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9 things you should consider before embarking on a PhD

The ideal research program you envision is not what it appears to be


Editor's Note: When Andy Greenspon wrote this article, he was a first-year student in Applied Physics at Harvard. Now he has completed his PhD. — Alison Bert, June 23, 2021

If you are planning to apply for a PhD program, you're probably getting advice from dozens of students, professors, administrators your parents and the Internet. Sometimes it's hard to know which advice to focus on and what will make the biggest difference in the long-run. So before you go back to daydreaming about the day you accept that Nobel Prize, here are nine things you should give serious thought to. One or more of these tips may save you from anguish and help you make better decisions as you embark on that path to a PhD.

1. Actively seek out information about PhD programs.

Depending on your undergraduate institution, there may be more or less support to guide you in selecting a PhD program – but there is generally much less than when you applied to college.

On the website of my physics department, I found a page written by one of my professors, which listed graduate school options in physics and engineering along with resources to consult. As far as I know, my career center did not send out much information about PhD programs. Only after applying to programs did I find out that my undergraduate website had a link providing general information applicable to most PhD programs. This is the kind of information that is available all over the Internet.

So don't wait for your career center or department to lay out a plan for you. Actively seek it out from your career center counselors, your professors, the Internet — and especially from alumni from your department who are in or graduated from your desired PhD program. First-hand experiences will almost always trump the knowledge you get second-hand.

2. A PhD program is not simply a continuation of your undergraduate program.

Many students don't internalize this idea until they have jumped head-first into a PhD program. The goal is not to complete an assigned set of courses as in an undergraduate program, but to develop significant and original research in your area of expertise. You will have required courses to take, especially if you do not have a master's degree yet, but these are designed merely to compliment your research and provide a broad and deep knowledge base to support you in your research endeavors.

At the end of your PhD program, you will be judged on your research, not on how well you did in your courses. Grades are not critical as long as you maintain the minimum GPA requirement, and you should not spend too much time on courses at the expense of research projects. Graduate courses tend to be designed to allow you to take away what you will find useful to your research more than to drill a rigid set of facts and techniques into your brain.

3. Take a break between your undergraduate education and a PhD program.

You are beginning your senior year of college, and your classmates are asking you if you are applying to graduate school. You think to yourself, "Well, I like studying this topic and the associated research, and I am going to need a PhD if I want to be a professor or do independent research, so I might as well get it done as soon as possible." But are you certain about the type of research you want to do? Do you know where you want to live for the next five years? Are you prepared to stay in an academic environment for nine years straight?

Many people burn out or end up trudging through their PhD program without a thought about what lies outside of or beyond it. A break of a year or two or even more may be necessary to gain perspective. If all you know is an academic environment, how can you compare it to anything else? Many people take a job for five or more years before going back to get their PhD.

It is true though that the longer you stay out of school, the harder it is to go back to an academic environment with lower pay and a lack of set work hours. A one-year break will give you six months or so after graduation before PhD applications are due. A two-year gap might be ideal to provide time to identify your priorities in life and explore different areas of research without having school work or a thesis competing for your attention.

Getting research experience outside of a degree program can help focus your interests and give you a leg up on the competition when you finally decide to apply. It can also help you determine whether you will enjoy full-time research or if you might prefer an alternative career path that still incorporates science, for example, in policy, consulting or business — or a hybrid research job that combines scientific and non-scientific skills.

I will be forever grateful that I chose to do research in a non-academic environment for a year between my undergraduate and PhD programs. It gave me the chance to get a feel for doing nothing but research for a full year. Working at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory in the Space Division, I was the manager of an optics lab, performing spectroscopic experiments on rocks and minerals placed in a vacuum chamber. While my boss determined the overall experimental design, I was able to make my own suggestions for experiments and use my own discretion in how to perform them. I presented this research at two national conferences as well — a first for me. I was also able to learn about other research being performed there, determine which projects excited me the most, and thus narrow down my criteria for a PhD program.

4. Your current area of study does not dictate what you have to study in graduate school.

You might be studying the function and regulation of membrane proteins or doing a computational analysis of the conductivity of different battery designs, but that doesn't mean your PhD project must revolve around similar projects. The transition between college or another research job to a PhD program is one of the main transitions in your life when it is perfectly acceptable to completely change research areas.

If you are doing computation, you may want to switch to lab-based work or vice versa. If you are working in biology but have always had an interest in photonics research, now is the time to try it out. You may find that you love the alternative research and devote your PhD to it, you might hate it and fall back on your previous area of study — or you may even discover a unique topic that incorporates both subjects.

One of the best aspects of the PhD program is that you can make the research your own. Remember, the answer to the question "Why are you doing this research?" should not be "Well, because it's what I've been working on for the past few years already."While my undergraduate research was in atomic physics, I easily transitioned into applied physics and materials science for my PhD program and was able to apply much of what I learned as an undergraduate to my current research. If you are moving from the sciences to a non-STEM field such as social sciences or humanities, this advice can still apply, though the transition is a bit more difficult and more of a permanent commitment.

5. Make sure the PhD program has a variety of research options, and learn about as many research groups as possible in your first year.

Even if you believe you are committed to one research area, you may find that five years of such work is not quite what you expected. As such, you should find a PhD program where the professors are not all working in the same narrowly focused research area. Make sure there are at least three professors working on an array of topics you could imagine yourself working on.

In many graduate programs, you are supposed to pick a research advisor before even starting. But such arrangements often do not work out, and you may be seeking a new advisor before you know it. That's why many programs give students one or two semesters to explore different research areas before choosing a permanent research advisor.

In your first year, you should explore the research of a diverse set of groups. After touring their labs, talking to the students, or sitting in on group meetings, you may find that this group is the right one for you.

In addition, consider the importance of who your research advisor will be. This will be the person you interact with regularly for five straight years and who will have a crucial influence on your research. Do you like their advising style? Does their personality mesh with yours? Can you get along? Of course, the research your advisor works on is critical, but if you have large disagreements at every meeting or do not get helpful advice on how to proceed with your research, you may not be able to succeed. At the very least, you must be able to handle your advisor's management of the lab and advising style if you are going to be productive in your work.

