Coloured pencils for PhD project planning

#47: Plan your project – save your PhD!

Are you uncertain how your project will unfold? Do you have constant worries about the progress of your PhD project? Are you anxious that you won’t be able to finish on time? You’re not alone! We know these problems all too well. But, there’s only one way forward: Planning your project and the individual steps until completion. We’ll give you a helping hand with our quick-guide introducing you to PhD-planning in just 5 easy steps. 

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Do you have a gut feeling that you’re losing too much time with the pace of your work right now? Is your inner voice whispering ‘This is not going to work out!’ Are you faced with sleepless nights because your current experiment is taking forever, or not yielding any early results? Perhaps your hand-in date is creeping closer and you’re not sure you’ll be able to make it to the finish line on time. 

All of these are very common PhD student worries and they can really bring you down. Unfortunately, we’re all too familiar with these thoughts. But what can you do to turn the dread into confidence about your project and give yourself peace-of-mind? 

One fantastic way to combat your anxieties is to have a close look at the timeline of your project and plan how it will unfold. Specifically, we mean  it’s time to plan your PhD!

In our courses for PhD students we emphasise the role of planning, and give step-by-step instructions on how to plan a PhD, because we know that for some PhD students, the words ‘PhD project’ and ‘planning’ do not mesh well together. Many want the freedom to make choices as they come (after years of studying hard, the PhD seems to give that) and don’t want to be restricted by a plan. Or worse, they think that if they plan something now, it’s set in stone and they’ll be forced to carry out their project exactly this way, so a plan at this stage would be pointless. 

But as we’ll show you below, planning your PhD project is: 

a) absolutely necessary, so forget your excuses not to do it 
b) important
c) completely doable !

Believe us, it is the number one strategy to calm your nerves, avoid sleepless nights, and to move your PhD project safely through the course and land it on the deadline. We know that taking the first step in planning is the most difficult one, so we’ve developed a super-handy Quick-guide: Planning your PhD project to get you started! It also functions as a ‘reboot’ for those of you who did ‘a bit’ of PhD planning some time in the past, but dropped it along the way. Are you ready to stop giving excuses?

Objections to planning your PhD project – and why they fall flat

Here are a few of the most common reasons we’ve heard PhD students say why they can’t create a plan. We want to share them with you, in case you recognise a similar train of thought you’ve been on..If some of this sounds familiar, it might help you to realise that maybe you were just looking for excuses

1. I am not ready yet – it’s too early to plan 

Too early? Ok, you can take a few weeks getting oriented at the beginning, but then sit down and start planning out your PhD project. Planning always reflects your knowledge of the state of the art at a particular date. You’re simply trying to get an idea of how your project would best unfold now. So no, it’s never too early!

2. Science needs creativity – I want to be able to react spontaneously

Great. We completely agree – and a creative mind is an important factor. But do not use ‘creativity’ as an excuse not to plan! There’s a lot of space for creativity in science since it’ll help you push beyond the boundaries of existing knowledge, but you still need to know the boundaries within which your project operates: e.g. available time, university requirements, graduate school programme, facilities, funding … just to mention a few. Even if you plan your project in detail, you can still make adjustments to follow your creative mind. But with a plan, you know what your goal is and what changes you want to make, plus what the implications are for this within the above-mentioned boundaries. 

3. I have a high-risk project – I can’t plan for something if I don’t know the outcome 

Right. Strictly speaking, you never really know the outcome of a scientific project (that’s why you do it!). But, of course, your ideas, assumptions, expectations, hypotheses, and options are based on your knowledge and assumptions. You don’t do research just to try something out, but because you have reason to believe it WILL give you a particular result (or to prove that it doesn’t). So you are planning with an assumption in mind, which we will call your goal. If your project involves risks, you should be familiar with them (e.g. plan for them) and reserve some of your resources in anticipation of what might happen. Whether or not it is a good strategy to pick a high-risk project for a PhD is another discussion entirely. But if you make a plan, at least you know the risks, you can adapt to it and have a plan B ready.

4. My project will change so it’s not worth sitting down and making a plan now.

Very well. Of course, it will change! We hope it will, or, to put it another way- it will evolve! PhD projects alter and get better as your body of knowledge on the subject grows. But, there is a fundamental difference between NOT PLANNING, and IMPROVING AND UPDATING AN EXISTING PLAN so that it reflects the latest developments. As your project changes, so does your plan. 

