Three years, that’s loads of time. Isn’t it? – Why you should write a PhD research timetable now

(Use of the above image by the kind permission of “Piled Higher and Deeper” by Jorge Cham:

Research timetables are funny things, they seem a bit pointless and time-consuming when you first write one but as time moves on they become increasingly useful. You may well have to write a research timetable as part of your MPhil to PhD upgrade proposal – I had to do this for mine. But this post is about why you should do one anyway, regardless of if you have to or not.

Staying focused and feeling like you’re making tangible progress is probably the hardest thing about doing a PhD. This is why I think a properly planned research timetable is invaluable – it gives you a one-stop shop to check that you’re working on the right tasks and it helps you to see the progress that you’re making. Otherwise it is so easy to get lost in a haze of papers, notes and spreadsheets leaving you with no idea of where you are, let alone where you’ve come from and where you’re going next.

As an example, here’s an extract from my own research timetable:

Extract from my research timetable

Extract from my research timetable

To make this timetable I broke my PhD project down into four areas of work:

  1. Reading and writing
  2. Training
  3. Desk-based research
  4. Field and lab work

Then I split each area of work into the major tasks that I anticipate completing in order to achieve my research objectives (more on choosing objectives in my research proposal post). As you can see, some tasks only happen once whereas others are repeated several times during the PhD project. I tried to be realistic about the time I would need for each task and thought carefully about what to do when.

The key for me was ensuring that I planned to do everything in the right order and that no one period became overloaded with tasks. Thinking it through like this at an early stage in my research process will help me to dodge problems later on – without my timetable I would definitely have put some tasks off and ended up with way too much to do later on in the PhD. As it is, I can have a look at the timetable every once in a while and refresh my idea of what needs to be done next.

The timetable also shows me what tasks I’ve completed – a vital confidence lift when you’re having one of those days where you feel like you’ve made no progress in ages. And by reminding you of the bigger tasks within your PhD, it helps you to remember that the little tasks you are doing today are relevant and do link into the bigger picture of you PhD project.

So much for the benefits but what about the major danger of having a timetable: that you’ll stick to it too keenly and lose your flexibility? So far this hasn’t happened to me but then I’ve yet to hit a major PhD roadblock! What I’d say is that the timetable is just a tool to help you keep yourself on-track – it doesn’t have all the answers and it’s not the only way to do your PhD, just one way of doing it. So if things change no problem, just change the timetable.

Have you had to write a research timetable? Did you find it helpful? Leave a comment and let me know!

How to have a stress-free upgrade viva

In the final instalment of my upgrade top tips it’s time for the big one – the upgrade viva. This involves a grilling by a panel of academics from within your department. Their job is to ensure that you really have thought everything through and that your project will produce a good PhD thesis.

This all sounds pretty scary and you do hear the odd horror story of malicious interviewers; but remember that most will want you to pass and will be nice! Plus your viva panel will have spoken to your supervisors and seen your talk and report, so they will have a pretty good idea that you know what you’re doing. So the viva is really just about double-checking everything and raising a few points that need clarification or that you may not have thought about.

If you get asked something that you hadn’t considered then say so – don’t be that person who is clearly stalling for time and struggling to come up with an answer on the fly. You’ll look much more competent if you just admit that you’ve not considered whatever the panel is suggesting but that you’re glad they’ve brought it to your attention. It’s also ok to ask the panels’ opinions; they are there to provide a different viewpoint on your research so don’t be afraid to use them! This also goes for any asking questions you may want some input on, it is ok for you to ask them things as well as vice versa.

Interviews are always a tricky thing to prep for and this one will be no different. I guess the best advice is to look over your presentation’s Q&A and to really think about the questions that you’d ask if you were on the panel. Get some second opinions on this, especially from other PhD students and from your supervisors. They may think of tricky questions that you’d not considered.

To get you started, here are the sorts of things that I was asked in my upgrade viva:

  • To define my project. I took this to mean giving a kind of one-sentence summary, which was tricky!
  • General questions about the project’s relevance and original contribution – definitely expect to be asked things like ‘why hasn’t this been done before’, ‘why now’, ‘what will your project’s outputs be used for’ etc.
  • General logistics questions – I had to summarise my plan of work for the next two years, discuss funding sources, and broadly outline the papers I thought the project would produce and which journals I would be submitting them to. Be prepared to justify all your project’s practicalities.
  • If you’re doing fieldwork or some other money-eating activity, then expect lots of questions on why this is essential and how you’ve worked out your budget.
  • I also had to explain some of the more specialised parts of my project and methodology again. Remember that some of your panel may not be specialists in your field, so it’s worth preparing some diagrams to explain the more obscure and complex bits.