The Harvard program I enrolled in has professors working on research spanning from nanophotonics to energy materials and biophysics, covering my wide range of interests. By spending time in labs and offices informally chatting with graduate students, I found an advisor whose personality and research interests meshed very well with me. Their genuine enthusiasm for this advisor and their excitement when talking about their research was the best input I could have received.

6. Location is more important than you think — but name recognition is not.

At the Asgard Irish Pub in Cambridge, Massachusetts, Andy Greenspon talks with fellow graduate students from Harvard and MIT at an Ask for Evidence workshop organized by Sense About Science. He grew up near Boston and chose to go to graduate school there. (Photo by Alison Bert)

The first consideration in choosing a PhD program should be, "Is there research at this university that I am passionate about?" After all, you will have to study this topic in detail for four or more years. But when considering the location of a university, your first thought should not be, "I'm going to be in the lab all the time, so what does it matter if I'm by the beach, in a city, or in the middle of nowhere."

Contrary to popular belief, you will have a life outside of the lab, and you will have to be able to live with it for four or more years. Unlike when you were an undergraduate, your social and extracurricular life will revolve less around the university community, so the environment of the surrounding area is important. Do you need a city atmosphere to be productive? Or is your ideal location surrounded by forests and mountains or by a beach? Is being close to your family important? Imagine what it will be like living in the area during the times you are not doing research; consider what activities will you do and how often will you want to visit family.

While many of the PhD programs that accepted me had research that truly excited me, the only place I could envision living for five or more years was Boston, as the city I grew up near and whose environment and culture I love, and to be close to my family.

While location is more important than you think, the reputation and prestige of the university is not. In graduate school, the reputation of the individual department you are joining — and sometimes even the specific research group you work in — are more important. There, you will develop research collaborations and professional connections that will be crucial during your program and beyond. When searching for a job after graduation, other scientists will look at your specific department, the people you have worked with and the research you have done.

7. Those time management skills you developed in college? Develop them further.

After surviving college, you may think you have mastered the ability to squeeze in your coursework, extracurricular activities and even some sleep. In a PhD program, time management reaches a whole new level. You will not only have lectures to attend and homework to do. You will have to make time for your research, which will include spending extended periods of time in the lab, analyzing data, and scheduling time with other students to collaborate on research.

Also, you will most likely have to teach for a number of semesters, and you will want to attend any seminar that may be related to your research or that just peaks your interest. To top it all off, you will still want to do many of those extracurricular activities you did as an undergraduate. While in the abstract, it may seem simple enough to put this all into your calendar and stay organized, you will find quickly enough that the one hour you scheduled for a task might take two or three hours, putting you behind on everything else for the rest of the day or forcing you to cut other planned events. Be prepared for schedules to go awry, and be willing to sacrifice certain activities. For some, this might be sleep; for others, it might be an extracurricular activity or a few seminars they were hoping to attend. In short, don't panic when things don't go according to plan; anticipate possible delays and be ready to adapt.

8. Expect to learn research skills on the fly – or take advantage of the training your department or career center offers.

This may be the first time you will have to write fellowship or grant proposals, write scientific papers, attend conferences, present your research to others, or even peer-review scientific manuscripts. From my experience, very few college students or even PhD students receive formal training on how to perform any of these tasks. Usually people follow by example. But this is not always easy and can be quite aggravating sometimes. So seek out talks or interactive programs offered by your department or career center. The effort will be well worth it when you realize you've become quite adept at quickly and clearly explaining your research to others and at outlining scientific papers and grant proposals.

Alternatively, ask a more experienced graduate student or your advisor for advice on these topics. In addition, be prepared for a learning curve when learning all the procedures and processes of the group you end up working in. There may be many new protocols to master, whether they involve synthesizing chemicals, growing bacterial cells, or aligning mirrors on an optical table. In addition, the group may use programming languages or data analysis software you are unfamiliar with.

Don't get discouraged but plan to spend extra effort getting used to these procedures and systems. After working with them regularly, they will soon become second nature. When I first started my job at Johns Hopkins, I felt overwhelmed by all the intricacies of the experiment and definitely made a few mistakes, including breaking a number of optical elements. But by the end of my year there, I had written an updated protocol manual for the modifications I had made to the experimental procedures and was the "master" passing on my knowledge to the next person taking the job.

9. There are no real breaks.

In a stereotypical "9-to-5" job, when the workday is over or the weekend arrives, you can generally forget about your work. And a vacation provides an even longer respite. But in a PhD program, your schedule becomes "whenever you find time to get your work done." You might be in the lab during regular work hours or you might be working until 10 p.m. or later to finish an experiment. And the only time you might have available to analyze data might be at 1 a.m. Expect to work during part of the weekend, too. Graduate students do go on vacations but might still have to do some data analysis or a literature search while away.

As a PhD student, it might be hard to stop thinking about the next step in an experiment or that data sitting on your computer or that paper you were meaning to start. While I imagine some students can bifurcate their mind between graduate school life and everything else, that's quite hard for many of us to do. No matter what, my research lies somewhere in the back of my head. In short, your schedule is much more flexible as a PhD student, but as a result, you never truly take a break from your work.

While this may seem like a downer, remember that you should have passion for the research you work on (most of the time), so you should be excited to think up new experiments or different ways to consider that data you have collected. Even when I'm lying in bed about to fall asleep, I am sometimes ruminating about aspects of my experiment I could modify or what information I could do a literature search on to gain new insights. A PhD program is quite the commitment and rarely lives up to expectations – but it is well worth the time and effort you will spend for something that truly excites you.

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Andy Greenspon

Andy Greenspon

Andy Greenspon is a first-year PhD student in Applied Physics in the Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Sciences . Prior to that, he worked in the Space Research and Exploration group at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) for a year. He grew up in Newton, Massachusetts, and received a BA in physics from Amherst College .

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The PhD Journey

Written by Mark Bennett

The PhD process is made up of quite a few components and milestones, from the literature review and writing up your dissertation right through to the viva examination at the end.

