Postgraduate study skills in science, technology or mathematics
Postgraduate study skills in science, technology or mathematics

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Postgraduate study skills in science, technology or mathematics

2.2 Making a plan

Since your PhD project is unique and only you know the pressures on your life, there is little point in other people providing you with a rigid timetable. This is why one of the first things you must do is to develop your own work plan. Although, your supervisor should review this regularly, especially when you propose to change it, once it is agreed you should try to make sure you stick to it. Preparing a plan makes you think carefully about the tasks you need to undertake, when you will do them and how long you estimate each will take. It helps you to track progress and complete your PhD work on time. For example, when planning an experiment you will need to think about what equipment you need and, importantly, when you need to order any materials so that they are delivered in time.

The more thoroughly you have thought out your plans, the easier it should be to incorporate any changes that your progress monitoring suggests would be appropriate. At the start of your project, it might seem very hard to make a detailed plan, because you yourself do not have the experience to know how long some activities will take. Even then, however, it is still worthwhile to plan something.

Just because the project plan seems like a real waste of time at the start, and you are probably half making things up, just fill it out and hand it in. Believe me, the plan can be really helpful at times.

(Science student)

This student was initially very sceptical about the whole planning process, but later must have reflected on the process of undertaking and successfully completing project work. So, finally the plan was valuable.

One of the key points of any research process is that, in practice, research is seldom easy or straightforward. You may have to repeat some activities several times and your work may overlap across the phases so that, at the same time as writing up one experiment, for example, you may be completing the field research for another. There are likely to be many parallel activities, and your planning needs to allow for this. Moreover, research always involves an element of risk and uncertainty and you can never be sure that all the information will be available at the time you need it. Some projects may have to be revised or even discarded because of inadequate information. Careful selection of your topic may have reduced some of the risk and uncertainty inherent in any research project, but there is still the problem of managing available resources, especially your time. Thus, although uncertainty means that your plan is likely to change as you go along and hence should be revisited periodically, it does not mean that you should not put effort into developing a plan.

Along with helping you to maintain a realistic focus on your research, making it a more manageable project overall, other advantages of planning are that it:

  • reduces the risk of overlooking something important

  • helps you to realise when you have run into difficulties

  • shows the interrelationship between your activities

  • orders your activities so that everything does not happen all at once

  • helps you keep track of the resources you have control over and identify what you do not (money, access to people and facilities and so on) so that you can make suitable arrangements in good time

  • indicates whether your objectives are feasible with the resources available; if not, something needs to change

  • identifies any need to undertake particular training or whether additional funding is required; your planning framework will give you some idea of the overall scale of your need

  • provides discipline and motivation by indicating targets or milestones, and so is good for morale as you pass each milestone. It shows you are getting somewhere!

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