Academic Support

Planning for your Masters/PhD

February 1, 2022

If you follow us on the socials, you would have seen that I recently posted a reel about planning for your PhD, in which I recorded myself plotting my calendar for PhinDile, my thesis. Due to the caption limitations on Instagram, I couldn’t get into too much detail with the tips; hence this blog. I am going to give you some handy tips on how to go about planning your timelines for your PhD, because I want us all to succeed. 

Bring out your inner Project Manager 

Your PhD is a huge project, and if you don’t plan adequately for it, you are setting yourself up for many impending panic attacks. There are various ways to plan for a project, and there are a number of different project management tools available on the web if you haven’t a clue where to start. Some scholars have made use of the popular retro planning method, which is a method in which you plan backwards from the deadline date.

I won’t go into too much detail on how this method works, but here is a brief highlight on the steps to take when working with it:

Step 1.

Jot down your major tasks, starting with the final deadline as a milestone mark, and break that down into what tasks are necessary to get you to that milestone. 

Step 2:

Assign timelines to each task. These don’t have to be exact to the minute, but try to estimate as closely and as realistically as you can. Make some wiggle room by having 3 timeline estimates: best case estimate, most likely estimate and a worst case estimate. Yes, include the worst case estimate so that you are able to quickly identify when you are headed in that direction and reroute. 

Step 3

Organise your  tasks, making note of which tasks are dependent on the completion of another task.

Try to find a method that works for you. If you are a visual person, include some pictures into your timeline to highlight the big tasks or submission dates. Have some fun with it, you are going to be engaging with it for the rest of the year! If you’re someone who isn’t intimidated by spreadsheets, get friendly with MS Excel or another similar program. 

In this guide, I will be listing a few steps that you can take to get started with your plan.

This is how I went about putting my plan together…let’s get into it.

1. 𝐃𝐨𝐰𝐧𝐥𝐨𝐚𝐝 𝐚 𝐠𝐨𝐨𝐝 𝐭𝐞𝐦𝐩𝐥𝐚𝐭𝐞 

Find a template that has a cell for every day. This way, you can populate it with small tasks for each day, making it easier to accomplish the greater goal. The best way to eat an elephant, you know. 

I use a colourful Excel template that I downloaded from Calendarpedia.com. They have different template options available: 4 pager’s with 3 months per page (for those who might find a full year view on one screen overwhelming) or a 2 pager with a 6 month view, and so on. Pick the one you are most comfortable with and start plotting.

2. 𝐒𝐭𝐚𝐫𝐭 𝐩𝐨𝐩𝐮𝐥𝐚𝐭𝐢𝐧𝐠 𝐰𝐢𝐭𝐡 ‘𝐛𝐢𝐠 𝐝𝐚𝐲𝐬’

These are days such as 𝙨𝙪𝙗𝙢𝙞𝙨𝙨𝙞𝙤𝙣 𝙙𝙚𝙖𝙙𝙡𝙞𝙣𝙚𝙨, and then work backwards (retro planning) to fill in what you need to do to reach those deadlines. 

For example, I’d like to submit an application for a Doctoral Colloquium in May. I then determine what’s needed for that submission, break it down to smaller tasks, and determine how long it’ll take to do them. Say for example it takes one month overall… I then fill in 4 weeks of activity (write a motivation letter in week 1, write an abstract in week 2, etc). Then break it down even further. For the motivation letter, ‘find motivation letter templates’ can be Monday, ‘write opening paragraph’ can be Tuesday, and so on.

For some of you who might be starting the PhD journey, you will need to include days such as:

  • PhD Defence

Some universities, and some faculties and departments require a PhD defence before you begin your actual research (after the completion of your proposal). Once you submit your proposal, you will be assigned a defence date, in which the faculty members will ask you questions about your thesis to make sure you understand your field of study.  

  • Submission of thesis to the universities’ administration along with reports from the committee members. 
  • Committee thesis review; factor in the time your committee members will need to read your thesis and work back the submission date from there. Ie: if they need one month to review your thesis, you would need to submit it in time for them to do this, before your defence.

Work backwards to determine when you need to start writing your thesis. Will it take you 3 months, 5 months or 6 months? Work it out down to the weeks and the days, where possible.  

3.𝐀𝐥𝐰𝐚𝐲𝐬 𝐟𝐚𝐜𝐭𝐨𝐫 𝐢𝐧 𝐫𝐞𝐬𝐭 𝐝𝐚𝐲𝐬

Plan for rest days because these contribute to your progress. For example, usually after a big submission, I know I’ll be tired, so I’ll write ‘𝙍𝙚𝙨𝙩 – 𝙉𝙊 𝙋𝙃𝘿 𝙒𝙊𝙍𝙆!’ in the day, or days after that. You will know how much rest is enough rest to refresh your mind and bring you back stronger.

