My digital workflow: Office 365 processes & tools for doctoral students

I thought I would take some time to share the invaluable Microsoft tools that I use as part of my thesis and research. I think the usefulness of Microsoft Office Word, Excel, PowerPoint and Outlook is without question. These programs are an essential part of my work, but I will focus on other tools that I use to support my research.

Pixaline / Pixabay


OneNote is a note taking application. OneNote is like my second brain. It stores my notes for absolutely every situation. Instead of a mixture of apps and notebooks, I take a great effort to keep everything in one place. The availability of OneNote on iOS, MacOS and Windows means I can access OneNote on all of my devices: iPad Pro, iPhone, MacBook Pro and Windows 10 computers. This means I can also access my notes anywhere and pretty much on every device. I’m a big fan of handwritten notes and there is a lot of evidence that demonstrates they’re the most effective way to take notes. The awesomeness of the iPad Pro and Pencil mean I can handwrite on-screen just as well as on paper. For any situation in which I do use paper, I scan documents in or use Office Lens (see below).

Technicalities aside, I use OneNote for:

  • Lecture notes, keynotes, conference notes
  • Supervision meeting records
  • Thoughts, thinking, general notes
  • Notes on reading
  • Field notes
  • Shopping lists, recipes and pretty much everything else!

The reason OneNote works so effectively is the wide range of media it supports. Not only can type or hand written notes be used within OneNote, but it supports drawing, maths, images, audio, video, tables, embedded files and a whole range of other special applications. Notes are easy to find as they are organised into sections and notebooks. Everything is searchable, tagable and easy to find.

FirmBee / Pixabay


OneDrive is a cloud storage platform. This means it stores files on a remote server as opposed to any one device. This means you can access anything you store on it anywhere you have internet. I use OneDrive to store all of my important files, with the exception of anything personally identifiable, like research data. While OneDrive achieves the same as Box, DropBox, iCloud Drive, Google Drive or any of platform, the deep integration with Microsoft Office makes OneDrive the most useful. It is also the cheapest platform as you get 1 TB for free included in Office 365, including the edition most universities provide students with.

Not only does OneDrive let you store your files and make them available, it also lets you connect to any computer you’re synced to and pull any file from it. This is really useful if you ever forget to take a file with you. As you’d expect, everything is searchable – but it is important to carefully consider your organisation system. I take great care to never get lazy when saving files otherwise it quickly ends up an unusable mess.

OneDrive is accessible within Office 365 programs, allowing you access to save directly to your OneDrive from within the software. The very latest versions of some even automatically – and constantly save to your OneDrive, ensuring your work is always safe. OneDrive can also be used for collaboration, allowing multiple people to edit an office file in real-time. This can be done with in-browser and in-program. Most people will recognise this functionality from Google Docs/Sheets – but its a lot more powerful in Office.


Office Lens

Office Lens is an amazing app for phones and tablets. It allows you to use the devices camera to take photographs, and save them directly to OneDrive, OneNote, your camera stream, PDF, Word or PowerPoint. What makes Lens so special is it’s ability to work with documents, whiteboards and business cards. When pointing Lens at a document, whiteboard, television, projector screen, book or whatever you want to capture, Lens detects the edges automatically and removes the background. This makes it a pretty impressive scanner! For whiteboards it also filters the photo and enhances the picture.

Most of my Lens shots end up getting stored within OneNote, embedded within whatever notebook I am working on at the time. I use it to capture a lot of projector screens – essential for lectures and conference. I also like using it for documents so I can take a photo/image of it away with me digitally rather than ¬†needing to carry a lot of paper. As I suggested above, it is this feature that also lets me digitise any handwritten notes I may take. While I don’t use it, Lens works with Microsoft Immersive Reader so it is fantastic for accessibility purposes.

helloolly / Pixabay

Other useful tools

While I don’t have space to go into too much detail, there are some other essential apps:

Microsoft Translator

Microsoft Translator is a free, personal translation app for 60+ languages, to translate text, voice, conversations, camera photos and screenshots. You can even download languages for offline translation for free to use when you travel!


Microsoft Visio

Microsoft Visio is a diagramming software package. It lets you easily draw a whole range of processes, diagrams and maps. It is a lot easier to use than Microsoft Word for making diagrams, with special tools to help you keep elements in line and linked.


