A dissertation requires solid organisational skills and effective time management in order achieve a high standard, so we’ve put together a list of some of the best free tools available to make the planning stages of your project easier.
Choosing a Topic
Before you even get near your research proposal , you need to have a topic in mind. Mind mapping is a great way to organise and visualise your early ideas when developing your dissertation topic.
Mind42.com 's mind mapping tool allows you to collaborate with colleagues online, which could be useful for sharing with peers or your project supervisor.
Mindmeister.com also features collaboration and boasts mobile access with it’s free iPhone app, whilst Bubbl.us focuses on speed with it's handy keyboard shortcuts .
Evernote provides tools for your computer, mobile device, or web browser which capture your ideas, notes, and inspiration wherever you are. This free toolset lets users save text notes, web pages, photos, and screenshots with a comprehensive search feature so that you can retrieve your ideas quickly and easily.
Reading and Research
Using Google Scholar you can search a large index of scholarly articles, theses, books, abstracts and court opinions. To get the most out this research tool check out Google’s guide to Advanced Scholar Searches .
Compiling a bibliography in the required format can be a time consuming task at the end of a dissertation, especially if you haven't kept track whilst writing . Fortunately there are free tools available which help you to store your citations from the beginning of your project and retrieve them in a number of commonly use formats.
Bibdesk is an Open Source Mac app with bibliography management and search features, as well as some useful import and export capabilities.
Alternatively, you could use Zotero 's browser extension for Firefox which can automatically sync your data with multiple computers. It also features browsing for mobile devices, which means you can access your data in away from your computer.
For Windows users, BiblioExpress offers a simple reference manager that can format citations in common styles such as ACS, APA, and MLA.
Planning your time
Time management is crucial in a large project such as a dissertation. It may be useful to plan backwards from your deadline, allowing extra time where necessary for unforeseen delays and revisions.
Gantt charts are a very visual way to allocate time to your dissertation tasks and there are many free tools to help you build your own. This is especially great if you're accommodating some non-work time too . Google Docs has a Gadget in it’s spreadsheet feature which creates Gantt charts for free. Similarly, if you already own Microsoft Excel you can build Gantt charts with it too.
Tomsplanner is a dedicated web-based Gantt generator which is free for personal use, and Team Gantt 's free trial offers an alternative with a slick interface.
If you’re not keen on Gantt charts you could simply plan your project in a standard calendar.
Google Calendars is web based meaning you can access it from any computer and most mobile devices. You could also share your calendar with your supervisor if you think you're likely to miss deadlines. Microsoft Outlook’s calendar and iCalendar on Mac could also be useful planning tools.
If you need to organise your dissertation workload on a shorter time scale, TeuxDeux 's well designed interface helps you to plan your tasks on a weekly basis. There’s also a paid iPhone app for task management on the go.
HabitRPG is an excellent option for those of you who need a bit of positive reinforcement alongside your planning.
If a week is still too much to think about, check out Todokyo which takes simplicity to the next level with a clean-looking daily list.
If you find yourself constantly distracted by the lures of email and social networking, you could try Freedom’s free trial . This Mac app blocks your web connection for up to 3 hours at a time, leaving you to concentrate on your dissertation. Alternatively you can block specific websites from Firefox using Leechblock , and Google Chrome users can do the same with StayFocusd .
If you'd like to know more about dissertations and research projects, check out the following articles: Planning A Good Research Project How To Write A Thesis or Dissertation Publishing Your Thesis or Dissertation Image credit: @boetter
How to make a simple Gantt chart
13 September 2011by Jonathan O'Donnell
In every grant application, I want to see a simple visual guide (a Gantt chart) that shows what you are planning to do. It is the perfect time to plan your project clearly. It shows the assessors that you have thought about your research in detail and, if it is done well, it can serve as a great, convincing overview of the project.
Clearly, these charts are hard to do. If they were easy, more people would do them, right?
Here are five steps to create a simple guide to your research project.
1. List your activities
Make a list of everything that you plan to do in the project. Take your methodology and turn it into a step-by-step plan. Have you said that you will interview 50 people? Write it on your list. Are you performing statistical analysis on your sample? Write it down.
List of tasks for “Simple Privacy”, a one year project
Check it against your budget. Everything listed in the budget should also be listed on your uber-list? Have you asked for a Thingatron? Note down that you will need to buy it, install it, commission it… What about travel? Write down each trip separately.
2. Estimate the time required
For each item on your list, estimate how long it will take you to do that thing. How long are you going to be in the field? How long will it take to employ a research assistant? Realistically, how many interviews can you do in a day? When will people be available?
- Initial meeting: about 3 weeks to find a time.
- Desk audit: 4 months.
- Draft key elements: about 1 week each.
- Testing: about 1 week each, but can start organising as soon as first element is drafted.
- Write up: 2 months.
- Final report: no time, really – just need to find a time to meet.
Generally, I use weeks to estimate time. Anything that takes less than a week I round off to a week. Small tasks like that will generally disappear from the list when we consolidate (see Step 4). Then I group things together into months for the actual plan.
3. Put activities in order
What is the first thing that you are going to do? What will you do next? What will you do after that?
In the comments, Adrian Masters provided some great questions to help with this stage:
- What do I need to do by when?
- What do I need from others & when?
- How do I check that I am still on track?
One by one, put everything in order. Make a note of any dependencies; that is, situations where you can’t do one thing until another is started or finished. If the research assistant is going to do all the interviews, then the interviews can’t start until the research assistant is hired.
Where possible, you should eliminate as many as possible dependencies. For example, if you can’t find a decent research assistant, you will do the fieldwork yourself (but that might mean that work will be delayed until you finish teaching). It isn’t a necessary step to getting your time-line in order, but it is good project management practice.
In the comments, Amy Lamborg pointed out that you might want to work backwards. If you have a fixed end date, you might want to “…build back towards the project start date, then jiggle everything until it fits!” If you want an example of this, have a look at the post “Work backwards“. It is about writing an application, but the principle of starting with the fixed end date and working backwards still applies.
4. Chunk it up
Now that you have an ordered list, and you know how long everything will take, you need to reduce the list without losing any specificity. At the same time, if you are combining tasks, you might want to add a bit of time as a contingency measure.
- Meet with partners: 3 weeks.
- Review data protection regimes: 4 months.
- Draft three key elements: 3 months.
- Test three key elements: 3 months, with some overlap.
- Analyse test results and report: 3 months.
How you divide up your time depends on your project. If it is only one year long, you might list items by month. If your project is three years long, then you might list items by quarter. If you are planning over five years, you might break it down to six-month periods.
5. Draw me a picture
If you use project management software to manage your project, and you are comfortable with it, then use it to produce a summary of your project, too.
Most project management software (e.g. like Microsoft Project) will allow you to group activities into summary items. Chunk your tasks into major headings, then change the time interval to your months, quarters, half-years, or whatever you have chosen to use.
Or you can just draw it up with word-processing software (which is what I always do), spreadsheet software, or even hand-draw it.
Example of a Gantt chart
Frankly, I don’t care – as long as it ends up in your application!
Also in the ‘simple grant’ series: