Visualising your PhD: the big picture

CaptureWe’ve talked before on this blog about the value of proper project planning to complete specific (writing) tasks and how to create a Gantt chart to manage a project, but detailed project plans can be tricky to create for your whole PhD.  Although it’s possible to create plans despite uncertainty (e.g. around research methods or likely results), it can be time consuming.  What’s needed is more of an overview.

Start by asking yourself some of the big questions:  why, what and when.


Why have you chosen to take a PhD?  Do you have career goals you are working towards?  Is your key motivation love of the research topic itself?  Make some notes to yourself – these are your reasons for being here, and being able to revisit these regularly will (hopefully) sustain you through difficult times and help you make decisions about where to focus your efforts.


Following on from your “why”, make a list of what your expected outputs are.  This will, of course, include your PhD thesis and degree award, but depending on your answers to the previous question, may also include other things.  Examples might include scholarly publications, a 3MT video, a professional network, and so on.


So how are you going to make sure that you achieve your aims in the time available to you?  This is where the final question comes in.

  1. Sketch out the timescale (in years) for your PhD on a single page.
  2. Divide the years into “planning chunks”.  I think 3 months is a good chunk of time to use, as it’s long enough to get a substantial piece of work completed while still maintaining progress.  See the image for an example, or download planning templates.
  3. On the date that represents your minimum period of registration, add “submit thesis”.  It’s a good idea when planning (particularly if you’re early in your programme) to aim for the earliest possible date of submission – things rarely go faster than you expect, and frequently go slower, so allow for this.
  4. Working backwards from that date, think of the tasks you will need to complete to achieve your output – for example: writing up, data analysis, data collection, ethical review, literature review.  How long do you expect to need for each task?  Add these in to your sketch.  More on backcasting.
  5. Fit in any additional outputs around your thesis plan.  You may be able to see immediately the impact preparing for and attending a conference (for example) has on a particular time chunk.  Do you need to adjust your plan?

Your plan (why, what and when) becomes a useful overview of your motivation and deadline estimates for your PhD.  It can help you track your progress, remain realistic about what you will be able to achieve and help you make decisions as opportunities arise.  It’s a living document, which you should regularly review and update as you go.

For more on research planning, see Dr Ellie Mackin’s excellent site or complete the Canvas module.

What planning techniques have worked for you?  How do you decide whether you can prioritise new opportunities?

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Helen Kara

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