This section is a guide on how to do a PhD, providing in-depth advice and information on some of the main challenges and opportunities you’ll meet along the way. If you’re looking for a more concise overview of a doctorate, skip down to our summary of the seven main steps of a PhD and our PhD timeline .

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Thinking of applying for the Doctor of Engineering (EngD)? Our guide covers everything you need to know about the qualification, including costs, applications, programme content, and how it differs from a PhD.

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What can you expect from a PhD? What's life actually like as a postgraduate student? Read our guides to the doctoral research experience.

7 stages of the PhD journey

1. preparing a research proposal.

Strictly speaking, your research proposal isn’t part of your PhD. Instead it’s normally part of the PhD application process.

The research proposal sets out the aims and objectives for your PhD: the original topic you plan to study and / or the questions you’ll set out to answer.

It also explains why your work is worthwhile and why it fits with the expertise and objectives of your university.

Finally, a PhD proposal explains how you plan to go about completing your doctorate. This involves identifying the existing scholarship your work will be in dialogue with and the methods you plan to use in your research.

All of this means that, even though the proposal precedes the PhD itself, it plays a vital role in shaping your project and signposting the work you’ll be doing over the next three or more years.

2. Carrying out a literature review

The literature review is normally the first thing you’ll tackle after beginning your PhD and having an initial meeting with your supervisor.

It’s a thorough survey of work in your field (the current scholarly ‘literature’) that relates to your project or to related topics.

Your supervisor will offer some advice and direction, after which you’ll identify, examine and evaluate existing data and scholarship.

In most cases the literature review will actually form part of your final PhD dissertation – usually setting up the context for the project, before you begin to explain and demonstrate your own thesis.

Sometimes a literature review can also be evaluated as part of your MPhil upgrade .

Research vs scholarship

Research and scholarship are both important parts of a PhD. But they aren't the same thing - and it's helpful to know the difference. Research is the original work you produce with your thesis. Scholarship is the expert understanding of your subject area that enables you to conduct valuable research.

3. Conducting research and collecting results

Once you’ve carried out your literature review, you’ll move from scholarship to research .

This doesn’t mean you’ll never read another academic article or consult someone else’s data again. Far from it. You’ll stay up to date with any new developments in your field and incorporate these into your literature review as necessary.

But, from here on in, your primary focus in your PhD process is going to be investigating your own research question. This means carrying out organised research and producing results upon which to base your conclusions.

Types of PhD research

The research process and the type of results you collect will depend upon your subject area:

Whatever subject you’re in, this research work will account for the greater part of your PhD results. You’ll have regular meetings with your supervisor, but the day-to-day management of your project and its progress will be your own responsibility.

In some fields it’s common to begin writing up your findings as you collect them, developing your thesis and completing the accompanying dissertation chapter-by-chapter. In other cases you’ll wait until you have a full dataset before reviewing and recording your conclusions.

4. Completing an MPhil to PhD upgrade

At UK universities it’s common to register new PhD students for an MPhil before ‘ upgrading ’ them to ‘full’ doctoral candidates. This usually takes place after one year of full-time study (or its part-time equivalent).

Forcing you to register for a ‘lesser’ degree may seem strange, but it’s actually an important part of the training and development a PhD offers:

The MPhil upgrade is when you take the step from the former to the latter.

The MPhil upgrade exam

Upgrading from MPhil to PhD registration usually involves a form of oral exam – similar to the viva voce that concludes a PhD. But, unlike a full viva, the MPhil upgrade is less formal and only covers part of your thesis.

In most cases you’ll submit a small amount of the material you’ve produced so far. This could be a draft of your first chapter (or part of it) and / or your literature review. You could also be asked to reflect on your progress in general.

You’ll then sit down with your supervisor and someone else from your department (familiar with your field, but unrelated to your project). They’ll offer feedback on the quality of your work and ask questions about your findings.

The aim of the process won’t be to examine your drafts so much as to confirm that your project has the potential to justify a PhD – and that you’re on track to complete it on time.

‘Failing’ a PhD upgrade is actually quite rare. Your university may ask you to repeat the procedure if they are concerned that you haven’t made sufficient progress or established a viable plan for the rest of your project.

What is an MPhil?

The MPhil (Master of Philosophy) is also a research degree, but its scope is more limited than a PhD (Doctor of Philosophy). And no, just like a PhD, an MPhil isn’t necessarily a Philosophy qualification. Our guide covers all you need to know about the difference between a MPhil and PhD.

5. PhD teaching, conferences and publications

During the PhD process, you’ll have lots of opportunities to take part in extra-curricular activities, such as teaching, academic conferences and publications.

Although it isn’t usually compulsory to participate in these, they can be an incredibly rewarding experience and will look great on your CV.

Teaching during a PhD normally involves hosting undergraduate seminars or supervising students in the lab, as well as marking work and providing feedback.

Academic conferences are an excellent way to network with like-minded colleagues and find out the latest developments in your field. You might even be able to present your own work to your peers at one of these events.

Publishing during a PhD will help you increase your academic profile, as well as give you experience of the peer review process. It’s not normally a requisite of your PhD, but publications will certainly help if you plan on applying for postdoc positions.

6. Writing your thesis

As the culmination of three or more years of hard work, the thesis (or dissertation) is the most important part of the procedure to get your PhD, presenting you with the opportunity to make an original scholarly contribution to your discipline.

Our guide to writing your thesis covers everything you need to know about this lengthy research project, from structure and word count to writing up and submission.

We’ve also written a guide to the PhD dissertation abstract , which is an important part of any thesis.

7. Defending your PhD results at a viva voce

Unlike other degrees, a PhD isn’t normally marked as a piece of written work. Instead your dissertation will be submitted for an oral examination known as a viva voce (Latin for ‘living voice’).

This is a formal procedure, during which you ‘defend’ your thesis in front of appointed examiners, each of whom will have read your dissertation thoroughly in advance.

Examiners at a viva voce

A PhD is normally examined by two academic experts:

Your supervisor will help you prepare for the viva and will offer advice on choosing an external examiner. However, they will not normally be present during the examination.

Ready to take the next step?

