(Use of the above image by the kind permission of “Piled Higher and Deeper” by Jorge Cham: www.phdcomics.com)
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
To make this timetable I broke my PhD project down into four areas of work:
- Reading and writing
- Desk-based research
- 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!