Monday, 4 July 2011

Advice to PhD students #3: deadlines and time management

My third piece of advice: set your own deadlines, make sure you meet them, and manage your time.

When you embark upon a PhD, especially if you're doing one earlier rather than later in life, you may feel that the process is extremely open-ended compared to what you've previously encountered. In fact, depending on how demanding your supervisor is, you may even feel like you're not being told what to do at all. During your undergraduate and masters degrees, and in the workplace, you would have mostly been used to other people telling you when something has to be completed by, whether that involves handing in a piece of coursework or getting something shipped to a customer. The PhD process is very different.

At the most abstract level, the PhD process looks something like this if you're in the UK:

  1. Start PhD.
  2. Some amount of time passes between 2-n years.
  3. Hand in thesis.
Some informal discussion with people who have succeeded say that the process goes something like this instead (in an ideal world):

  1. Start PhD.
  2. Spend time reviewing the literature in your area of interest to see what has been done, and more importantly, what hasn't been done. Produce literature review chapter. (1 year)
  3. Decide on what your project will be, start planning out ideas, get them verified by supervisor, start initial experiments and data collection. (1 year)
  4. Finish experimenting, coding or theorising and start getting some results together. (1 year)
  5. Write up the thesis. (1 year)
  6. Hand in thesis.
My experience was a little different to this. Firstly, my literature review period took a lot less than 1 year, but this was mostly because I joined a project where there was a very clear portion of work to be done, so I didn't spend ages finding a niche in the market. Also, I wrote everything up as I went along (more on that in a later post) so that final "write up thesis" stage was more like "copy and paste a whole load of things together".

Still, deadlines 1 year apart are not that easy to get motivated about. You need to set yourself deadlines that are short-term enough so that you get fired up to meet them, but also have just enough work so that 1) you don't get bored and 2) you don't burn out quickly. It's a marathon rather than a sprint, after all. I found it best to work in weekly deadlines that ended the day before I met with my supervisor for our progress meeting. This way I was motivated to have something good to show which I could receive some praise for, and then the feedback from the meeting could drive next week's deadlines.

For example, in your first year when you start out, you might want to set yourself 3-5 papers to read a week, and your goal is to write a 500 word summary of each one, of which you talk through with your supervisor. You could continue this until you start to see where there is a gap in the market in which your own research could be done. This deadline is also nice because it's easy to chunk that work into daily portions as well, such as one paper and 500 word segment a day. If you're in your second year and deep into programming, then it might be worthwhile to dedicate four days a week to coding and debugging, and one day a week for writing up what you've been doing.

The most important thing is making your deadlines matter. I touched upon one way of doing this in the previous post, and that is using your supervisor. At every meeting you have, give your supervisor the list of deadlines that you want to have completed by next time, and ask them to hold you to these. Then, you're letting them down as well as yourself if you don't get them done. I used to print all of mine out once a week and stick them on the wall above my desk. This way everyone else in the lab could see them as well as myself, and it was also very satisfying scribbling things out in red pen when I'd got one of them done. Another great way of making deadlines matter is finding out when the relevant conferences and workshops are in your field, and then planning your work around these, trying your best to get something done and written up for submission. Even if papers get rejected, you'll get great feedback from the research leaders in your area of which you can then incorporate into your own work. I'll talk about this more next time.

Research is irritating in that you often have a lot of different things going on at once: programming to do, bugs to fix, papers to write, papers to read and so on. I experimented with lots of different ways of keeping a todo list, and the one I found the most successful was the one that Randy Pausch talked about, which is from Steven R Covey's 7 Habits of Highly Effective People.

The entire video is long and touches on many other things, but it's well worth watching. If you don't have time to watch it (but you should watch it), then you organise the things you have on your todo list into four sections. This is what Randy talks about at 20:54.
  1. Important things due soon.
  2. Important things not due soon.
  3. Unimportant things due soon.
  4. Unimportant things not due soon.
At a given time, you keep working on 1) the important things due soon. Now, the key point is this: once you've finished with 1), where do you go? A lot of people say that the next thing to work on is the unimportant things due soon. However, that's wrong. Once you've done all of your important things due soon, you do the important things not due soon. Hopefully, all of the unimportant things just get ignored, and just drop off into the bottomless pit where they don't bother you ever again. You buy back time by spending less time doing unimportant things, and more time doing the important things sooner. This works for me really well.

What are you going to achieve this year in your PhD? What do you need to do each quarter to get this done? What does this quarter need done each month? Each week? Each day? Break up your tasks, get them written down in order of importance, tell other people about them, make yourself accountable and then get stuff done. Have fun crossing off the things that aren't important as time goes on. It's a great feeling. 

How are you managing your time right now? 

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