There's lots more information about PhD study elsewhere in our advice section . Or, if you're ready to start looking at different projects, why not check out one of the thousands of current PhD opportunities in our database?

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10 things you need to know before starting a PhD degree

So you want to do a PhD degree, huh? Here we've got everything you need to know about getting started.

So you want to do a PhD degree, huh? Are you sure about that? It’s not going to be an easy decision, so I’ve put together a list of 10 things you need to know before starting a PhD degree. Oh, and don’t panic!

I have recently graduated from the University of Manchester with a PhD in Plant Sciences after four difficult, but enjoyable, years. During those four years, I often felt slightly lost – and there was more than one occasion on which I didn’t even want to imagine writing up my thesis in fear of delving into fits of panic.

On reflection, I realise that – to quote a colleague – commencing my PhD was like “jumping in the deep end with your eyes closed.” If only I’d known to take a deep breath.

A perfect quote from an anonymous scientist sums up what many students feel in the midst of a PhD degree, after I asked how it was going …

Any PhD student at two years and three months will tell you it’s going [insert expletive here.]

10 things phd students

You get the gist.

However, at Earlham Institute , we have a growing body of scientists who have completed PhDs, or are currently pursuing their postdoctoral degree, with a wealth of knowledge and advice on how best to handle what can seem like a gruelling three or four year adventure.

What follows is a list for those untrammelled souls, brave enough to embark on what can be one of the most rewarding experiences of a lifetime.

1. Are you sure you want to do a PhD degree?

Let’s be under no false impressions, completing a PhD isn’t easy. There will be times when you feel like Wile E Coyote chasing after the Roadrunner – a little bit out of your depth a lot of the time. It’s four years of your life, so make sure it is what you really want to do.

If you want to pursue a career in science, a PhD isn’t always necessary.

It is possible to make great inroads into industry without a doctoral degree. That said, a PhD can also be a very useful qualification with many transferable skills to add to your CV.

By the time you’ll have finished, you can include essentials such as time management, organisational skills, prioritising workloads, attention to detail, writing skills, presenting to an audience – and most importantly – resilience, to name but a few.

2. Choose your project, and supervisor, wisely.

This is  very  important.

Time after time, our experienced scientists at EI, including Erik Van-Den-Bergh (and I agree) say, “ make sure you’re extremely passionate about exactly that subject. ” When I saw the PhD opening that I eventually was offered, I remember being demonstrably ecstatic about the project before I’d even started it.

I was always interested in calcium signalling and organised a meeting with my potential supervisor immediately, which (to quote Billy Connolly) I leapt into in a mood of gay abandon.

Not only does this help you to keep engaged with your project even through the painstakingly slow times, it also greatly enhances your ability to sell yourself in an interview. If you can show passion and enthusiasm about the project and the science then you’ll be that one step ahead of other candidates – which is all the more important now that many studentships are competitive.

You have to  be the best  out of many, often exceptional candidates.

However, as important as it is to be passionate about your project, make sure that the person who will be supervising you is worthy.

Does your potential supervisor have a prolific track record of publishing work? What is the community of scientists like in the lab you may be working in? Are there experienced post-doctoral scientists working in the lab? Who will your advisor be? Is your supervisor an expert in the field you are interested in? Is the work you will be doing ground-breaking and novel, or is it quite niche?

There is nothing more frustrating – and I know many PhD degree students with this problem – than having a supervisor who is rarely there to talk to, shows little interest in your work, and cannot help when you are struggling in the third year of your project and some guidance would be much appreciated.

Personally, and I was very lucky to have this, I think it’s incredibly useful to have two supervisors. My PhD degree was split between the University of Manchester and the Marine Biological Association in Plymouth. Between my supervisors, I had two people with expertise in different fields, who could give me some fantastic advice from different perspectives. This also meant that I had two people to check through my thesis chapters and provide useful comments on my drafts.

And there will be many drafts. Oh yes.

3. Treat it like a job.

In an academic environment, it is highly likely that you will define your own schedule; there won’t necessarily be someone clocking you in and out of the office. Granted, you are still a student – and a PhD degree still offers many of the perks of a student lifestyle.

However, while you may have breezed through your undergraduate degree with the occasional all-nighter at the library and three weeks of frantic reading towards the end of each term, there is no room for cramming during a PhD.

planning a phd

Make sure you are passionate about your subject before taking it to PhD level. And by passionate I mean  really  passionate.

For a start, you will most likely have to write a literature review in your first three months, which if done well will form the main bulk of your thesis introduction and will save you a lot of stress and strain when it comes to writing up.

At the end of your first year, you will have to write a continuation report, which is your proof that you deserve to carry on to the end of your three or four years. This doesn’t leave much time for lab work, which means time management is incredibly important. If you think you’ll be able to swan in at 11 and leave at 3, think again.

Fundamentally, never, ever rest on your laurels! As tempting as it may be to slack-off slightly in the second year of your four year PhD, don’t.

4. Be organised.

This is a no-brainer but still, it’s worth a mention. Take an hour on a Monday morning to come up with a list of short-term and long-term goals. You’ll probably have to present your work at regular lab meetings, so it’s always worth knowing what has to be done (lest you look a pillock in front of the lab when there’s nothing to show for your last two weeks.)

It’s always good to have a timeline of what will be done when. If you have a PCR, maybe you can squeeze in another experiment, read a few papers, start writing the introduction to your thesis, or even start collecting the data you already have into figures.

The more good use you make of your time, the easier it’ll be to finish your PhD in the long run. Plus, it’s lovely to sit back and look at actual graphs, rather than worry about having enough to put into a paper. Once you’ve typed up your data, you’ll realise you’ve done far more than you had anticipated and the next step forward will be entirely more apparent.

5. Embrace change – don’t get bogged down in the details.

Felix Shaw – one of our bioinformatics researchers at EI – put it best when he said, “ it felt like I was running into brick walls all the way through [my PhD]… you’d run into a brick wall, surmount it, only to run straight into another. ”

You’ll find that, often, experiments don’t work. What might seem like a great idea could turn out to be as bad as choosing to bat first on a fresh wicket on the first day of the third Ashes test at Edgbaston. (Yeah, we don't know what that means either - Ed).