Microsoft To Do

Microsoft To-Do is a simple and intelligent to-do list that makes it easy to plan your day. Whether it’s for work, school or home, To-Do will help you increase your productivity and decrease your stress levels. It combines intelligent technology and beautiful design to empower you to create a simple daily workflow. Organize your day with To-Do’s smart Suggestions and complete the most important tasks or chores you need to get done, every day. To-Do syncs between your phone and computer, so you can access your to-dos from school, the office, or the grocery store or even while you’re traveling around the world.

How to mindmap a keynote or lecture

I’ve recently just made it back home from a conference. While I was there, I mind mapped the keynotes – something I have done at previous events. I received some really nice feedback on these and thought it would be nice to write up a quick guide of how to do it!

The first thing you need to do is decide on a medium. While you can hand draw them, you generally need a very big sheet of paper – so unless you’ve got a wall to hand, software if your best bet. There are LOADS of mind mapping tools, both free and paid for. Biggerplate has a ranked list of mind mapping software on their website. I personally use iMindMap. While most software has a broadly similar feature set, I feel iMindMap has a couple of unique modes. Most importantly, I think the maps it produces are the most aesthetically pleasing. If you’re going to do this – it may as well by pretty!

If you go digital, you’ll probably find it faster if you have access to a keyboard. This can either be a laptop, or a tablet with keyboard cover or bluetooth keyboard.

Practice the method

No matter what tool you are using, paper or software – you must practice. You need to be very confident with the process of creating a mindmap, especially when you are doing this for a keynote or lecture. This is because you need to be fast. If you’re not used to the software or the process, your notes will be slow and the mindmap will hinder your notes – not help them.

I think mind mapping from existing notes or book chapters is an excellent place to start. If you are using software, it will help you with the map format. If you are going hand-drawn, the iMindMap website has a great page on the technique and a fully detailed PDF guide that goes into the science. Still – I recommend the software!

At some point you need to practice mind mapping a live event. It’s best to do this for something recorded or something that doesn’t really matter. As this is your first event based map – you may miss some points or not be as quick as you need. Don’t rely on this approach until you’re confident with it!

Practice with the software is particularly important. They all tend to be pretty intuitive, but it is best to practice capturing at speed.


Mind mapping a live event

This bit assumes you are confident with mapping:

When you are mind mapping an event, you need to focus on getting everything down. You should try and make sure you get things into the correct hierarchy and tree – but don’t worry if you don’t quite manage this. The beauty of software is that you can copy/paste/move things around easily. If you decide to go for a paper map, you may need to make a tidier version once you’ve finished.

Don’t worry too much about the overall structure. As your map grows through the event you will get a better idea of the more important elements. Then you can begin to re-order things as you go. If your software supports multiple ‘central ideas’, or concept mapping, it may be easier to split/move your tree around afterwards.

Whatever you do – do not focus on branch shaping and location. Let your map be messy! At the end of the event you can reshape everything and move it to where it needs to be. Do not let this distract you from capture as you can only do that in the event. Smartening things up is a job for later.

You will find most software has an automatic structuring feature, snapping feature or ‘clean up’ feature. This will keep everything in some form of order as you go. The software I use, iMindMap has a really good clean up feature that tidies things up and makes sure everything is legible and in its own space. If you’re working from a single central idea, it also has a special capture mode that explicitly lets you focus on getting things down – and not on structure.

If you want to include images or photos in your mindmap, these can be done afterward – or as you go along. It tends to be easier to do this afterwards, but if you’re quick, it is nice to capture as you go along to ensure images are in the correct place. I do this a lot when capturing slides that I embed inside my map. As I have an iPhone and a MacBook Pro this is an easy process. I use Microsoft Office Lens to capture board pictures and then use AirDrop to send it to the MacBook and then into the software. That sounds like a fair process – but it is quite quick with practice!

As an example, here is an initial screenshot from the capture and another towards the end:

Initial version:

Final version: 

This final version is finished after the event. I spend time tweaking the branches and central ideas so everything fits. Sometimes I add in a few more links, reflections or questions to further reflect my thinking. Checking spelling and grammar comes at this point too, as does the inclusion of additional images.