Planning and Managing a PhD

Posted by on Jan 17, 2013 in PhD | One Comment

This post is to support the project management, managing your PhD and getting started with your PhD workshops we run for students. If you attended one of these workshops, you’ll have been told how to access the slides (via email or on Blackboard). If not, we hope we’ve written a good substitute for the workshop, but encourage you to look into project planning training in your own institution.


The workshop is usually run for PhD students who are in the first 6-9 months of their PhDs (or part-time equivalent) so we’ve based this post on that audience. By this time, you’ve hopefully had time to settle in, done some initial research or conducted a review of your research area. At this point you should know enough about your project to be in a position to start planning (even in loose terms) the next stages of your project.


The basic process is the same for researchers and principal investigators who are starting to manage more complex project. In these workshops there are other more sophisticated tools we will have mentioned and we will have spent longer on the “tuning in” stage of the project. For most projects, these steps will give you a good start and enable you to use project management software more effectively.


Your Research

Once you are ‘tuned in’ to your new environment, it is important to understand the wider context and aims of your research work. As a PhD researcher you should also be clear on your own personal motivations for conducting research.

You should be able to summarise your project simply:

Context – a brief explanation of the area of your research

Aim – your project and its intended outcome

Methodology – how will your research project meet its aims?


Reflection point – in the workshop, you will have been asked to discuss this with a partner. Were you able to describe your project comfortably? Are there any aspects your supervisor can clarify? Being fluent with the core attributes of your project will help you to set priorities and plan your research. You should keep asking yourself “how is what I am doing today taking me closer to the ultimate goal of my thesis?”


At the start of a project you should also be as clear as possible on your responsibilities and the responsibilities of others – have you discussed your respective roles? Are you aware of all the stakeholders of your project? The workshop considers two key roles:

What should a PhD student take responsibility for?

What should a supervisor take responsibility for?


Reflection point – most workshops on PhD planning and management will also look at the role of the supervisor. As part of this it is common to discuss potential problems. Don’t let this demoralise you – problems are usually small and can be solved by being honest and open. Keep good research records and good meeting records (see below) so you can demonstrate your commitment to the project and be able to measure and monitor your progress. If you aren’t sure about the respective roles of you and your supervisor, check your institutional Code of Practice and consider discussing the Griffith questionnaire with your supervisor. […]


Advice on avoiding/overcoming problems in professional relationships 

·       Keep things in perspective – your supervisor is human and may have good / bad days or be affected by other pressures; remember they share your long term goal (PhD success) and their eligibility for future funding may be damaged if your research fails 

·       Any criticism is directed at your actions, not you (even if it feels personal at the time)

·       Be organized – organise FORMAL meetings if useful informal ones are not happening; prepare for meetings with your own ideas and points for discussion

·       Be honest – report mistakes (before your supervisor hears on the grapevine) and raise difficulties whilst they are SMALL so you can discuss solutions. Remember that your doctorate is a period of training and no-one expects instant perfection 

·       Be professional – during your working life you are unlikely to always ‘get on’ with colleagues so learn how to cope now

·       Ask for feedback – then accept criticism as a way to improve and not an insult

·       Show your enthusiasm – many supervisors are disappointed and disillusioned by apparent apathy from students; if possible don’t wait to be told what to do or read

·       Meet deadlines – if you want to be treated with respect, you must respect your supervisor’s time and instructions


Much of your supervision will take place in meetings, so learning to manage and organise these early on will help you to maximise the value of your supervisor’s time.  Effective meeting can also help to maintain positive, professional relationships.

·      Always have a clear purpose. Think in advance and decide what the meeting is for – transfer of information, update on progress, decision making, problem solving, etc.

·      Understand the agendas / expectations of all concerned

·      Agree the best time and place for the meeting and choose these to maximise attention and minimise disruptions. Look at the aim of the meeting and ensure all necessary people are invited or have a chance to contribute in other ways

·      What are the implications of the meeting and preferred outcomes? What needs to happen after the meeting and how will you ensure it happens?

Try to come to meetings with ideas and some anticipation of the potential debate. Prepare yourself by gathering all information together, decide on questions / opinions. For formal meetings it may be appropriate to draft an agenda stating the meeting’s objectives and listing topics to be covered and circulate to all attendees (and other interested parties) in advance. Similarly, distribute any outcomes or decisions to arise.

Finally, evaluate the meeting against any expectations you had in advance. If the outcome was very different analyse what happened to avoid problems in the future.


SMART Objectives

Specific, measurable, agreed, realistic and time-bound objectives as targets and deadlines help a great deal with motivation, planning and assessing progress.


There are many sites which explain the acronym and give advice on how to set effective objectives.


Perspectives from a PhD student at Manchester University on SMART goals


The doctoral planner from Vitae includes advice on objective setting


More generic advice (i.e. not aimed at PhDs) from Mindtools


Reflection point Take the time to record your own SMART objectives for the next six months of your research. Make sure you evaluate progress against them regularly, perhaps using the futureme website.


