A dissertation requires solid organisational skills and effective time management in order to 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.
Image credit: @boetter