Resilience is key while completing your PhD. Be open to change and embrace the chance to experiment in different ways. You might even end up with a thesis chapter including all of your failures, which at the very least is something interesting to discuss during your  viva voce .

These people run labs of their own, have different ideas, and might even  give you a job  once you’ve completed your PhD.

6. Learn how to build, and use, your network.

As a PhD student, you are a complete novice in the world of science and most things in the lab will be – if not new to you – not exquisitely familiar. This matters not, if you take advantage of the people around you.

Firstly, there are lab technicians and research assistants, who have probably been using the technique you are learning for years and years. They are incredibly experienced at a number of techniques and are often very happy to help show you how things are done.

There are postdocs and other PhD students, too. Not only can they help you with day-to-day experiments, they can offer a unique perspective on how something is done and will probably have a handy back-catalogue of fancy new techniques to try.

There are also a bunch of PIs, not limited to your own, who are great to talk to. These people run labs of their own, have different ideas, and might even give you a job once you’ve completed your PhD.

Don’t limit yourself to the labs directly around you, however. There are a massive number of science conferences going on all around the world. Some of them, such as the Society of Biology Conference, take place every year at a similar time in different locations, attracting many of the leaders in their respective fields.

If you are terrified by the prospect of speaking at a full-blown science conference and having your work questioned by genuine skeptics, there are also many student-led conferences which will help you dangle your fresh toes in the murky waters of presenting your work.

One such conference, the Second Student Bioinformatics Symposium, which took place at Earlham Institute in October 2016, was a great place for candidates to share their projects with peers, who are often much more friendly than veteran researchers with 30 year careers to their name when it comes to the questions at the end of your talk.

Another great reason to attend conferences, of course, is the social-side too – make the most of this. You never know who you might meet and connect with over a few drinks once the talks are over and the party commences.

7. Keep your options open.

You should be aware that for every 200 PhD students,  only 7  will get a permanent academic post , so it’s  incredibly unlikely that you’ll become a Professor  – and even if you make PI, it probably won’t be until your mid-forties.

You may also, despite having commenced along the academic path, decide that actually, working in a lab environment isn’t for you. Most PhD graduates, eventually, will not pursue an academic career, but move on to a wide range of other vocations.

It might be that Science Communication is more up your street. This was certainly the case for me – and I made sure that I took part in as many public engagement events as possible while completing my PhD. Most Universities have an active public engagement profile, while organisations such as STEM can provide you with ample opportunities to interact with schools and the general public.

You might also consider entrepreneurship as a route away from academia, which might still allow you to use your expert scientific knowledge. There are a variety of competitions and workshops available to those with a business mind, a strong example being Biotechnology YES.

I, for example, took part in the Thought for Food Challenge, through which I have been able to attend events around the world and meet a vast array of like-minded individuals. Many of the participants from the challenge have gone on to set up successful businesses and have even found jobs as a result of the competition.

10 things phd fire

8. Balance.

Remember that you still have a life outside of your PhD degree – and that this can be one of the greatest opportunities to make amazing friends from around the world.

A science institute is usually home to the brightest students from a variety of countries and can provide a chance to experience a delightful range of different people and cultures. Don’t just stick to the people in your lab, go to events for postgraduate students and meet people from all over campus.

There are usually academic happy hours happening on Fridays after work where you can buy cheap beer, or some lucky institutions even have their own bar. At Norwich Research Park, we not only have the Rec Centre, along with bar, swimming pool, calcetto, samba classes, archery, and a range of other activities, but there are also biweekly “Postdoc pub clubs” which are very fun to join on a Tuesday evening.

Maintain your hobbies and keep up with friends outside of your PhD and you’ll probably find it’s not that gruelling a process after all.

Plus, the people you meet and become friends with might be able to help you out – or at least be able to offer a sympathetic shoulder.

10 things phd relaxing

9. Practical advice.

If, after reading all of this, you’re still going to march forth and claim your doctorhood, then this section should be rather useful.

Firstly, make sure your data is backed up. It’s amazing how many people don’t do this and you’d be bonkers not to. Keep your work saved on a shared drive, so that if your computer decides to spontaneously combust upon pressing the return key, you won’t have lost all of your precious work – or have to go through every one of your lab books and type it all up again.

Secondly, don’t leave your bag in the pub with your half-written thesis in it. I did this, the bag was fine, I was in a state of terror for at least half an hour before the kind person at Weatherspoons located said bag.

Thirdly, read. Read broadly, read anything and everything that’s closely related to your project – or completely unrelated. It’s sometimes amazing where you might find a stroke of inspiration, a new technique you hadn’t thought of … or even in idea of where you might like to go next.

Finally, ask questions – all of the time. No matter how stupid it might sound in your head, everyone’s probably been asked it before, and if you don’t ask, you don’t get.

You’ll probably look far less stupid if you just ask the person standing next to you how the gradient PCR function works on your thermal cycler rather than standing there randomly prodding buttons and looking flustered, anyway.

10. Savour the positives.

At the end of all of this, it has to be said that doing a PhD is absolutely brilliant. There’s no other time in your life that you’ll be this free to pursue your very own project and work almost completely independently. By the time you come to the end of your PhD, you will be the leading expert in the world on something. A real expert! Until the next PhD student comes along …

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Planning your PhD research: A 3-year PhD timeline example

Featured blog post image for Planning your PhD research - A 3 year PhD timeline example

Elements to include in a 3-year PhD timeline

What to include in a 3-year PhD timeline depends on the unique characteristics of a PhD project, specific university requirements, agreements with the supervisor/s and the PhD student’s career ambitions. if(typeof ez_ad_units!='undefined'){ez_ad_units.push([[250,250],'master_academia_com-medrectangle-4','ezslot_6',340,'0','0'])};__ez_fad_position('div-gpt-ad-master_academia_com-medrectangle-4-0');

The example scenario: Completing a PhD in 3 years

Furthermore, Maria’s cumulative dissertation needs an introduction and conclusion chapter which frame the four individual journal articles, which form the thesis chapters.

