The PhD as a project (Part 2)

In last month’s post we discussed the similarities between a PhD and a project and the first two lessons from the world of project management.  This month we turn our attention to three further project management techniques that can be effectively deployed through a PhD.

Firstly the biggest single barrier to project success is lack of clear scope.

In a study of 1400 US and Canadian project managers, two researchers (Gobelli and Larson, 1986) identified poor scope definition as being responsible for more than half of all project planning problems.  Other studies have since been undertaken, which indicate a strong correlation between clarity of project scope and future project success.  Documenting the scope of a project is important as it sets out what the project will deliver as well as what it won’t do. As those of you who have already been involved with an organisational project will know, different people will expect different things from the same project.   Students will have different requirements from an upgrade to the university virtual learning environment than academic staff, whose requirements will be different again to the IT support team. If these various and often contradictory requirements are not articulated, prioritised, agreed upon and documented then the poor project manager can feel like a small rudderless boat, adrift at sea and at the mercy of the different winds and currents that beset them.

A PhD is very similar: both time and resources are limited and being clear about what is “in scope” of the PhD as well as what is “out of scope” is essential to delivering a coherent thesis that can be adequately defended at the viva stage.    Having a documented PhD scope can help guard against a loss of focus, or drift in what the aims and objectives of the PhD are.

Now this argument for clarity of project scope may seem somewhat at odds with part one of this series in which I asserted that it was okay to be “lost in fog” – unsure at times of the what, or how of the PhD.  Lost in the fog projects can’t possibly have clear scope definition, can they? Well our earlier statement is still valid but it doesn’t abdicate the PhD student from the responsibility of attempting to define the scope of the PhD project, even if in the early days the scope is no more than a scribbled one pager describing the thesis topic, general problem under investigation and some preliminary aims and objectives.  This document will in all likelihood be rewritten many times over the life of the PhD, morphing from a inchoate set of ideas and approaches, into a more detailed research proposal replete with specific research questions and methodological justification, and finally into a detailed research design.  Documenting the evolution of the PhD scope provides another good discipline for the apprentice researcher and has many benefits (knowing what we are doing,  knowing whether we have done what we set out to do, and if not why not, and avoiding the temptation to change what we are doing through peer pressure, or after well meaning interventions from supervisors or other colleagues and researchers).  To continue with the naval analogy, maintaining and regularly reviewing our PhD scope will help anchor our boat, whilst we build a rudder and sail to help us navigate a path through the choppy waters of the PhD.

Dedicate resource to the project

I am a part-time PhD student and I juggle a part-time lectureship at the University of Manchester with a busy family life, so fitting in any time for PhD study is a logistical challenge (sometimes a nightmare), and has required self-discipline, imagination and good negotiation skills.  Although the majority of PhD students have the “luxury” of being full-time I still think there are useful lessons that I can draw both from my own experience and from the discipline of project management on how to dedicate resource (primarily but not exclusively your time) to the PhD.

The success of any project will be in jeopardy if efforts are not made to secure the required resources well in advance of when they are needed.  Project management also teaches us to remember that resources are not only people, but include equipment, space and materials.  So it is incumbent on us as PhD students to plan to dedicate sufficient of both our own time and that of our supervisory team to enable us to complete the PhD.  For a full-time student 3 years of study may seem at first like an eternity of time stretching out before you, but it races by and you need to be clear about exactly how many hours per week you will devote to your PhD and then stick to it !  The temptations of email, social media, coffee drinking and chatting can otherwise combine to turn a planned 8 hours worth of study into very little productive time.  Rather than try to shut out these distractions completely, I prefer to acknowledge them and plan my day around them.  So I try to work productively in 25 minute bursts – rewarding myself with a leg stretch, or a look on Twitter, before starting on another 25 minute burst of study.  This works surprisingly effectively and has been written about by other bloggers before me (see for example Pomodoro Technique).

When writing, set a realistic daily target and once that has been reached, give yourself a treat – stop for a break, or do something completely unrelated (reading, emails, admin etc) for the rest of the day.  By following these simple approaches I have managed to consistently work for 10-12 hours a week on my PhD (nowhere near enough for a full time PhD but not bad for a part-timer) and have produced close to 44,000 words in my first two years.  Who know how many of these words will make the final thesis but it feels a lot better than having read loads but with just blank pages to show for it.  My weekly PhD hours can be completed at my workplace (when time permits), at home when my children are at school, travelling to and from work, late at night, or early in the morning.  It is a very variable schedule but one thing I do with cast-iron discipline is to block out and defend these study periods of time in advance – Failure to do this and to defend them against other demands on your time in my experience means that study time will just not happen.  Remember your time is precious, and to a large extent you are in control of it – prioritise it and use it wisely.

