Some Useful Free Online Resources When You’re Writing a PhD

Image by stokpic from Pixabay
Image by stokpic from Pixabay

I hope some that of these ideas may be helpful to you. In addition to how useful all the apps, extensions, and websites I share are to me, they are also all free. I address the following topics:

  • Organisation
  • Writing
  • Bibliography
  • Reading
  • Online Visibility
  • Social Networks


Personal Organisation

  • I know that many are avoiding Google for privacy concerns, and I fully respect that.1 As far as I am concerned, Google Calendar and Google Tasks have been extremely useful, especially for long-term planning. My tasks such as ‘Submit Abstract in Two Weeks From Now’ are both in Google Tasks and in Google Calendar, thus enabling me to visualize them as a to-do list and directly in my calendar, on the day of the deadline. 
  • I indicate everything as a task and in particular answers that I may be expecting, for instance when a colleague or my advisers told me they would come back to me with an answer regarding X on a specific date (I usually set the ‘task’ two days after in order to give some time to the others if something comes up). It enables me to have a clear mailbox and a clear head, knowing that I’ll get a reminder if I need a signature for an application before a specific date, for instance. 
  • Also remember to indicate the dates of conferences you are not sure to attend (when still waiting for the notification of acceptance, funding, etc.) in order to avoid making arrangements and then have to reschedule because you’ll finally go to the conference. I like the fact that you can delete such events in one click if you won’t make it eventually. My handwritten notebooks were always so messy because of that! 

Shared Tasks

  • Trello has been a life-saver in many projects to avoid emails all day! It enables you to create a blackboard (with tons of beautiful pictures for the background) and make it a private one or a shared space (for teamwork). 
A Board on Trello
  • Then you can add post-its (called ‘cards’) with due date and person in charge. You can dialogue with the other team members through the platform instead of looking through multiple emails where the discussion has derived from its starting point, making it impossible to retrieve the relevant information when you need it. 
What You Can Do with Post-Its (‘Cards’) on Trello


  • Grammarly will help you correct grammar, spelling, and punctuation mistakes, in particular in emails and when posting on social platforms (such as here!). The free version works pretty well.
  • I love listening to music when I am writing. I can recommend the playlist Indie Folk on YouTube (updated every month) because it is relaxing but dynamic (I won’t fall asleep). The Google Chrome extension Noisli also enables you to choose between ‘random’, ‘productivity’, and ‘relax’ to adjust the background sounds to your current mood. 
  • I strongly recommend f.lux, which “makes the color of your computer’s display adapt to the time of day”, to get your computer to adapt to natural sunlight
  • I have been told that the Pomodoro technique is very effective. The idea is to work in uninterrupted slots of 25 to 45 minutes, then to have a short break (5-15 minutes), then back to work, etc. This does not work for me because I feel that putting myself under pressure for, say 30 minutes, is not helpful. If I am procrastinating, it means that something is going on and I usually take a longer break. Otherwise, I don’t like having to stop working after such a short period of time because when I’m finally “in it”, I want to make it last!
  • I keep hearing that LaTeX would be too complicated for people in the social sciences and humanities. Yet I definitely have no skills whatsoever in programming and coding, and I love it! I really think you should at least consider it. In my view, the question is not: how much time will I gain/lose by using LaTeX instead of Word? Rather, like every software/program/technique/method, LaTeX may shape your research practice
  • After having tested several online automatic translators, I believe that DeepL is one of the best. Another trick is to check for the word or expression in the original language on Wikipedia and then check it on the other Wikipedia pages. This the best way to have an idea of how a concept is translated by native speakers in context
Checking For the Same Wikipedia Article in Other Languages 
(Scroll Down, On Your Left)


  • Zotero is a must! See this article (in French) for some tips to organize your bibliography. Even if you chose another reference manager, pick up a free one – not one that you’ll have access to through your university. Otherwise, you run the risk to lose all your data or to have to transfer everything if you go to another university after your PhD.
  • For (more) advanced users of Zotero: To find and edit CSL citation styles, you may want to try this editor
  • Install the VPN (Virtual Private Network) connected to your university (for the Freie Universität Berlin, it is for instance on this web page). Basically, it will enable you to pretend that you’re at university when you need to download resources that are usually available only on campus, such as journal articles and books. Extremely useful! 
  • This is not directly linked with bibliography, but with VPN and online access. I am always surprised by how many students and researchers don’t know or don’t use Eduroam. Once installed on your laptop, tablet, or smartphone, Eduroam will give you free internet access all over the world – and this without having to give your username and password every time! It even works on the streets sometimes, especially on campuses and/or in cities with university buildings a bit everywhere (This is how I had free Wi-Fi in Oxford all the time, for instance).  


  • OpenEdition Books is a platform where you can read, as of today, 6142 books in the humanities and social sciences for free. 
  • Also, check the free access to Pascal and Francis, “an archive of the PASCAL and FRANCIS bibliographic databases in exact, human and social sciences […] and hitherto accessible with a subscription”. 
  • On Living Books about History, you also find “short essays on current topics of scholarly interest accompanied by selected contributions that are freely available online”. 
  • For free access to journals, books, and databases in Linguistics, Literature and Language Studies, check LAL Academy
  • You can also read the newspaper for free. Europress gives you access to thousands of newspapers through your university account. (This may be a French service, I’m not sure.) You can also download articles as PDFs. This is how it looks like on the webpage of Sorbonne Université
Screenshot of Europress as An Electronic Resource
from Sorbonne Université (7 October 2018)
  • To print for free in Germany, there is PlusPeter. I have never used it but heard good things about it! I think it may be useful to print articles for yourself rather than essays since there are ads in the free package (up to 160 pages in colour per month). 

Online Visibility

  • It can be useful to create your personal page on HAL-SHS, a free, state-funded open repository platform where you can upload your publications. Then you can add the link to this page in the signature of your emails. 
  • Don’t use Academia or Research Gate! Here is why: “The Day I Removed my Publications from Academia & Research Gate”. 
Once You Have Logged In Into Your Profil HAL-SHS,
Click on “My space” on the Right and then on “My profile”
Once You are in “My profile”,
Scroll Down to Update your CV

Social Networks

  • I discovered Twitter only at the end of my PhD and I wished I had used it earlier! In my view, it is a nice way to get to know people within and outside your research field, to follow the trends and controversies in research, and to learn about conferences you are not able to attend. 

“Why Academics REALLY use Twitter” – And you, why are you here? #ecrchat #academics #research #Twitter— Naomi Truan (@NaomiTruan) March 30, 2018

Other resources: Some Tips for Your First Encounters With A German University

Cite this article as: Naomi Truan, "Some Useful Free Online Resources When You’re Writing a PhD," in Ici et là, 07/10/2018,

  1. Comparitech (tech compared and reviewed) wrote me an email in March 2020 after reading this blog post, asking me whether I would consider adding a link on my page to their list. I am happy to provide you with a link: Disclaimer: This link is being provided as a convenience and for informational purposes only; it does not constitute an endorsement or an approval of any of the products, services or opinions of the corporation or organization or individual. I bear no responsibility for the accuracy, legality or content of the external site or for that of subsequent links. Contact the external site for answers to questions regarding its content. []

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