The rest of my questions were too project-specific to be of much use in this post. But note that you will be asked some probing and specific questions as well as these more general ones. So have a think about the areas of risk in your project (i.e. where things might derail) and how you’ll deal with these. As well as these potential negatives you should consider the positives, such as how you might expand and develop the core project if things work well and you find yourself with the time to look into interesting side themes.

Other than the standard ‘relax and smile’ interview advice, I think that’s all the tips I can give you. The upgrade viva is far more project-specific than the proposal and presentation but these general points should help. Just try to view it as a chance to get some extra feedback!


p.s. thanks to yet another Google image search for this post’s title image.

Writing your research proposal

So you’ve done your upgrade talk (which hopefully went smoothly after checking out my top tips), but now you have to write it all up and submit a research proposal. Well never fear because I have this covered too!

First off, see if you can get hold of a previous example. At Sheffield we were shown some old proposals (with names removed so we didn’t know who’s they were), and were given a chance to critique them. This was a great way to see what not to do. If you can’t get hold of an old proposal, then ask to be given a list of the sections that you need to include and the points to be covered. The overall structure of all research proposals will be pretty similar but each department will vary in its particular requirements.

To give you an idea, my proposal went something like this:

  1. Introduction – essentially a five-line summary of the literature gap and why this matters. I like to keep intros short and sweet, saving the detail for later on.
  2. Aim – think carefully about the wording of this and try to make it a punchy one-sentence affair. Get your supervisor to help you. If you need to, you could include a few separate research questions. But perhaps put these in a bit later on because having a really clearly stated aim right at the start of the proposal grabs the reader’s attention and ensures that they get your take-home message from the word go.
  3. Background – a condensed lit summary stressing the gap where the project fits.
  4. Justification – describing the context/ ‘big picture’ of why this project matters and expanding on where the project fits within the chain of research.
  5. Research objectives – these are almost like a ‘to do’ list of the steps that will be taken to achieve the project’s aim. Mine were things like ‘literature synthesis’ and ‘produce case study examples’. Five or six is a nice number of objectives, busy but do-able! If you have research questions, then perhaps include them right before the objectives?
  6. Research approach and methods – I took a couple of paragraphs to outline my overall methodology and the philosophical position of my project. Then I went through each research objective in turn and detailed the methods that I’d be using to do it. In this section I also briefly detailed the pilot work that I’d done, under the relevant objectives. This section is likely to be by far the longest and is also the section that will vary most between PhD subjects. So have a good think about how best to communicate what you’re actually going to do and be sure to explain your methods nice and clearly. Diagrams, flow charts and examples from the lit are great additions to this section.
  7. Intended outcomes – a list of the outputs of this research and why they are necessary. This section is really all about stressing your original contribution. Be sure to link back to your main aim.

I covered all that in around 4000 words and followed this up with appendices outlining my research timetable, budget, funding sources and anticipated programme of publication. This might all sound a bit OTT but I definitely think doing a series of tables covering these points fended-off a lot of potentially tricky questions in the viva. For almost any logistics/ practicalities question that I was asked, I could just get out a nicely presented table and it immediately looked like I was on top of things!

Spending a bit of time on things like the appendices, figures and general formatting makes a big difference. The more polished and professional the proposal looks, the easier it is to defend because your viva panel will go into the interview feeling like you’ve put the effort in and are on top of things. As always, the first impressions do matter.

Otherwise, I think the main advice I can give you is to consider the key things that you need to get across. If I were on a viva panel the things that I’d be asking about are: what are you studying (= the aim); why bother (= identifying the lit gap and the broader justification); how are you going to do this (= the objectives and methods); will this work (= methods and any pilot work along with details of the practicalities); and finally, what is the original contribution of this project (= the intended outcomes and publications). Incidentally, I was asked questions on all of these things during my own upgrade viva.

Oh and one last thing, I know you’ve written a lot of essays and reports in order to get to this point in your academic career but never forget to leave yourself time for proof-reading and editing. And make sure to get your supervisor to read through the whole thing and give you lots of comments – it’s what they’re there for!

Now get off the internet and get writing.

p.s. Thanks to a bored PhD student (presumably) who was enabled by to create this post’s title image. Clearly their research proposal wasn’t going fantastically well at the time, so perhaps they’ll be able to benefit from these tips!