A PhD research project is a treacherous thing: you get three to four years to work on it, and yet it manages to make time slip between your fingers in ways you never experienced. More often than not, you hear PhD candidates mention they’ll need an extension, or are writing their dissertations after funding runs out.
If you want to finish before financial worries kick in, managing your PhD like a project is an essential skill. You don’t need to take an advanced course in forecasting and scheduling, but some basic project management skills will go a long way.
In this post, I’ve identified seven essential tips that will help you stay on track with your research and focus on what’s important:
- Identify your research question
Your research question is the core of your work. You need to identify if a task is urgent or not, and important or not, to see where its priority lies. To know how important a task is, you need to know how it relates to your research question. At the beginning of your project, identify your research question and the related sub-questions. Let these sub-questions be your guide on determining the most important tasks you need to carry out to come to an answer foryour research question, and schedule your time accordingly.
- Master the literature
You can’t define your research question before you have a good grasp of the literature. Don’t neglect your literature review as the cornerstone of your work.Read broadly and deeply, and frequently. Know your classics.
- Learn planning skills
When you know what to do (your research question and its sub-questions), and you have the background to do it (the literature), you need to plan your time. Learn how to use calendars and to do lists to move your work forward. Plan per semester, per week, and per day. Don’t plan more than 75% of your time. Plan the most important elements, the “big rocks” first. Leave less important things like email and admin to fill the gaps in your planning at the end.
- Identify your checkpoints
Add checkpoints to your planning. Use externally imposed deadlines such as conference papers that need to be written and meetings with your supervisor to finish certain parts of your research (and to document these!). Add self-imposed deadlines to make sure you finish your research and your dissertation within your allotted time.
- Use technology to your advantage
Don’t become a slave to technology by trying out every possible time management app, but fill your toolbox with useful tools. Use cloud-based applications that sync across your devices. Use lists and calendars wisely. Delete applications that distract you or turn off notifications. Manage the literature with reference software. Make sure your documents are always backed up.
- Take notes
You won’t remember the details of your experiments when you write your thesis. Keep a lab book and keep a research diary. Take notes about your work and your thought processes. Document your work along the way: how you prepared it, why you made certain choices, what your assumptions were, and which papers were crucial in coming to these decisions. Later on, you’ll be able to pull information from this source to put together a conference paper or dissertation chapter.
- Work with students
Outsource a smaller sub-question of your research or a tangentially related question to a thesis student. Learning to work with students is an essential teaching skill necessary for your future academic career, and can teach you leadership skills that are generally valuable inside and outside of academia. You’ll also learn how to explain your work to somebody who is new to the topic, and you’ll enjoy the discussion with your student once he/she gets an understanding of the topic and comes up with his/her own novel ideas.
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