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

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2.6 Milestones

As the first few months of a project go by, the long lists of possible tasks often create a sobering and sometimes frightening chaos. Time planning, such as that suggested in Sections 2.2 and 2.3, is a way of helping with the task of prioritising work. Is today's task in your plan? If not, is it important enough to be there? If it is not that important, why are you doing it? These are questions that might guide you as you spend your first months organising your research project.

As we stated above, one well-known problem in doing a research project is how to manage time. Many of us cannot work to ‘theoretical’ deadlines; we need them to be written down and carefully monitored. Others stay with the ‘easy’ tasks, avoiding those that require hard thought or focus. Yet others focus on the hardest tasks, making little progress and not doing any of the easier tasks either! Now that you have developed a set of tasks and thought about sequencing them, the question is how to stay on track. An important feature of your project schedule is your list of critical review and target dates (for example, due dates for assignments to supervisor, workshop presentations or formal reviews). One of the principles of doing this kind of schedule is that planned work generally takes precedence over unplanned work.

Setting milestones is a way to get around the problem of always saying: ‘I must finish this by the end of the week’. If you have not made a promise to deliver, or been told to deliver, then the chances of it happening on time are not that great. So it is with research milestones; these are the key deadlines by which you are committed to finishing particular stages of your research. Your supervisor(s) will, doubtless, ask you to deliver pieces of work at specific times, but you are the key person in formulating sensible milestones. They can be daily, weekly, monthly, or longer; but, as a general rule, they form a natural point in the research where you can assess your progress. Your research journal is the obvious place to set yourself deadlines, but it is also worth making them public to help you stay on track, or at least to make you think through an explanation of why they are not met. One student's girlfriend set the deadline that she would only marry him once his thesis was submitted, and they did get married when planned!

We recommend a weekly and monthly stocktaking of your research deadlines, which need take no longer than an hour. However, there are also bigger milestones in the first year of a two- or three-year project. As you already know from your work so far in this section, they might include:

  • getting a laboratory experiment up and running or gaining access to participants

  • presenting your thesis ideas and plan to your supervisor(s) and peers

  • drafting a literature review.

Each major task actually constitutes a serious milestone that can be written up, and can then often be used as an early draft of part of your thesis. Treating the writing up as the milestone will help you get into the habit of writing early and often. Not only will it help you organise your thinking as you work and help you complete on time, but it will also bring home one of the basic realities of academic life: with few exceptions, research does not exist until it is written down.

Most PhD research students in their first year have (at least) two important milestones (which are both core requirements for successful transfer onto a PhD from a Masters course). One is to produce a ‘literature review’ for their project, and the second is to produce a detailed work plan. If your project is for 1 year, you will do this in the first few months; however, for a two- or three-year project the detailed work plan will usually be produced at the 6- to 9-month point. Mark these milestones on your schedule and, whenever you review your progress, make a point of considering whether you have made any progress towards them, and whether you are on schedule or not.

Activity 3

  • (i) Make a list of appropriate milestones for your own PhD project. You should have at least one every 6 months or so.

  • (ii) Consider again the schedules that you have made in earlier sections. Alter your Gantt charts so that the milestones are clear.

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