Example: planning year 1 of a 3-year PhD

Example: planning year 2 of a 3-year phd, example: planning year 3 of a 3-year phd, example of a 3 year phd gantt chart timeline, final reflection, get new content delivered directly to your inbox, 10 amazing benefits of getting a phd later in life, how to prepare your viva opening speech, related articles, 10 powerful methodology courses for phd students [online], phd thesis types: monograph and collection of articles, better thesis writing with the pomodoro® technique, dealing with conflicting feedback from different supervisors.


How to Prepare a PhD Research Plan/Schedule?

PhD research plan is a structured schedule for completing different objectives and milestones during a given timeframe. Scholars are usually unaware of it. Let us find out how to prepare it. 

Between March 2021 to 2022, I read almost 15 different research proposals from students (for their projects) and only a single one, I found, with a comprehensive research plan for 3 years. Which is still not, kind of practical, probably copied from other students. 

Such entities are not known to over 90% of students, if some know that because their university asked for but unfortunately, this basic procedure lacks penetration among students. I don’t know the exact reason, but students lack a basic understanding of the research process. 

Meaning, that they don’t know or perhaps don’t complete their course work needly. PhD research requires many documents, SOPs and write-ups, before even starting it. For example, a rough research plan, research proposal, initial interview, competence screening, grant proposal and so on. 

However, the requirement varies among universities and thus knowledge regarding basic procedures often also varies among students. So I’m not blaming students but certainly, it is the fault of the university side, as well.  

When you come up with a research proposal with a research schedule or entire plant, certainly it will create a positive image and good reputation. So it is important. But how to prepare it? 

Hey, there I’m Dr Tushar, a PhD tutor and coach. In this article, we will understand how we can prepare a structured plan for the PhD research and how to execute it. 

So let’s get started.  

How to prepare a PhD research plan/schedule?

A PhD research plan or schedule can be prepared using the GANTT chart which includes a month, semester or year-wise planning of the entire PhD research work. 

First, enlist goals and objectives.

It’s not about your research objective enlisted in your proposal. I’m talking about the objectives of your PhD. Take a look at some of the objectives.

Note that these are all the objectives that should be completed during the PhD, but not limited to a specific subject. Note you have to show how you can complete or achieve each objective during the entire tenure of your work. 

And that is what the plan/schedule is all about. Next, explain the time duration. The time required to complete each goal, roughly. For example, a semester or a year to complete the course work or 4 to 8 months for completion of ethical approval. 

Now two things must be known to you, at this point in time. 

For instance, course work takes a semester to complete, but during the period a scholar can also craft their PhD research title, research proposal, ethical approval and grant proposals. 

Now it is also crucial to know that there is no time bound to complete goals, but it should be completed as you explained. Let’s say you can plant it for 3 years, 4 or even 5 years depending on the weightage of your work. 

In summary, the answer to the question of how to prepare a research plan is, 

Now you have prepared zero-date planning for your research but how to present it? The answer is a GANTT chart.   

GANTT chart for PhD research plan: 

GANTT chart is a task manager and graphical presentation of how and how many tasks are completed or should be completed against a given time duration. Take a look at the image below. 

The example of the GANTT chart.

How can you prepare one?

Open MS Excel (on Windows) or numbers (on Mac).

Enlist goals or objectives in a column. 

Enlist years (duration of PhD) in a row and bifurcate them into individual semesters. You can also prepare a month-wise plan, that’s totally up to you. In my opinion, semester-wise planning is good because research is a lengthy and time-consuming process. So monthly planning would not work. 

To make a chart more attractive and readable use colors, as I used. Now mark a ‘cell’ against a column and row showing the objective which you are going to complete in a semester. Take a look. 

After the end of this, your GANTT chart would look like this. 

A screenshot of an ideal GANTT chart.

You can prepare a month-wise planning, individual semester-wise planning and goal-wise planning etc. I will explain these things in upcoming articles on 5 different types of GANTT charts for PhD.  

Custom writing services: 

If you find difficulties in preparing a research plan, synopsis, proposal or GANTT chart. We can work on behalf of you. Our costume services are, 

You can contact us at [email protected] or [email protected] to get more information. 

Wrapping up: 

Planning and executing a research schedule are two different things. Oftentimes, students just prepare as per the requirements and then do work as per their convenience. Then they are stuck in one place and just work around the time. 

Plan things. Make your own GANTT chart, put it on your work table or stick it on a wall so that you can see it daily. Try to achieve each goal in time. Trust me things will work and you will complete your PhD before anyone else.  

Dr. Tushar Chauhan is a Scientist, Blogger and Scientific-writer. He has completed PhD in Genetics. Dr. Chauhan is a PhD coach and tutor.

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#47: Plan your project – save your PhD!

March 31, 2020 by Tress Academic

Are you uncertain how your project will unfold? Do you have constant worries about the progress of your PhD project? Are you anxious that you won’t be able to finish on time? You’re not alone! We know these problems all too well. But, there’s only one way forward: Planning your project and the individual steps until completion. We’ll give you a helping hand with our quick-guide introducing you to PhD-planning in just 5 easy steps. 

Do you have a gut feeling that you’re losing too much time with the pace of your work right now? Is your inner voice whispering ‘This is not going to work out!’ Are you faced with sleepless nights because your current experiment is taking forever, or not yielding any early results? Perhaps your hand-in date is creeping closer and you’re not sure you’ll be able to make it to the finish line on time. 

All of these are very common PhD student worries and they can really bring you down. Unfortunately, we’re all too familiar with these thoughts. But what can you do to turn the dread into confidence about your project and give yourself peace-of-mind? 

One fantastic way to combat your anxieties is to have a close look at the timeline of your project and plan how it will unfold. Specifically, we mean  it’s time to plan your PhD!

In our courses for PhD students we emphasise the role of planning, and give step-by-step instructions on how to plan a PhD, because we know that for some PhD students, the words ‘PhD project’ and ‘planning’ do not mesh well together. Many want the freedom to make choices as they come (after years of studying hard, the PhD seems to give that) and don’t want to be restricted by a plan. Or worse, they think that if they plan something now, it’s set in stone and they’ll be forced to carry out their project exactly this way, so a plan at this stage would be pointless. 

