Visualising your PhD using a Gantt chart

Any project, whether it’s a substantial project such as your PhD thesis or a smaller-scale project like organising an event, will benefit from proper planning.  Project planning is a big topic, but here we will look at one planning tool that you use to help you understand and visualise the relationships between the component activities of your project and time:  a Gantt chart.  Gantt charts are named after Henry Gantt, a mechanical engineer and management consultant who developed the charts in the 1910s, and are very widely used for simple and complex projects, to communicate visually the timescale for a project and to monitor progress against that timescale.

So how do they work?  First of all, you need to have in place a relatively clear idea of the nature and scope of your project and the activities that will be involved.  Next, construct a table or list of the information you need to make your chart – this will include at least a list of activities and the estimated time each activity will take, but can also include information about which tasks are dependent on which.

Here’s an example for data collection using a questionnaire (note that ethical approval has already been obtained):

Activity Estimated time
1 Research literature 3 days
2 Design questionnaire 2 days
3 Identify participants 2 days
4 Pilot questionnaire 5 days
5 Review and finalise questionnaire 1 day
6 Distribute questionnaire 1 day
7 Collect responses 20 days
8 Analyse responses 5 days
9 Write report 5 days

Then identify any milestones which are key to the success of this project.  These might be key targets you’d like to mark as you progress, or fixed dates/deadlines which impact on your project.

For our example:

Milestone Date/deadline?
Copy date for newsletter 8th of the month
Questionnaire distributed!
Project deadline 31st January

We can now represent this graphically on a Gantt chart, remembering to work around any relevant deadlines – in this case, the 8th December copy date for distributing the questionnaire details with a regular newsletter.

gantt
Example Gantt chart, created using Tom’s Planner

This chart tells us a few useful things: the latest possible date on which this project can start to meet the deadline is the 18th November;  there may be an impact on response rates since the data collection period falls over Christmas;  there is additional time available for the project before the deadline.  This information can be used to change your plan – in this example I have added a star to my chart to remind me to send a “chaser” to participants who have not yet replied, but you could equally extend your data collection period, or try to re-negotiate your deadline to avoid Christmas altogether.  Either way, you now have a visual aid to help you track progress through your project plan.

For this relatively simple project carried out by a single researcher, the progress through the project is linear – each task is dependent on the previous task being completed.  For more complicated projects, or where you have more than one person, you can overlap tasks and represent dependencies on your chart.

There are a couple of points to note when using Gantt charts:

  • For a bigger project, it’s OK to leave some sections ill-defined in the early stages (e.g. “literature review”) but this may impact on the accuracy of your time estimates.
  • Often the process of completing the Gantt chart is at least as useful, if not more so, than the chart so produced.
  • If you have more than one person working on a project, it can be difficult to represent how moving people between activities will impact on your timescale.
  • Do not mistake the completed Gantt chart for a representation of how your project will go – it is an estimate only.

Do you find Gantt charts useful to help you plan your research?  What other project planning tools have you tried?

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