Postgraduate study skills in science, technology or mathematics

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2.5 The problem of time

At the start of a research project there seems to be so much time: How can the work expand to fill it? So why do students not finish on time? How can you finish on time? When a student is asked at a viva (oral examination) how quickly they could have done their research, a typical reply is in about half the time – even allowing time for coffee, beer and email! We all tend to underestimate the time required for completing a research project; hence, a formal, detailed, estimating approach is likely to yield a better calculation than an overall estimate that does not draw on any type of breakdown. However, even this detailed approach needs to incorporate a degree of flexibility, as it is impossible to predict exactly what is going to happen over the course of the research process. As we suggested in the previous section, the first essential is to estimate the amount of time needed to complete each of your activities.

One very useful approach is to break long-term projects into smaller sections. For example, if you estimate that a particular activity such as an experiment will take 9 months to complete, you should subdivide those 9 months into shorter chunks of time. A first mini-project might consist of assembling the apparatus and obtaining a first result that indicates the apparatus is working. The time needed to do this will depend on the type of experiment, but you should be able to make a rough guess and you can plan for the materials, equipment and technical help that you might need to accomplish this first goal. The second mini-project might be a first set of experiments including time for some analysis of results. These two mini-projects can then be followed by others. The Gantt chart shown in Figure 2 is a partial example of such a plan. Of course, your own project might need to be planned completely differently; the important point here, however, is the need to break up a long-term activity, with a goal many months away, into more manageable blocks. This makes it easier to set intermediate targets and, ultimately, easier to achieve that long-term goal.

Time estimates are difficult to make, but they will become more realistic with practice and experience. Your supervisor will advise you, and you can also take the initiative to discuss your plans with others who have already completed similar projects. Remember that it is necessary to make allowances for activities and occurrences that will not further your project work (for example, holidays or illness). Some activities will be carried out intermittently, whereas some may continuously occupy your time, again presenting problems of estimation. It is common to underestimate the weeks and months needed to document the research (i.e. write down as you are going along), often by quite a margin. The key to successful planning here is to go back and rework the time estimates whenever necessary. In fact, it is important to make estimates in the early stages of a research project, even when the middle and later stages cannot be tightly defined.

Activity 2

Look again at the Gantt chart you constructed in the previous section. Can you break up the longer activities into shorter ones? Redraft your schedule to take this into account.