Remember too that your supervisory team are project resources which generally speaking need to be scheduled in advance.  Allow sufficient time to organise meetings with them, and for them to read drafts of papers etc.  You may feel busy but if you have good supervisors they will in all likelihood be even more busy than you! The same goes for access to equipment, labs or IT, or to specialist resources, who can assist in learning how to use all this equipment and IT stuff.  A little bit of thinking and advance planning can avoid much lost time waiting for required resources to become available.

The third and final lesson from project management that is highly relevant to a PhD is the importance of communication.

The success of a major project to eliminate hazardous chemicals (CFC’s) from all the products manufactured by a major UK chemical company was attributed to effective project communications.  Countless other project managers I have worked with attest to the importance of good communication skills in delivering projects.  Conversely much time and money can be wasted if project teams fail to keep each other informed of what they are doing, what the current issues are are, and where they need help.  A PhD is no different and success is not achieved by burrowing a deep hole and emerging three years later with a bound thesis.  Although it does often seem easier to keep your head down and work diligently on the thesis – the harder yet more productive path is to expose your work to others, allowing it to be refined through dialogue and debate.  Staying quiet is a particular temptation when things are not going so well, but this is the very time when you must communicate.  Talk to your supervisors, or trusted colleagues and peers.  Don’t be afraid to admit what you don’t know.

These days, most institutions rightly insist on a supervisory team for each student and set requirements for how often these teams must meet.  However as I said earlier, supervisors tend to be busy people, requiring the PhD student to be proactive in initiating, managing and documenting supervision meetings, as well as populating the institutional repository (at Manchester we have eprog) with the necessary quarterly status reviews, 1st year reports etc.  One of the hardest lessons for new PhD students to learn is that the PhD is your project as such you are the project manager and you must take responsibility for managing the various communication channels on the project.

Think imaginatively too about who the other stakeholders in the PhD might be.

  • Is there a funding body that requires regular status reports?
  • Can you set up an industry/ professional practitioner advisory panel who can offer additional guidance or direction to your PhD?
  • Are there are a small number of likeminded students with whom you could network, either physically or virtually?
  • How can you connect and interact with the academic community most closely aligned with your research theme – is it via conference presentation, journal publication or social media?

Accessing most, if not all of the above communication channels will almost certainly enhance the quality of your finished thesis and may lay the foundations for your post PhD career development path.  Foolishly, it took me the first 10 years of my career to realise the importance of networking to my professional life.  In contrast, communicating your PhD to a broader set of stakeholders than your immediate supervisory team can get your professional networking skills off to an excellent start.

In these two blog posts I have tried to draw simple and practical lessons from my discipline of project management that can be applied to PhD students – both full and part-time.  I hope that you have found them useful and will implement some of my ideas on your own PhD.  I will hand over to you now to discuss:

Are there further similarities between a PhD and a project that could help other PhD students?

What tools and techniques to do you use to keep your PhD on track and organise your study?


6 thoughts on “The PhD as a project (Part 2)”

  1. Thank you so much Fiona. I really enjoyed reading this blog, it spoke to me. In a similar vain, I have recently started a phD in a part-time capacity, while balancing a busy household and 0.7 in psychiatry. Am I completly bonkers?
    I like your comments about non-negioable time for you to study fitting around all the other things and the commitment to writing. The concept of project management appeals to me, particularly in terms of keeping an eye on the scope and taking responsbility. Thanks again.

    1. Hi Lisa

      Thanks for your positive feedback. I am glad that the blog post has been useful for you. To encourage you, I am now in my 4th year of my part-time PhD – my children are a bit older and my good project management routines are well established. This has meant that although still challenging I dont feel that the PhD is quite such a black hole as it previously was and I dont feel quite so bonkers !

  2. Hi Fiona
    Thank you so much for your posts! The analogy of a PhD as a project came to me earlier but I didn’t see all the aspects.
    My official PhD time is over, but right now I’ve decided to put every effort and finish it. Having a 10-month-old and working on my thesis is challenging, but I hope I’ll manage it!

  3. Hey Fiona, I appreciate this was a few years ago but I start a PhD this month (Oct 2022). Please know that I found these two blogs extremely useful – indeed as I prepare to redefine my own research and begin my planning for year 1, I have leant into this blog as part of my own reflections on these initial challenges in beginning a PhD. I too am from a projects background but revisiting the fundamentals anew. Thank you. I hope you are by now looking back on this journey with the fondness, and with upsides of a project closed out and aim fulfilled.

    1. Thanks for your feedback Warren – glad the material has been useful for you, and good luck with your own PhD study

  4. Hi Fiona,

    Another new PhD student who here. Thank you so much for this post, it helped to change some major perspectives,

    I started my PhD in wine consumer research just 2 months ago. Currently, I am trying to create various systems/rules to increase my efficiency as a researcher.
    Besides the mindset and discipline, there are two softwares that I find extremely helpful (so far) for my PhD: Notion and Asana. I put all my daily tasks, reminders, and milestones in Asana to have a better view on the next few months.

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