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154. How to Plan Your PhD w/ Hugh Kearns

A PhD Plan sounds like an oxymoron, but charting a path to graduation is one of the most important things you can do as a graduate student.

This week, we talk with Hugh Kearns of Thinkwell about why PhD planning is so challenging for students, and learn about some tools that can keep your research on track.

Uncharted Territory

We start the conversation by trying to understand why planning is so difficult and so rare for PhDs.

“They’ve never done a PhD so they don’t know what’s coming,” Kearns observes. “And your previous education doesn’t prepare for research.”

He continues, “Research by its nature is uncertain. Things go wrong. And then what happens is people think that ‘Because I don’t know, we just won’t plan anything! We’ll see what happens.'”

But just because you’ve never done a PhD before, and no one has pursued your particular branch of research, that doesn’t mean you can’t plan ahead.

In fact, there are already tools and strategies, adapted from project management in the business world, that will help you set some guide rails around your winding path to a PhD.

Getting Your PhD Plan Backward

Traditional ‘forward’ planning works great for a well-worn process, like building a house. Builders know from experience that you can’t build the walls until you’ve poured the foundation, and you can’t paint until the drywall is installed.

Each of those activities has a reasonably predictable timeline, so you can plan the construction of a home week by week until it’s finished.

But a PhD isn’t quite at prescriptive. Sure, you know you need to do a literature review, but how long does that take? And how long will experiments take?

The fact is, they’ll take as much time as you give them. There’s no definitive ‘finish line’ for a literature review the way there is for a construction project. You just need to decide how long you’re willing to give the review, and stop when it’s ‘good enough.’

That’s why Kearns recommends ‘backward planning’ for PhDs. You start with an end date in mind (usually when the funding runs out) and work back from there.

His book, Planning Your PhD: All the tools and advice you need to finish your PhD in three years, lays out the steps in detail, and provides some worksheets you can use to create a multi-year Thesis Plan.

In fact, he offers those worksheets for free on the website!

Drilling into Detail

With your Thesis Plan in place, you can begin the process of adding more and more detail to the events closest in time.

This ‘rolling plan’ recognizes that you don’t know what you might be doing on Tuesday March 25 at 3PM three years from now, but you CAN decide on some goals over the next six months.

And don’t stress out if those goals shift, or you don’t quite manage to meet them. If you revisit your plan on a regular schedule, you can adjust and adapt.

If you never set the goal, or never look back at what you planned, you’re guaranteed to drift as the months and years pass by.

Kearns shares some other tools, like his ‘To Day’ list that works in conjunction with your ‘To Do’ list to put a time component on your tasks. That way, you slowly make progress toward your goals, rather than watching your list grow more and more unmanageable.

The Paradox of Choice

Finally, we talk about the surprising fact having more options usually means you are less happy and get less done. Weird, right?

It’s the ‘paradox of choice,’ described by Barry Schwartz in his 2004 book of the same name, and this TED Talk.

For graduate students, that manifests as a list of things you need to get done: pour a gel, set up those reactions, manage the lab animals, read three papers, write a section of a review, respond to your PI’s email, and on and on.

And what happens when you have all those things you COULD be doing? You get overwhelmed and go scroll through Instagram instead.

Kearns recommends that you identify ‘The Next Thing’ (or TNT) and work on that. The smaller you make that task, the better!

He writes:

We’ve learned over the years that PhD students don’t understand the meaning of the word “small”. Because they’ll say, “OK, I know what the task is: I’ll finish my literature review”. But this is still way too big. So now we use the word micro-task. For example, some micro-tasks are:

* Add two paragraphs to the discussion section
* Add the new data to Table 1
* Read my supervisor’s comments on my draft

Planning Your PhD, by Hugh Kearns and Maria Gardiner

Keeping ‘The Next Thing’ manageable prevents your brain from shutting down and giving up.

And if you stack up enough ‘The Next Things’, day after day and week after week, you’ll soon be making measurable progress on your PhD!

One thought to “154. How to Plan Your PhD w/ Hugh Kearns”

  1. There’s so many people that I’ve already approached and address the subject, and while it’s still needs to be addressed and is of great value to younger grad students… There’s something that I have experienced two times in my graduate student career, that I’ve yet to hear any academic institution discuss… What happens, when you are left alone when your advisor dies, and/or commits suicide? I realize this is a very small population of the onions that you speak to, but to those of us that I’ve gone through this, it is absolutely devastating. I’m the first person from my family to go to college, let alone grad school. Trying to finish my PhD was absolutely, not supported the least. When my advisor died it just sent things out of control. So, how do you propose to integrate maybe even in a small portion… However uncomfortable it may be, if a student is to be in such a situation where their advisor dies, And they are not receiving any support by their department which leaves them in even greater shock.. And perhaps I need them selves in limbo for years. This is what happened to me. But I had extenuating circumstances. I fought as hard as I could, While escaping a very unsafe home situation… Essentially, how do you bring up these topics for students for the worst possible case scenario for when things go wrong? Hopefully, they never do reach a point Were you have to learn that your advisor died or that you were advisor completed suicide in one of the parking garages is in your university. If you happen to plan your research out, let’s say perfectly; you have five research papers and you were on track to graduate and you were ready to give your defense And anticipated your graduation to be the next upcoming semester. You did everything right. Your plan worked. You follow the rules. What advice for students would you suggest, to prevent them from essentially falling apart completely? Because at the end of the day they put their entire lives into what they are doing here to finish up and move on with their lives. They put relationships and marriages and children on hold… So what happens when a disaster strikes? I think that should be a topic you might want to touch on in the future. Like I said, might be a small demographic, but I lost 1 advisor suddenly, An excellent professor to suicide, a remarkable and rising star an excellent lab-mate to suicide as well. I think that if we can integrate mental health and just kind of trickle it into conversations more, and dedicate more time to Just discussing it, and just discussing that mental health is as important as physical health… mental health won’t be as stigmatized as it unfortunately still is at this very day. Overall, I’m happy about the topic of this episode and this podcast in general. However, I think there are modern in inclusive pathways and things that Students really need help with especially regarding mental health and support… Especially when the loss of a lame or a advisor or a loved one… If any of this occurs, and they feel like they cannot reach out, that can be detrimental to your perfect research plan. So at the end of the day, your research plan could mean absolutely nothing. You have to essentially plan for the worst. Sounds sounds like a very pessimistic thing, I understand. But having gone through this myself, I don’t want anybody to ever experience what I have. We can only start making these extreme cases easier to deal with by Integrating it in our discussions.
    After all, it is quite relatable to your planning of your research and your PhD career. Because when your world gets turned upside down, your “plan” Could be dead or worthless. So where do you go from there? Just trying to provide a thought on my own take Hope it helps thanks for the podcast.

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