Project Planning

Projects are about delivering specific pieces of work – these can range from short reports on a specific topic to multimillion-pound research projects. The techniques that are used in industry to manage projects are just as applicable to your research. This session therefore aims to introduce the main project management tools and techniques, but with the activities being focussed on your individual projects.


In the workshop we look at mind maps, drill downs, Gantt charts and risk analysis.


Mind maps – are great for the exploratory stage of a project. Good for capturing all the ideas and issues around the central topic. Mind mapping software and apps are now commonplace so ask in your institution for details of which you can get free access to, or which are recommended. Your library or information services unit should be able to help with this.


Some quick links


Mindtools again


Two blog posts from a PhD student trying to get to grips with mindmapping which might strike a chord if you haven’t “got” MindMaps before – the “before and “after


Once you’ve put together a map of possibilities surrounding your project it can be a useful resource as you start to identify:

       things that aren’t clear or known to you, and have affected your ability to plan

       areas which will need particular support or training to complete

       aspects which are central to your work and those that are more peripheral or secondary

       your priorities


Drill downs, or Work Breakdown Structures (WBS) are good for the next stage of planning. The core elements of the project are identified and the tasks which must be completed broken down. If your motivation is low, break down the tasks into small chunks, giving yourself a set of achievable goals. (“Write literature review” is lot more daunting than “Summarise the key points in Bailey’s papers”). You can also use the WBS to estimate the time different tasks will take – usually the smaller the task, the more likely you will be to estimate the time accurately.


There’s some generic advice to help your “drilling” from the “For Dummies” website…


Gantt charts take the tasks from the WBS and map them against time. This is great for seeing potential bottle-necks, interdependence between tasks, possible over-commitment and for planning back from a deadline such as a conference or transition point. Gantt Charts also offer a great monitoring tool. At any point you can draw a line through the chart and see if your progress is in line with the plan! If you are behind on some tasks, these become your priorities; if ahead on others, you need to reflect on why this is (could they be more fun?). If the chart (plan) doesn’t reflect the project (reality) then rewrite it!


Risk analysis is an important part of the project plan as it leads to good practices which should minimise problems throughout your PhD. We use a “likelihood –vs- impact” grid in our workshop.



Think of everything that could go wrong with your research, supervision, motivation and life (if naturally fatalistic, you might want to do this with an optimistic colleague to ensure you don’t give up and walk away at this point!). Then think carefully about how likely these things are to happen and what the impact would be if they did. Map them out on the grid.


The next step is to think about the two elements of the process.


What can you do to make this less LIKELY to happen?

What can you do so this has less IMPACT if it can’t be avoided?


We tend to suggest you think about this question as you consider your risk analysis:

If you knew this was going to happen tomorrow, what would you do today?


Risk analysis is the basis of COSHH, health and safety, good data storage, good lab management, good supervisor relationships, improved career planning and almost anything that will give you a little more control and peace of mind as a PhD student. It’s worth the investment in time and worth developing the good habits.


Useful websites and resources


Newcastle University students : The slides for this workshop are available to download from Blackboard.


Some recommended books

The Postgraduate’s Companion, ed by Gerard Hall and Jo Longman, ISBN 978-1-4129-4025-3


The Research Student’s Guide to Success, Pat Cryer, 3rd edition, ISBN 0-335 22117-3


Postgraduate Study in the UK: The International Student’s Guide. Nicholas Foskett, Rosalind Foskett, ISBN: 1412907195 



Selected Websites

The Vitae website includes a section for research students (click on the orange ‘researchers’ tab, then the ‘postgraduate researchers’ tab) with lots of advice:


This site also contains an accessible summary of the Researcher Development Framework (RDF) that replaces the earlier Joint Skills Statement and encompasses the skills, attributes and behaviours of successful researchers:


ScienceCareers is a huge searchable careers site that includes some great stories from successful scientists


For mind mapping and other software tools, check out      


FreeMind is free mind-mapping software


There are also umpteen apps available for smartphones and tablets. If you have the option, trial the free version to see if the interface suits you.




For Newcastle students – any regulations quoted in the slides are at:


For lively discussions, read #phdchat on Twitter

Twitter will lead you to all kinds of interesting, useful and supportive resources which would be difficult to find without devoting FAR too much time to the Internet. Professor Pat Thomson’s great blog about academic writing is just one of the reasons to start looking into social media as a research student. []

To be further convniced and get started, download this guide to social media for researchers from RIN []



1 Comment

  1. Anonymous
    November 30, -0001

    Brigitte Hertz, who I’ve worked with on the Dutch researcher TalentClasses, has written a book on project mangement for PhDs with an accompanying website: It is free to use and you can construct a plan for your own research. Click on the start button, set up an account and set a start date and an end date.


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