How to Plan your PhD

This workshop was of great value to me as a new PhD student starting my research endeavour. The session was conducted by Hugh Kearns who is recognised internationally as a public speaker, educator and researcher. The focus of the workshop was to realise the importance of having a good plan in order to avoid missing deadlines, running overtime, having regular crises and lots of stress.

Date: Tuesday 31 May 2016.
Time: 2pm – 5pm
Location: Lecture theatre S9, 16 Rainforest Walk, Clayton

Some of the key learnings from the workshop was that:

  1. Create your big picture thesis plan
    • It is important to have an overview plan for the entire thesis period. This should include considerations for activities and specific dates/milestones such as the start dates, literature review, proposal preparation, ethics, experiments, analysis, holidays, writing period, key milestone dates (confirmation, mid-candidature review, pre-pre-submission) and so on.
  2. Unpack your thesis down into logical parts
    • The thesis can be divided into shorter term logical goals.  Specific tasks can be set for Year 1, Year 2 and Year 3. The common approach to planning for this can be :
      • Backward planning – where you start with the end date of Phd and identify key milestones and work backwards on how you can approach those. For each milestone, you can works backwards by identifying the fieldwork required (data gathering and experiments), the conferences to can be targeted and also factoring in the absences of you and others (supervisors on leave etc).
      • A Rolling Plan – this is a wave like approach where you have a broad picture but more details are available closer to the present and then you roll along. Here is an example:
        0-6 months 6-12 months
        – Reading Literature Review
        – Clarify research question
        – Proposal writeup
        – Identify tools/instruments, questionnaires, surveys
        – draft literature review
        – Early Experimentation
        – Analyse early experiments
        – prepare confirmation report

        *Ask supervisor for some sample proposals to get familiar with the layout

  3. Create tasks lists for each stage of your thesis
    •  Having a Work Breakdown Structure (WBS)
  4. Estimate times and schedule tasks
    • its is important that tasks are estimated accurately. Normally its wise to allocate twice as much time for each task as things may go wrong. The tasks should also be appropriately sequenced as some tasks may or can be handled in parallel. Others are dependent and thus will require a waiting period.
  5. Create a Gantt chart for your thesis
    • Gantt char is an effective tool to hand Item (3) and (4) above. Software tools such as MS Project provide an effective means of task management and various view of the project progress.
  6. Keep on track as you implement your plan
    • An easy way to get this one is to move from a to-do list (overwhelming) to the today list – which essentially means to pick one item from the to-do list and put it in the today-list and set a fixed timeframe for completion.
    • TNT – The Next Thing. It is important that one should have clearly defined one thing they have to do next. To make this easier, the task can be broken down into a micro task, for eg. Instead of saying I have to do literature review, the next thing ca be to open the pdf document and read the abstract of paper x.
    • Other ways to ensure that the you can keep on track are:
      • meeting at a regular time weekly
      • Have agenda for the meeting & come out with the next thing to do?
      • email you supervisor before (agenda) and after the meeting (validate the meeting notes).
  7. Plan your writing
    • Writing is a process. A thesis is written 7-8 times (revision) before it is submitted.
    • Writing audit – break down 90,000 words over 3 years and it equates to 100 word/per day.
    • Organise data and results of every experiment in proper folders. They should also appropriately labelled as during writing your thesis, you may need to regenerate certain graphs etc.
  8. Manage the finances
    • As a student, it is important to ensure that income is always greater than expenses. Many students resort to jobs when they bust their budgets. It is important to remember that taking on an extra job deviates your focus from the thesis.
  9. Identify risks and deal with setbacks
    • This is one of the most important things to consider from the early stages of the research. Things go wrong. Research is a series of approximation and does not have a fixed path or recipe.
    • Plan B – it is important to consider questions like – what to do when Plan A does not work? (eg. midway in the candidature) – things that could derail the project ?? What approach to take then??
      • One should not throw whole thing away due to minor setbacks.
      • Dont pause life if no feedback is received from reviewer or supervisor.

I personally found this session extremely helpful and I hope that you as a reader will find the suggestion enlightening as well.