Taking care of your health should be the number one priority, otherwise who is going to meet that submission deadline? Make time for self care! Check out The Blackademic Instagram account for some self care ideas which we posted during the entire month of December.

4. 𝐀𝐝𝐝 𝐚 𝐜𝐨𝐥𝐮𝐦𝐧 𝐭𝐨 𝐦𝐚𝐫𝐤 𝐰𝐡𝐞𝐧 𝐲𝐨𝐮 𝐜𝐨𝐦𝐩𝐥𝐞𝐭𝐞 𝐚 𝐭𝐚𝐬𝐤. 

I call this column ‘𝙎𝙩𝙖𝙩𝙪𝙨’. I then enter’𝘾𝙤𝙢𝙥𝙡𝙚𝙩𝙚𝙙, 𝙤𝙣 𝙓 𝙙𝙖𝙮’. You may have scheduled something for 4 September, but only complete it on 10 September (and that’s fine). Put down when you completed it; this helps you track yourself. Even better if you 𝙥𝙪𝙩 𝙩𝙝𝙤𝙨𝙚 𝙮𝙤𝙪 𝙘𝙤𝙢𝙥𝙡𝙚𝙩𝙚𝙙 𝙡𝙖𝙩𝙚 𝙞𝙣 𝙖 𝙙𝙞𝙛𝙛𝙚𝙧𝙚𝙣𝙩 𝙘𝙤𝙡𝙤𝙪𝙧 𝙩𝙤 𝙩𝙝𝙤𝙨𝙚 𝙮𝙤𝙪 𝙘𝙤𝙢𝙥𝙡𝙚𝙩𝙚𝙙 𝙤𝙣 𝙩𝙞𝙢𝙚 𝙤𝙧 𝙗𝙚𝙛𝙤𝙧𝙚 𝙩𝙞𝙢𝙚. I use red for late, black for on time, and green for early. If you see a trend of too many reds, you’ll know you’re falling behind before it’s too late, and you can course correct. I like to give myself a reward when I have a few greens. Spa treatment, if the bank allows, or a lovely meal, or a glass of bubbly, or even a gold star sticker to remind myself I’m doing great. It’s important in keeping your motivation up.

5. 𝐆𝐨 𝐞𝐚𝐬𝐲 𝐨𝐧 𝐲𝐨𝐮𝐫𝐬𝐞𝐥𝐟 𝐚𝐧𝐝 𝐛𝐞 𝐟𝐥𝐞𝐱𝐢𝐛𝐥𝐞. 

Life is complex and fluid. Allow your calendar to be the same. If adjustments need to be made to maintain your sanity, make those adjustments – and tell yourself it’s okay. Ask for help, there is absolutely nothing wrong with this. If the past few years have taught me anything, it’s that we can’t predict the future. Yes, we can plan as best as we can, but anything can happen, and your plans could get interrupted. Which is where the worst case scenario timeline comes in, because even in the chaos there should still be some sort of plan. 

If you are starting off on your PhD journey, I would urge you to sit down with your supervisor and map out the predicted journey, and the major milestones that you should be working towards. 

Start NOW! Do not wait for mid year to start planning. Make use of every month, and try to achieve a task monthly. Remember that elephant? 

Planning helps you avoid anxiety

Scenario:

You’ve been bitten by the travel bug and you decide you want to visit Kenya. Are you just going to drive to the airport and hop onto any flight and hope it gets you to Kenya? And when you land there, are you just going to hop into a cab and drive to any hotel and sleep?

Well, I guess you could try it out… but I am willing to bet that before you even leave the country it will become glaringly clear that You Can’t Just Go. You need to plan the entire trip; from flights, to visas, accomodation, airport transfers, currency exchanges, booking of certain activities and so on. Planning is what will make your trip stress free and enjoyable. 

So, your PhD journey is just the same, it’s a journey that needs you to have the dedication to plan for it. You’re probably thinking it might not be possible to define the exact end date of a PhD project right from the beginning, because so many life things could happen along the way that might end up pushing the end date further out. I’m not disputing that, and I can tell you for free from my experience, the plan will definitely change. What I am saying is that, to avoid anxiety, you need to have a tangible objective from the get go. Without a plan, you can’t visualise yourself finishing and what steps you will be required to take in order to finish. 

Just the thought of that is making me anxious already. Whooosaaah.

Make sure you include your supervisor in your planning, share the plan with them so that they can keep you accountable and also help you course correct in case you stray off track. Supervisors are there for a reason, don’t try to go at it alone.

In conclusion, I hope this article has given you some things to think about; if not, remember that elephant

If you have any questions on planning for your PhD, drop them in the comments section, or DM me on the socials and I will help in any way I can.

Happy planning!

Yours in glamourous writing, 

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