As a research postgraduate, you are engaging in higher level study and original research which requires more time for locating resources, planning, gathering data, communicating your findings…and thinking.
The good news is that, whether you have come from work or from a taught postgraduate course, to get to this level of study means you have most likely already developed some time management strategies that work for you – just an awareness of how you prefer to work and what times of day you do your best thinking can make a big difference.
The principles of managing your time as a research postgraduate are basically the same as those for taught postgraduates and undergraduates in terms of having a long-term plan with time blocked off for large steps, and then breaking this into short-term plans with specific tasks. However, most research postgraduates find they have to adapt some of their existing strategies to cope with longer projects and more unstructured research time.
The advice on this page suggests ways to deal with some of the things that make managing your time as a researcher more challenging.
PhDs and Masters by Research bring slightly different time management challenges, as the volume of work is far more unstructured. Research students feel pressurised by knowing they have a lot to accomplish, but not knowing exactly what to do next. Some tips for avoiding this are:
The key to managing any longer project, like a thesis or dissertation, is keeping an eye on the bigger picture, while also moving towards that ultimate goal step-by-step. This means combining both long term and short term planning:
Long term planning:
Short term planning:
Getting going: Not being able to get started is often because you are not sure where you are going. Try listing some questions that seem relevant to your research topic (each one on a separate page) and then jot down possible answers or lines of inquiry. You will see what gaps you need to fill and it may trigger more precise or relevant questions to pursue. Start with the easiest chapter for you to write – for science or social science projects this may be the methodology, or for arts and humanities projects it may be the one you have most material on.
Studying part time / combining work and study: This is a difficult challenge, as research often needs longer blocks of time to generate ideas and think deeply. Try to organise it so you have some whole days a week on your research. Ring-fence your study time and explain to friends and family the importance of having undisturbed time. Have a place away from your home and family (e.g. a library) to give you space to work. Do some deals so that you spend time with your family, and in exchange they give you time for your research. If you can, book leave or have time off to give you uninterrupted weeks for some of the final writing up.
Teaching and presenting at conferences: You may be offered the opportunity to do some teaching (in your own university or another), or to present a paper or poster at a conference or seminar. Both of these activities can be highly productive as part of your PhD study: they give you an opportunity to get your ideas organised, or see where there are issues you still need to deal with. However, they can eat into your time, so getting a balance is essential. Try to be selective about what you say yes to, and avoid tasks that will entail you doing a lot of new work that you won't be able to use in your thesis or dissertation.
Saying no: It can be very hard to say no to your supervisor especially as many of the activities you are asked to do can benefit your career. However, you owe it to yourself to give yourself enough time to complete your thesis. Be diplomatic – suggest someone else who may be able to take on the task, or ask your supervisor what the priority is e.g. "This month I have a chapter to finish, a journal article to write and a department seminar to do. I think I realistically have time to do two of these; which would you say is my main priority?" (See our study guide on Managing your Time for more advice on making time for your studying)
Procrastination: Recognise your typical distractions (email, internet, phone, chores) and think of ways you can avoid them. It may seem like you have a long time to complete your research, but this goes past quickly. Try to get into a routine which works for you, starting at the same time or working in the same quiet space. If you know you need nagging, agree regular meetings with your supervisor or a fellow research student and use them to report on your progress.
Unforeseen events: Even the best planned research schedule can suffer unforeseen set backs or difficulties, especially if you are doing experimental research. Build in time for contingencies, and be aware that data collection will probably take longer than you think. If you haven't got the results you expected or things have not worked, talk them through with your supervisor sooner rather than later. It may be that you have to cut back other parts of your research and revise your goals, or get an extension. Nothing you do is wasted, though, as it all contributes to your training and learning as a researcher.
Staying motivated: Sometimes a PhD feels more like a test of endurance than a measure of intelligence! Allowing yourself time off and regular rewards (e.g. seeing friends, a film, sporting activities) will help keep you going and keep your thinking fresh. Have a space at home which is free from your notes and study to be a sanctuary away from research. If you are stuck and bored with your project, talking through what interests you about it with a friend or supervisor is a good way of getting back your enthusiasm.
Feel good about your research: Doing a PhD means working on something you've chosen because you're really interested in it. Don't work in isolation – network with others who are interested, in your department and at conferences and seminars held at other universities. Keep reminding yourself why your project is worth doing, and what your ultimate goal is – to get that PhD.