Doing the PhD
4 Managing your time
What does planning mean?
MAs and PhDs require as well as offer the opportunity to develop two different basic skills as far as time management is concerned.
- MAs expect students to define and manage mainly short-term timetables on the basis of a fixed schedule
- PhDs require students to determine and manage mainly long-term timetables virtually free of any constraints.
The aim of taught postgraduate courses is to endow students with critical and technical tools, rather than simply convey some new pieces of information to them. If you have already completed a Masters course successfully, you are therefore expected to
- know what your most productive hours are
- know what your most productive working routines are
- know your weak points in managing your time
as well as to be able to
- set and fulfill specific goals
- be realistic in estimating how much time will be required to finish a certain task
- work with 'to do' lists
- update your work schedule regularly
- make the most of waiting and traveling time
- know how to prioritize
Short term planning
All taught Masters have mid-term deadlines already set; you do not have to fix them. However, there is a certain amount of 'freedom' within a Masters course as you are usually meant to produce a larger piece of writing at the end of the year, so you will need to think ahead in more independent ways of how to fulfill this assignment, too. If you want to meet all deadlines, you will find it helpful to devise a timetable of your own that takes into account
- all the individual tasks included in your course
- the time needed to fulfill these tasks.
Let's assume that your MA course is subdivided into three terms and the summer, each of the three terms requiring attendance of lessons and seminars, in addition to the submission of an thesis at the end of the academic year:
on course A
on course B
on course C
on the topic you chose
(and, in some cases, viva)
How can you combine your timetable with this schedule?
It is very tempting simply to deal with individual courses in individual terms, but how can you possibly complete the final dissertation in three months if you are used to spending the same amount of time on writing a short essay? Always keep in mind the larger picture - your long-term deadlines included - even when you are dealing with specific intermediate assignments.
The first step in order to prepare an effective timetable does not concern time at all, but objectives, that is, their clear definition. A Masters course is not just the sum of three or four essays, it is a path which aims to provide students with the tools they need to submit a successful final dissertation, that is, their first piece of proper research. In this way the time you originally reserved for your final dissertation should be automatically multiplied by two or three times, since at the beginning of the fourth term you should have at your disposal the vast majority of the pieces of information and methodologies which your dissertation requires.
Breaking down your tasks
The same attention to your objectives has to be taken over each section of your timetable. As already suggested, the fact that some deadlines are already set by your course outline does not imply you need not break down this timetable defining smaller and personal task-related timetables.
Be practical in devising your personal timetable: plan backwards! Determine how much time you will have left to dedicate to a specific essay when your week is busy with a certain number of lectures and seminars, and then make the most of what you have. If your course is full-time, consider what is the expectation of additional independent study on top of your classes. What is the maximum time you can allow yourself to spend on reading and researching when you have met all the other deadlines?
Take into account the need to:
- be realistic in allocating the necessary time to each task
- allow for some extra time
- don't forget your long-term tasks beyond your week-to-week deadlines
- allow for some leisure time: sports, socializing or whatever will help you to relax
- be ready to readjust your timetable if you realize you are falling behind or circumstances change.
Long term planning
The more long-term your research engagement, the clearer and more realistic your objectives will have to be. Unclear and unrealistic goals, necessarily implying the continuous reshaping of research, are the main reason that many students fail to complete their research within the allotted time. Let's therefore try to set clear and realistic goals, taking into consideration their relevance to your specific research as well as to your general training as a researcher and distribute them along your PhD timetable.
For example the Research Councils' Graduate Schools Programme suggests that you break down your research into semesters in the following way:
6 months: survey literature and learn to use relevant tools
12 months: deepen understanding of the 'problem' and devise solutions
18 months (halfway!): engrossed in research
24 months: begin to wind up data collection
30 months: complete solution and review recent literature
36 months: written thesis, ready for viva
Each semester will be, in turn, subdivided into segments of different length according to the complexity of the task you intend to carry out in that period. Planning your research on the basis of single tasks (and, as a consequence, on the basis of short periods of research) will allow you to
verify and measure your own progress more easily
apply a methodological tool you can rely on, since you have already exploited it during your preliminary postgraduate activity
Time management issues specific to PhD research:
- Plan ahead if you are required to undertake any research trips to other cities or countries in order to visit specialist libraries or archives. Make sure that you do these trips at an early stage in your PhD. If you are visiting libraries or archives, find out about opening hours before planning your trip, and whether you will have to order books ahead of time. Some libraries close at certain times of the year, eg around national public holidays or for a period in the summer.
- When ordering inter-library loans, again, find out exactly how long it will take for them to arrive and how much time you will have to consult those materials.
- Allow enough time for the final editing process of your dissertation - it can be an overwhelming task to edit a text of this length.
- Make sure you have all your bibliographic references in order from the outset of your research, so you won't be held up by double-checking all your references at the very end.
- Learn how to prioritize and stick to your original outline, so you won't be sidetracked into time-consuming research tasks that won't even be incorporated into your PhD.
- Remember, every 'study-period' should also include some time to devote to socializing and relaxation.