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Research postgraduates

Expert guidance from Study Advice at the University of Reading

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.

Managing more unstructured time

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:

  • Break down your project – Think about the next big stage you have to complete (e.g. data collection) and then the steps you need to get there (design questionnaire, pilot questions, identify sample…etc). Identify what you already know, and where you can find out the information you need to fill the gaps. (See project planning below for more details). PhD students will usually have a series of annual progress meetings to help give regular milestones; for more guidance on how this process is managed at the University of Reading, see 'Keeping on Track: How We Monitor and Assess Your Progress', one of the Doctoral and Researcher College's Guides for Students (link in box at left).
  • Set your own deadlines – You may have long term milestones like a confirmation of registration report, but it's the short term monthly or weekly deadlines which keep you going, and you'll have to set these yourself. The best way to stick to them is make them public – agree them with your supervisor, put them on a wall planner, or get a friend to nag you.
  • Plan for the week / day ahead – Spend some time at the beginning of each week mapping out your tasks for that week. Each evening write down the specific tasks you need to do the following day so you are ready to get going straight away. This saves time deciding what to next and cuts out procrastination!
  • Treat it like a job – Research projects tend to spread and consume all your life. Ring-fence time away from studying as this refreshes your mind and makes your thinking more effective. Treat your research like a 9 to 5 job – either working between these hours or doing a number of hours each day.
  • Keep an ideas book – Most researchers get their best ideas away from the lab or library. Capture all the good thoughts you have in a notebook and make use of "dead time" when travelling or waiting to do some creative thinking and brainstorms.
  • Not every day will be a good one – As with any job, you will have good and bad days. You won't always be able to tackle hard problems or do deep thinking. The trick is not to feel guilty, but have some more mundane work, like sorting your bibliography or organising your data, to do when you aren't on top form - these all contribute to your thesis.

Project management for your thesis

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:

  • Do long term planning from the start - Although you may not know exactly what your research question is yet, it is still important to do long term planning. It may feel quite vague and unformed to begin with, but it should become sharper as your research progresses.
  • Identify the main stages in your research and some basic blocks of time for completing them, e.g. doing an extensive literature search; a pilot study;field work; data analysis;writing up. These will be different (and more specific) for each person.
  • Ask your supervisor for some guidance on whether your long term plan is realistic.
  • Keep your long term plan in mind – It is easy to get side-tracked by following up lines of inquiry or research interests. Regularly ask yourself, "How is what I am doing contributing to my overall research purpose?"
  • Revise your long term plan – As you narrow down your question, you will need to return to your long term plan from time to time and continue to refine it.

Short term planning:

  • Break it down – Divide the next stage of your research into a series of tasks that you need to do to complete it.
  • Prioritise – Sort the tasks into those that need to be done now, soon, or later.
  • Set your own short term deadlines and make them public so you are more likely to keep to them.
  • Factor in time for conferences etc – Look ahead and block off some time for other commitments like papers, presentations, teaching etc. Preparing for conferences can take longer than you think.
  • Keep a "done list" – "To-do lists" are great, but you may have long periods when it feels like you are making no progress. Instead keep a "done list" and remind yourself what you have achieved and what you have learned - no matter how small.
  • What if deadlines whoosh past? – Missing a few targets is normal, as research can be unpredictable. However, if you regularly keep failing to meet your deadlines, look back at your long term plan and revise your goals to more realistic ones. It may be you are trying to do too much or have lost the focus of your research. Ask yourself how much time do I have left, and then what can I realistically do in that time?
  • Link short term and long term plans – Ideally all your short term tasks should contribute towards your long term goals. Don't lose sight of your long term plan - set aside some regular time for bringing all your reading and findings together and thinking about your research questions – spider diagrams are good for this.

Dealing with other challenges

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.