But as we’ll show you below, planning your PhD project is: 

a) absolutely necessary, so forget your excuses not to do it  b) important c) completely doable !

Believe us, it is the number one strategy to calm your nerves, avoid sleepless nights, and to move your PhD project safely through the course and land it on the deadline. We know that taking the first step in planning is the most difficult one, so we’ve developed a super-handy Quick-guide: Planning your PhD project to get you started! It also functions as a ‘reboot’ for those of you who did ‘a bit’ of PhD planning some time in the past, but dropped it along the way. Are you ready to stop giving excuses?

planning a phd

Objections to planning your PhD project – and why they fall flat

Here are a few of the most common reasons we’ve heard PhD students say why they can’t create a plan. We want to share them with you, in case you recognise a similar train of thought you’ve been on..If some of this sounds familiar, it might help you to realise that maybe you were just looking for excuses

1. I am not ready yet – it’s too early to plan 

Too early? Ok, you can take a few weeks getting oriented at the beginning, but then sit down and start planning out your PhD project. Planning always reflects your knowledge of the state of the art at a particular date. You’re simply trying to get an idea of how your project would best unfold now. So no, it’s never too early!

2. Science needs creativity – I want to be able to react spontaneously

Great. We completely agree – and a creative mind is an important factor. But do not use ‘creativity’ as an excuse not to plan! There’s a lot of space for creativity in science since it’ll help you push beyond the boundaries of existing knowledge, but you still need to know the boundaries within which your project operates: e.g. available time, university requirements, graduate school programme, facilities, funding … just to mention a few. Even if you plan your project in detail, you can still make adjustments to follow your creative mind. But with a plan, you know what your goal is and what changes you want to make, plus what the implications are for this within the above-mentioned boundaries. 

3. I have a high-risk project – I can’t plan for something if I don’t know the outcome 

Right. Strictly speaking, you never really know the outcome of a scientific project (that’s why you do it!). But, of course, your ideas, assumptions, expectations, hypotheses, and options are based on your knowledge and assumptions. You don’t do research just to try something out, but because you have reason to believe it WILL give you a particular result (or to prove that it doesn’t). So you are planning with an assumption in mind, which we will call your goal. If your project involves risks, you should be familiar with them (e.g. plan for them) and reserve some of your resources in anticipation of what might happen. Whether or not it is a good strategy to pick a high-risk project for a PhD is another discussion entirely. But if you make a plan, at least you know the risks, you can adapt to it and have a plan B ready.

4. My project will change so it’s not worth sitting down and making a plan now.

Very well. Of course, it will change! We hope it will, or, to put it another way- it will evolve! PhD projects alter and get better as your body of knowledge on the subject grows. But, there is a fundamental difference between NOT PLANNING, and IMPROVING AND UPDATING AN EXISTING PLAN so that it reflects the latest developments. As your project changes, so does your plan. 

Planning is an ongoing activity: you start now and you finish once you tick-off the very last milestone on your project plan. 

5. I am a scientist, not an administrator! 

Of course you are, granted! But, did you know that in order to be really successful in science today, you also need to be pretty adept in a ton of so-called “complementary skills”? One of these is being able to organise, implement and successfully complete a project within a given timeframe and budget. In a few years, you’ll likely be applying for grants to coordinate much bigger research initiatives worth millions of EUR/USD/BP (or whatever your currency is). So learning to manage your project at the PhD stage is a rite of passage that will benefit your future career. It is a great skill to pick up now, so later you can demonstrate your expertise.

On a side note: We can’t forget to mention that writing and publishing papers is another crucial skill in academic work. And if you want to learn more about this in a structured way, look at our blog posts no. 5 How to get started with writing papers? or no. 36: 5 tips to get a paper accepted this year .

Why is planning so important? – How does it help my PhD?

Not planning a PhD project is the same as driving in the dark without headlights! You won’t know where you’re heading to, you can’t see the bumps in the road, and you’ll likely overshoot your goal! If you fail to plan you’re actually planning to fail. OR: To put it more positively, planning your project is the number one strategy that will help you to complete your PhD successfully. Good planning can save your PhD! 

If you’re still unconvinced, here are a few more reasons planning makes all the difference:

When should I do the planning for my PhD project?

Ideally, you have an initial project plan or at least outlined a draft a few weeks into your PhD. Yes, we know what you’re thinking now: “I’m not living in an ideal world!” So the answer is simple: ANYTIME! 

Yes, you can work on the planning of your project any time in your PhD. You’re only exempted if you have a shiny-new-10-page-project-plan in your drawer right now. But seriously, whether you are in the first year or third year of your PhD, or even with just a few months left, it’s never too early or too late. Simply start now and draw up a plan for the remaining time of your PhD. If you haven’t downloaded it already, get our Quick-guide: Planning your PhD project to get you started now.

Check the regulations of your university or graduate school programme because some require you to hand-in a project plan at a particular point in time! But even if yours does NOT we always suggest you to plan – simply for your own well-being and that of your PhD. 

How do I plan? I don’t have much experience…

No surprise here, you are in good company! In spite of its importance, only a few PhD students know how to plan a project from scratch. But, don’t despair! You’re smart and we can give you a boost with our Quick-guide: Planning your PhD project .

Our guide’s initial steps will prompt you with a few crucial questions and decisions to get you started. It shows you how to sketch out some preliminary answers, which you can then develop into a fully-fledged project plan! Something that you can share with your supervisors (and everyone else involved) to steer your project. 

Are you longing for more support with the planning of your PhD? We’re on a continuous journey to improve our offers for you and offer a  free PhD Webinar  that will give you further hints on how to plan your PhD project.  Sign up now ,  so you don’t miss out on this opportunity and we’ll give you a shout when the next one is available.

We know that planning can’t prevent every disaster in your PhD and it can’t remedy all your problems. But, it’s the very best way forward and will make your PhD and your life a whole lot easier! No more panicking or nightmares! A detailed plan for your project will calm your mind! The worries about your PhD won’t go away unless you tackle them – so grab the bull by the horns! 

