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.
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?
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!
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 sectionPlanning Your PhD, by Hugh Kearns and Maria Gardiner
* Add the new data to Table 1
* Read my supervisor’s comments on my draft
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!