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

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2.7 Overcoming problems

A few issues regularly crop up as important in discussions with research students towards the end of their projects, when they reflect back on their research. Students often bring up these issues after a preliminary phrase like ‘If only I had done this in the first few months’ or ‘If only I had stopped doing so much on that sooner’. The following is not a comprehensive list of tips, just a guide to a few of the more typical ones.

It is very easy to take too long over one task and try to do everything. For example, it is not possible to do a comprehensive literature review that includes every single reference you have read. The purpose of such a review is to build confidence that your project is relevant and that a ‘gap’ exists that your research will fill, not to gather every appropriate reference.

The planning involved in deciding a medium- to long-term project, although absolutely key to success within the time available, cannot possibly visualise everything that will be needed. It is essential to be flexible and to be prepared to add and subtract tasks from time to time, after discussion with supervisors. One way of dealing with the unpredictability of research is to ask yourself, during your planning, ‘What can go wrong?’ This question, in turn, highlights some of the tactics you could employ in these instances, so that if, say, there is a delay in negotiating access, you will have allowed for this and will have an alternative plan in which you can substitute another task in the meantime.

The important idea behind making schedules is sensible planning and this depends on noting that a schedule is a target. If you are not on target, your alternatives are to:

  • go faster;

  • allocate more time at the expense of something else;

  • scale down your objectives, and hence the amount of activity needed.

If you do find yourself falling behind schedule, then you will have to choose one of these, or most likely a combination of them. Note that this amounts to changing your schedule – readjusting it. We have mentioned right through this section that this is something that you probably will do several times throughout your project. It is a normal part of managing a long-term project.

Be aware that time and management difficulties are very common. This means that you should try to plan so that you can avoid these problems, but it also means that you should not be too disheartened if you do come across one or more of these. The key to overcoming them is to have a plan that is flexible enough to deal with unforeseen problems and to make sure you adjust your plans in a realistic fashion to enable you to deliver the PhD thesis on time.

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