Planning is an ongoing activity: you start now and you finish once you tick-off the very last milestone on your project plan. 

5. I am a scientist, not an administrator! 

Of course you are, granted! But, did you know that in order to be really successful in science today, you also need to be pretty adept in a ton of so-called “complementary skills”? One of these is being able to organise, implement and successfully complete a project within a given timeframe and budget. In a few years, you’ll likely be applying for grants to coordinate much bigger research initiatives worth millions of EUR/USD/BP (or whatever your currency is). So learning to manage your project at the PhD stage is a rite of passage that will benefit your future career. It is a great skill to pick up now, so later you can demonstrate your expertise.

On a side note: We can’t forget to mention that writing and publishing papers is another crucial skill in academic work. And if you want to learn more about this in a structured way, look at our blog posts no. 5 How to get started with writing papers? or no. 36: 5 tips to get a paper accepted this year .

Why is planning so important? – How does it help my PhD?

Not planning a PhD project is the same as driving in the dark without headlights! You won’t know where you’re heading to, you can’t see the bumps in the road, and you’ll likely overshoot your goal! If you fail to plan you’re actually planning to fail. OR: To put it more positively, planning your project is the number one strategy that will help you to complete your PhD successfully. Good planning can save your PhD! 

If you’re still unconvinced, here are a few more reasons planning makes all the difference:

  • When you plan, you define your project. You make your objectives and your timeline explicit. 
  • When you plan you put your project ideas down in writing. That means your project stops existing only in your mind(and thus constantly subject to new whims) and enters the solid state of being fixed on paper. It is now visible for everyone, not least of all your supervisors, so it becomes much easier to discuss your project with them.
  • When you plan, you know exactly what you’re aiming for, so you can move towards it more easily. If you don’t know what your project is about, you’ll end up doing a lot of extra work here and there that won’t be relevant in the end.
  • When you have a plan and project goals, you have a benchmark to track your progress and your achievements against. Your progress becomes tangible and measurable for you and those around you. 
  • Planning will give you clarity. It’ll help you to focus on the most important things. PhD students often describe that planning their project helped them to discover many things they had not thought of before – in terms of how to carry out their project. 
  • Planning will enable you to track your progress, help you to detect delays and make adjustments before it is too late.  
  • Planning is a great way to calm your nerves. The uncertainty and anxiety will be gone: you will always know where you are with your PhD and never succumb to panic attacks or sleepless nights again. 
  • We can’t overstate the importance of the final point: Having a plan means you know when you are done. You know when you cracked the code and completed all the tasks you set out to.

When should I do the planning for my PhD project?

Ideally, you have an initial project plan or at least outlined a draft a few weeks into your PhD. Yes, we know what you’re thinking now: “I’m not living in an ideal world!” So the answer is simple: ANYTIME! 

Yes, you can work on the planning of your project any time in your PhD. You’re only exempted if you have a shiny-new-10-page-project-plan in your drawer right now. But seriously, whether you are in the first year or third year of your PhD, or even with just a few months left, it’s never too early or too late. Simply start now and draw up a plan for the remaining time of your PhD. If you haven’t downloaded it already, get our Quick-guide: Planning your PhD project to get you started now.

Check the regulations of your university or graduate school programme because some require you to hand-in a project plan at a particular point in time! But even if yours does NOT we always suggest you to plan – simply for your own well-being and that of your PhD. 

How do I plan? I don’t have much experience…

No surprise here, you are in good company! In spite of its importance, only a few PhD students know how to plan a project from scratch. But, don’t despair! You’re smart and we can give you a boost with our Quick-guide: Planning your PhD project.

Our guide’s initial steps will prompt you with a few crucial questions and decisions to get you started. It shows you how to sketch out some preliminary answers, which you can then develop into a fully-fledged project plan! Something that you can share with your supervisors (and everyone else involved) to steer your project. 

Are you longing for more support with the planning of your PhD? We’re on a continuous journey to improve our offers for you and are currently developing a free PhD Master Class that will give you further hints on how to plan your PhD project. Sign up nowso you don’t miss out on this opportunity and we’ll give you a short when the next one is available.

Conclusion

We know that planning can’t prevent every disaster in your PhD and it can’t remedy all your problems. But, it’s the very best way forward and will make your PhD and your life a whole lot easier! No more panicking or nightmares! A detailed plan for your project will calm your mind! The worries about your PhD won’t go away unless you tackle them – so grab the bull by the horns! 

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