Why is it so hard to stick to my PhD plan?

It’s easy to make a PhD plan; to list out all the things you need to do and fit them into a nice, neat timeline. Perhaps you add colour codes too or make a Gantt chart. Doing this gives you a feeling of control, but that feeling of control doesn’t last very long. And if you fall behind then your beautiful timeline can become a source of stress rather than a useful tool.

There are three major problems here

  1. PhD research always has an unpredictable element to it. The plan does not give you control over these.
  2. When planning, we tend to underestimate how long things take (because it represents an optimistic ideal)
  3. By focusing on the long term, the plan doesn’t tell you what to do right now

So how can you plan in a way that actually makes your life easier, rather than just temporarily making you feel better?

A good PhD plan; flexible, realistic and useful

A good PhD plan should be;

  • flexible, to allow for the unpredictable
  • realistic, so you can actually achieve your goals
  • and useful, helping you decide where to focus your effort

To do this, it’s useful to divide the plan into long- and short-term components.

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Long-term and short-term plans

The long-term plan gives you direction, and possibly includes important deadlines, but should not be overly detailed or rigid.

The short-term plan is where you should put most of your attention because this is about what you’re going to do now. As a general rule, think 2 or 3 moves ahead. So you know exactly what you need to do now and what you’re going to do next.

The long-term plan, though flexible, should influence the short term. So if you have to submit a report next month, this should have some influence on the decisions you make right now. If the plan on your wall doesn’t influence the decisions you make, it’s nothing more than office decoration.

Meeting your goals

The individual goals you set for right now need to be realistic and set on a scale that’s achievable in the short term. But then you need to follow through to completion. Too often, PhD students switch to working on something else when they hit a problem, but this means that nothing ever gets finished.

Sometimes this means spending longer than you planned on one task, but at least it means that you’re one small step closer.

The final ingredient

The final ingredient is skill. When you’ve done something before, it’s much easier to predict how long things will take and plan effectively.

See Also

When there’s so much to do that nothing gets done

Productivity comes last

Beyond the obvious

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8 thoughts on “Why is it so hard to stick to my PhD plan?

  1. Thanks. Dr Hayton. I made a request from one of your post for some hints on Literature Review. For instance I am to work on** Electrode Sensor for Flexible Wearable ECG.

    Thanks for your time

  2. How can a person is really finish his dissertation on time by sticking to personal plan only? I think lots of factors affect the thesis work Among them include social life and other external factors. The most common thereat to accomplish the work still goes to the divisors problem So, pls, share you idea in detail
    thank you

    • It’s true that there are many other factors… For example, there are PhD students trying to do research while working a full-time job while raising a family. And there are those who have a bad relationship with their supervisor too (in some cases they can be barriers to completion).

      The plan has to adapt to these external factors. It’s a bit too complicated to address all the possible issues in a comment thread, though.

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