Related resources:

More information: 

Do you want to successfully complete your PhD study? If so, please sign up to receive our free guides .    

© 2020 Tress Academic

#PhD, #PhDProject, #PhDPlanning, #ProjectPlan,  #DoctoralStudies


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Guidelines to draw a timeline of your PhD

2018 Nov 20 | Resource , Soft Skills | 0

In a previous article I talked about how project management can help reduce PhD students’ anxieties . Most of my PhD I felt very much confused. Sometimes I could not even say whether I was still in the beginning, somewhere in the middle or close to the end of it. Therefore, I suggested that supervisors and students should try to define a tangible objective early on in the doctoral process, and that they should have regular check-point meetings to adjusts plans in order to keep the student’s project on track. I also mentioned that it is highly important to clarify what the supervisors and students long-term expectations are .

In another article I talked about Gantt charts , a great project management tool to draw and visualize a project outline.

Do you see where we’re going here? Let’s draw a timeline of your PhD in the shape of a Gantt chart! I know, it’s in the title ;)

In this other article about Gantt charts, I explained that there are some drawbacks to keep in mind. Indeed, upfront planning techniques like Gantt charts tend to lack flexibility and when things don’t work as planned it can actually increase the feeling of failure, which is exactly what we want to avoid here.

So, does it even make sense to draw a timeline early on in the doctoral process? I believe it does! We can keep the drawbacks of Gantt charts in mind and draw such a timeline if we define guidelines of how to use it .

1. Example & download:

I draw below an example for the institute where I did my PhD: the Institute of Biology at the University of Fribourg in Switzerland. Therefore, it is designed for a 4-year PhD program with annual committee meetings and for students who spend a lot of time performing lab experiments . However, it can be easily adapted to any field or any doctoral program.

You can download for free the Excel file I used to make this timeline by clicking here .

planning a phd

Because I want this to be a general example but also because it is such a long time scale, I kept the level of detail to the minimum to make it flexible and to avoid over-planning . The time for each task here is a very rough estimate, it is meant to be adapted to what you think is best for you or to what is expected in your doctoral program. Importantly, the uncertainty level is increasing with time . You don’t have to start writing a paper on the 11th month of your third year, maybe you’ll start much earlier or much later and it will be perfectly fine. This is just a broad overview to help visualize what the main steps are, but their exact length or when they should start will get clarified once you are closer to it.

2. Why draw a timeline?

To draw such a timeline and for it to be realistic and useful, you are going to ask very concrete questions, to yourself and to your supervisor , like what are the important steps, what are the milestones (technical milestones for developing a protocol, committee meetings, exams…), what are the risks, do you have only one project or do you have more, maybe one large risky project and one smaller safer project, and all other questions which are relevant to you.

Project management is effective if concrete questions are openly discussed. If your supervisor doesn’t bring up these questions with you, it might feel quite scary for you to ask for it. To help you find the courage to so, I believe that having such a timeline will provide you a highly visual and attractive medium to foster these discussions.

When I learned about Gantt charts at the beginning of my second year of PhD studies, I draw myself such a timeline, but I didn’t dare to discuss it with my supervisor. With no surprise things really didn’t work out the way I planned it. Supervisors by default have more experience than a junior PhD student so they should know better what is realistic, what is expected and how much upfront planning can be done depending on the project.

3. Guidelines for how to make & use the timeline throughout your PhD:

This timeline is now a tool which is going to grow with you throughout your PhD. At first it is a rough overview of the main steps, if you keep it update with what you really do, at the end it will be a true overview of everything you’ve accomplished. Therefore, on top of guiding you through it, it will become a great tool to look back at your PhD experience once you’re finished.

Thanks for reading and I hope these ideas can help you :)

Make sure to read my previous article about Gantt charts where I explained that it can be used both for long-time scale like here, or on shorter time scale (like 2 months) with a higher level of detail.

Looking for more reading about project management for research? Have a look at the resource I made Project Management resource for PhD students and supervisors !

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planning a phd


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  1. 9 things you should consider before embarking on a PhD

    9. There are no real breaks. In a stereotypical "9-to-5" job, when the workday is over or the weekend arrives, you can generally forget about your work. And a vacation provides an even longer respite. But in a PhD program, your schedule becomes "whenever you find time to get your work done."

  2. How to Prepare for and Start a PhD |

    Because a PhD is an independent research project, you will be responsible for the planning and management throughout. This planning includes setting SMART (specific, measurable, actionable, relevant, time-bound) aims and objectives. What if my research focus has changed?

  3. The PhD Journey - Stages of a Doctoral Degree |

    A PhD is normally examined by two academic experts: One will be an internal examiner, usually appointed from elsewhere in your faculty and department. They won’t be directly associated with your project, but will have sufficient expertise to assess your findings. The other will be an external examiner.

  4. 10 things you need to know before starting a PhD degree

    6. Learn how to build, and use, your network. As a PhD student, you are a complete novice in the world of science and most things in the lab will be – if not new to you – not exquisitely familiar. This matters not, if you take advantage of the people around you.

  5. Planning your PhD research: A 3-year PhD timeline example

    Planning out a PhD trajectory can be overwhelming. Example PhD timelines can make the task easier and inspire. The following PhD timeline example describes the process and milestones of completing a PhD within 3 years. Contents Elements to include in a 3-year PhD timeline The example scenario: Completing a PhD in 3 years

  6. How to Prepare a PhD Research Plan/Schedule? - ThePhDHub

    How to prepare a PhD research plan/schedule? Enlist your goals or objectives. Decide the time required to complete each goal. Prepare a GANTT chart.

  7. #47: Plan your project - save your PhD! | Tress Academic

    PhD students often describe that planning their project helped them to discover many things they had not thought of before – in terms of how to carry out their project. Planning will enable you to track your progress , help you to detect delays and make adjustments before it is too late.

  8. Guidelines to draw a timeline of your PhD | Academiac

    Make sure to keep in mind that this chart is going to change many times until you graduate, stay flexible. This first timeline should only be an overview of the main steps which you expect in your PhD. It is here to give a direction, and if used regularly it can give a feeling of moving forward.