronic searchable copies for you. It is a great alternative to your collection of business cards if you tend to lose them. I have to warn you it is a little pricey, but it is a one time purchase, there is no ink to purchase, and it is a tax deduction as a student. It is also quick, auto generates data per upload, has multiple adjustable document sizing options, and they have travel sized scanning documents that can go with you as you travel that syncs with your account. Your traditional flat top scanners will also work, but I would recommend putting 12-15 on a page at a time and then scanning in. Your cards will be saved as images instead of searchable data, but it is an option if you are on a budget.

Avery Business Card Protectors and Binder Options

The Neat Company Scanners

(2) Kindle Reader

Some people like paper books. I get it. My husband and daughter are the same way. There is something about paper books that is just serene and calming. Sticky notes, highlights, writing in columns; it is just a no brainer for good note taking and reading comprehension skills. Doctoral program content and learning processes I have found are very different though. It is very academic and not a “summer beach read” as my advisor would say. You don’t always read every single page. Your job as a doctoral student is “reSEARCH.” I found out quickly flipping through pages endlessly searching for content was so time consuming. In year 2, I began to download any text or book available to my Kindle and it was the best thing I ever did for 3 primary reasons:

1) get books on-demand the same day when needed or if I found interesting at a conference,

2) the ability to travel lightly without hauling a million books, and

3) most importantly the CTRL+F or find feature.

The “find” feature has saved my life on numerous open book online tests. The kindle reader also has a highlighter tool, ability to take notes, annotations, and so much more. No more flipping through notes, searching book after book, or chapter after chapter. I do want to note that I do use the Kindle app on a Galaxy Tablet, but the Kindle app can be used on any Amazon device, Apple, Google, or Android device. I would recommend trying it out on your device and finding a freebie download to practice with.

My Current Book List

Kindle Readers

(3) Paperpile

In the first year of my program I had to read 84 articles with articles averaging about 22 pages each. I currently have about 272 articles or books in my Paperpile account. Needless to say the printer was no longer an option. I replaced the ink in my printer the first semester almost 4 times (XL black). Save the money, ink, and printer stress and get Paperpile. Paperpile is a web-based commercial reference management software, with special emphasis on integration with Google Docs and Google Scholar, but any PDF or document is loadable. Paperpile has a Google Chrome browser extension and has the ability store every article, PDF, book chapter, etc. online without limits. In Paperpile I can search any keyword and it automatically looks up those resources. I can also sort by project or collection similar to a folder on a desktop without the fear of losing your research. You will thank me later!

Retrieved from

(4) Transcription Software

If qualitative data is your research jam, you need the subscription. It is worth every penny if you upgrade to add more minutes, which you will need in qualitative research. is a technology company that develops speech-to-text transcription and translation applications using artificial intelligence and machine learning. Its software shows captions for live speakers, including in-person, during an interview, in Zoom, or in Google Meet, and generates written transcriptions of the conversations by person. It automatically recognizes your voice from the others making it easy to upload into coding software differentiating between you and the guest speakers. The transcriptions also embed the original sound recording so you can check transcriptions if something looks wonky. You also have the capability to make notes or memos as you go along and share with collaborators within your research projects.

(5) There is a Spreadsheet for That

One of the things that has keep my presentations, grants, service projects, articles, book chapters, completed projects, and CV in check is my Excel Spreadsheet (or Google Sheets if that is your system). I would receive 50 emails a day on different activities and projects and scrolling or searching through emails was pure torture. One time I missed a deadline for a research grant because it got lost in a rolodex of emails and another time I accidently sent proposals to two different conferences that were within the same week so I ended up having to cancel one. Organizing all your work in some type of system that works for you with frequent check-ins (at least weekly) is highly recommended for not only accountability for yourself, but to others you are working with. The spreadsheet system has been the simplest way that I have found for me to keep me focused and on top of my projects. Although this is just a sample, I would recommend to any doctoral student to keep a running list of projects developing, in-progress, and past/completed to track your work each semester that also helps easily transfer information into your curriculum vitae or “CV.” I have met many doctoral students that missed out on so many opportunities’, some that are very financially costly, because of lack of organization and missing timelines.

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