How to create a work timetable for your PhD

Everyone works differently. Some people are super organized and colour code their worksheets, and other people just work when they feel like it. There are two main issues with this when it comes to a PhD. For one, you have a deadline. You cannot do the PhD forever. You have to work on days you don’t want to work, because otherwise you won’t finish. But there are days you can colour code purple for, say, ‘research’ and wake up and know there is no way you’re going to be doing research today, thanks.

Most days, it’s going to be a combination of the colour coded worksheet and the procrastination. That’s alright, it balances.

Other days, you are going to procrastinate every single second you are awake and get nothing done. Still other days you are going to get so involved in something you’ll work for hours. Again, these tend to balance out.

The key is to not expect all days to be organised work days, and to understand that some days are going to be procrastination days.

But how do you keep to a schedule?

When you start the PhD, sit down and make a schedule. This is not going to be detailed. Take a stab at how many years you have to complete (most universities will have an ‘expected’ end date). Use Excel, or coloured pens. Whatever floats your creative boat. Write down any fixed dates (annual reviews, exams, classes, Christmas, etc.). Work out a rough guestimate of how many months your initial research/proposal will take. Then work out how many months your field work might take (or lab work, if you’re sciencing). Guess at the number of months your data analysis will take. Then give a good go at assuming the writing-up will be about 8-9 months, if you are full-time.

Now you have a general schedule of your thesis. What happens in each of those segments matters less; good work days or bad work days, but you know that if you get to Year 2, and your schedule says you’re supposed to be three months into your field work and you’re still doing research then you have a problem. Your schedule will have to be adjusted. But just know that if that happens, sooner or later, you’re going to get to those final months before your university’s ‘end date’ and go ‘I wish I’d planned this better’.

Give yourself deadlines, if your supervisor won’t do it for you. Set them in stone. Tell your supervisor ‘I will have such and such to you on such and such a date and you should hold me to that.’ Most supervisors will think this is great and be very supportive. Some won’t be, but that’s usually because they are so hands off they’ve forgotten they have a PhD student. It’s probably a good time to remind them that you are important too.

Always allow for ‘extra’ time. You never know if you’re going to be seriously ill for several months, or need to take a sabbatical because of stress, or maybe your initial field work goes badly and you have to start again. Leave a cushion, you’ll probably end up using it, and if not, you’ll finish early!

As an example (an English one) I made this plan when I first started:

Year 1:
October-December – research and write first paper
January-February – research and write second paper
March-April – research and write third paper
May – write report for the university on progress and prepare presentation for research festival.
June – research festival, finish presentation, attend training
July-August – research and write fourth paper

Year 2:
Sept-October – plan field work
November – April – do field work
May-August – data analysis

Year 3:
September – methodology chapter
November – start lit chapters
January – finish lit chapters
February – start data chapters
June – introduction and conclusion
September – editing

As an example of what can happen, here’s what happened to me in reality.

Year 1:
Pretty much spot on. I kept to schedule, though it was a near thing by August.

Year 2:
I started my field work on track, and managed to get most of it done by April. But then, burned out and exhausted, I took all of May off for mental health reasons and it was mid-June before I got back to doing any work at all. June was our main training month and a lot of things happened at the university, so it was July before I started data analysis and that took me well into September to complete.

Year 3:
It was October before I started writing at all, and I actually wrote the introduction chapter first, and then the first of my lit chapters, as methodology ended up being dispersed within the whole thesis. In January I went to Denmark as a visiting scholar, which I certainly hadn’t planned in first year! I was gone three months and only wrote one chapter (theory chapter). When I came back in April I had three conferences to go to and it was the end of May before I even started my data chapters. I managed to get through them relatively quickly, but then in July I had to rewrite one of them because it didn’t fit with the others, and then I had to change the focus of one of the theory chapters (owing to the fact I didn’t do ENOUGH data analysis the year before, so was starting off writing-up on the wrong foot). In September I wrote my conclusion chapter in 10 days in order to reach my supervisor’s deadline of ‘if you don’t get it to me by this date you will not be submitting your thesis this year’. I did it, but man.

Now into fourth year, ‘writing-up’ as my university calls it, because they are trying to be kind to all those students who didn’t complete in three years, I managed to edit my thesis in October and November, get it reviewed by both supervisors, and submit the beginning of December. And then I moved countries.

And then I slept for A MONTH. I’m not even joking. I didn’t get out of bed until January and that was only because I had to go to yet another country.

But what I mean to say is that things can and will change, but that’s okay. It’s rarely disastrous. But have a plan to start, because it does help in first year to stay on track (even if later years often aren’t on track) and have a date you would ideally like to have finished your PhD (or you never will).

But whether it’s on Excel, or in pretty pens, or you do it with Post-It notes on your wall, it doesn’t matter. Just make a schedule and you are one step closer to having a timetable to stick to.


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