Getting a PhD, PhD Milestones

Throw away your Gantt Chart: Making progress on your PhD

Have you created a Gantt Chart to organize your PhD project into different phases and estimate how long each phase might take? This is suggested by many PhD supervisors to not only help PhD students break down each milestone into more manageable tasks, but it also helps PhD supervisors monitor a student’s progress. I admit, I think this is helpful at the beginning of the PhD journey as it forced me to think about the major milestones of my project and what each phase entailed. It also provided a guideline as to when I might reasonably finish my PhD. But as with all good plans, sometimes unexpected things happen and schedules have to be readjusted! Here’s how I was able to make progress on my PhD and finish early, without following my Gantt Chart.

I based my initial Gantt Chart on examples I found online and my colleagues charts. Due to our different projects, they didn’t have the same phases, but usually all PhD projects will consist of Background Research (for example, the literature review – here’s my advice on that!) and the Writing phases.

Paris in Boston Gantt Chart
My Gantt Chart constantly changed…

Creating a Gantt Chart:

Create separate phases for each major milestone, and then list the tasks that need to be accomplished for each phase. I just guessed how long each task would take based on my colleagues’ experiences, knowing that things could change as the project went along.

As with many projects, things happen that are out of your control. Your project changes, participants cancel, you keep waiting to hear back from the Ethics Approval Committee, or writing takes longer than expected. It can be frustrating when your tasks can only be started after other milestones are completed, especially if you think linearly like me.

A Gantt Chart is the perfect way to begin to think about what you need to accomplish to complete your PhD and how you can complete tasks in time to submit your thesis.

Accomplish something each day:

If the PhD process gets overwhelming, take a deep breath and just think about completing something – anything! – PhD-related every day. Whether you read a publication, edit a sentence, or do some research on the Internet, you will have still accomplished something that helps you complete your PhD in the long run.

Force yourself to at least spend 1 hour doing something productive; usually that’s all the motivation you need to get into the right mindset, and before you know it, you’ve been working for 4 or more hours!

When I had days where I felt too overwhelmed with what I still had to do, or if I was feeling lazy or mentally exhausted, I just told myself I should still get something done, since that would mean I would have less to do the next day.

I tried to find something easy that had to be done, for example, figuring out how to run a test in SPSS or googling new papers related to my research. Once I started working and completing steps towards finishing a milestone, I found that it was easy to carry on and feel motivated again!

Take breaks:

Funny enough, we usually don’t schedule breaks on Gantt Charts, even though taking a break is essential to being a productive, happy, and and healthy PhD student!

Some people use their lunch time to take their break and get away from their office or lab to take a walk and enjoy the fresh air. For me, I usually worked through lunch (terrible, I know!) but I liked to schedule a morning or afternoon off to explore a different part of the UK using my student bus pass.

On thing that’s unique In the UK is that it’s customary to have both morning (sometime between 10:00-11:00am) and afternoon (sometime between 3:00-4:00) tea times. Tea times allow employees to step away from their desks and congregate together over tea (and sometimes cake!) to chat and not think about work. I think this is a very civilized way of life and wish it was customary everywhere!

Taking breaks definitely is key to making progress on your PhD and keeping your mind fresh and motivated.

Keep Gantt Charts simple:

I think it was stressful to see how many tasks were dependent on each other and how much I needed to do, which is information that Gantt Charts provide. In hindsight, the process wasn’t as daunting as my Gantt Chart might have indicated; maybe that was the problem?

I probably listed so many minute details in my Gantt Chart to be thorough in case I forgot something, when actually these were tasks that were logical and part of the research process, like identifying different software options.

Perhaps create two Gantt Charts: one that lists every possible task for each phase, and one that lists only the major tasks. You can refer to the simpler chart if you need a reminder, and the more thorough one can be checked at the beginning of each phase.

My verdict on Gantt Charts:

Gantt Charts are helpful for providing a general overview of a PhD project, but you have to estimate time-frames. If you’re someone who likes the structure that Gantt Charts provide, then they are extremely useful. If you have your PhD end date in mind and how long tasks take aren’t an issue as long as you finish everything by then, then perhaps Gantt Charts are more of a nuisance than helpful. That’s ok too! Just do what’s best for your working style. You can always change your mind as you progress with your PhD.

I definitely underestimated how long the different milestones in each phase would take, which resulted in me having to constantly update my Gantt Chart to reflect my current progress. In the end, I ended up updating my Gantt Chart after I completed a phase!

When I stopped focusing on my Gantt Chart to check if I could finish tasks within a time-frame and instead just took the time to make sure I completed tasks correctly, I actually was able to finish tasks much quicker.

OK, so maybe you shouldn’t throw away your Gantt Chart 🙂 Just keep it (or your two versions) as a reference for your overall goals, but no need to be so dependent on it. I think it’s best to be flexible and go with whatever flow your PhD takes you – which hopefully is towards your degree and graduation!