Project planning for research students

This is something I found really useful with my PhD, and is something I encourage my MA students to do as well – and pass it on to other people starting PhDs.; I thought I’d throw it up on here too, then I can just wave people at the explanation. I use an adapted version to plan out my year, and I’m writing one for a funding bid now. Basically, this is a way of planning out a project at the proposal or planning stage – i.e. before you start – and then using that plan to keep an eye on progress and future issues. It’s based on Gantt charts – which are used in project planning – but obviously simplified.

To do your own, you will need:

One: Excel or other spreadsheet-writing software – you can also do this by hand if you prefer. Electronic copies can be amended relatively easily, which is nice.

Two: A list of your deadlines, or milestones for your project. This might be when you want to submit something to a journal, a conference you need to have sent a proposal off for by, or a meeting. The longer the project, the vaguer the deadlines towards the end – this is one of the bits you will need to update. You should also include any times you know you’ll need time off – holidays, etc. If you have kids, it might be useful to put half terms in there; I would put in hospital appointments or times when work would be particularly busy, so I knew I would have other pressures on my time.

Three: A list of the tasks you need to do. This might be “interviews” or “write draft” – break down your project into the tasks. I put “reading” on mine. These are not super-detailed breakdowns, but a rough idea of what you need to do. During my PhD, I kept a whole-project and a six-month version – the latter being a lot more detailed.

In row one, list your months – or weeks, for a shorter project. In column A, list your tasks and deadlines. Put a symbol in the corresponding month for each deadline (or a number, a letter, etc). For each task, fill the squares in on the months/weeks you expect to work on that task. You can have multiple tasks happening at once – but this will help visualise when you are particularly busy, or when you need to get things done by. Here’s an example:

It is an image of a spreadsheet, with columns running left to right representing months, while the first column is titled "task". The months to work on the task are coloured in differently for each task.

Example planner screenshot

The idea is to plot out dates where you have to do things – with my PhD, I started with deadlines set by the uni, and also conferences, paper deadlines and the like; obviously for a PhD some of this will be very vague, but this is a working document, not a box. This gives you an idea of your high-stress points – I use it to know when I’ve got too much on to commit to further tasks. When I was writing my PhD proposal, it was really useful to help me think three years ahead. Here’s what my proposal-point plan looked like:


example plan

Reviewing it every so often helped me keep an eye on my progress, but also helped me see where I was getting stuck. And I wrote about it right at the end of my thesis, comparing the “plan” to “what actually happened” to evaluate my method.

Here’s a file I wrote for my MA students  – it has a couple of examples in it. Feel free to download it and use it for yourself!



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