If only my PhD could be graded on submission of the report ‘Things I would do differently if I started my PhD again’… This would surely be much thicker, and perhaps more practically useful, than the thesis I am supposed to be writing. One of the first entries, even before ‘Stockpile a drawer at work full of dry socks’ would have to be this:

Tip #1: Learn and apply proper project management principles from the start.

It’s natural to assume that researchers know how to do research best. But for much of my PhD, I seem to have been chaotically lurching from one subproject to another, struggling to work out what I should be focusing on. It’s only now, after fortuitously stumbling upon online courses, blogs and magazine articles, that I realise that we can certainly learn a thing or two from the social sciences. Who knew that ‘project management; is an actual research field, complete with theories, journals and published papers?

Here’s a few of my favourite pearls of project planning wisdom:

Student Syndrome

Most of us have a tendency to procrastinate on key tasks, only getting to work at the last possible minute – the ‘Student Syndrome’. So, when my supervisor wanted me to run through my presentation at the next lab meeting, naturally I found myself preparing the slides the night before. And, naturally, the process took longer than I anticipated, adding undue stress and leaving me with no time to touch up the rough edges. One trick around Student Syndrome is to set your own advance deadlines – but this only tends to work if you are somehow accountable to others because you know otherwise that your deadline isn’t the ‘real’ deadline. As an example, if you have a talk to prepare for a conference or a poster presentation, why not schedule a practice run with your friends or Journal Club?

Parkinson’s Law

This wise adage states that “work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion”. So, if we are given a set period to do a task, we can easily fill up the entire time without stopping to ask whether it is all necessary. For my upgrade report, for instance, I was assigned several months to work on it. I fretted over it throughout the whole duration, constantly tweaking figures and checking statistics, simply because I felt that it was something I was ‘supposed’ to be working on. In reality, once the content was there, it should have been ‘job done’ and straight back to the lab.

It is always worth asking yourself, ‘How quickly could I complete this task if it was really urgent, without compromising the quality?’ You might surprise yourself!

The Pomodoro Technique

Computers are great, but it can be hard to focus on the task at hand with so many things shouting out for our attention- emails, Facebook, news pop ups….in this distracted state, it’s difficult to get much done. The Pomodoro is my favourite trick to counter this: set a timer for 25 minutes and work solidly for that time, thinking about nothing else. When the timer goes, allow yourself a brief reward, like watching that cat video going viral on Twitter. I usually find that knowing I have a break scheduled allows me to enter ‘deep focus’, so I’m always surprised at how quickly the timer goes off!

Critical path analysis

When managing multiple sub-projects and lines of enquiry, it can be hard to know what to focus on first.  Whatever schedule I make, I always have a sneaking suspicion that I really ought to be doing something else, which can prevent me from fully engaging with the task. Critical Path analysis is a brilliant way of making sure you focus on the most urgent priority. It involves breaking down your projects down into the individual tasks and working out the dependencies between them. The critical path is the quickest route to your overall end goal, taking into account these dependencies. Last week, for instance, I was working on two of my sub-projects: taking tissue sections and analysing gene expression. I find tissue sectioning much more fun – but my gene expression assays depend on me first designing and ordering DNA primers, which always take a while to arrive. So, I made this the priority, knowing that I could get on with my sections whist waiting for the primers to be delivered.

Gantt charts

Gantt Charts make brilliant, and very professional, project schedules. Tasks are shown as stacked horizontal bars, so you can instantly see the start/end times of simultaneous activities. You may already have come across and be using them, but specialist software, such as Microsoft Project can help you take them to another level. Here, you can easily adjust your dates and add progress updates in real time. The programme can even calculate the critical path for you and make amendments if anything goes slightly off-schedule. You may even be able to download it for free through your institute.

My organisational skills have come on a lot since the early days of hastily scribbled to-do lists on the backs of envelopes…but there’s always room for improvement! And so I will continue to browse the online courses, blogs and updates from the fascinating world of project management research.

Caroline WoodCaroline Wood is midway through a PhD studying parasitic weeds at the University of Sheffield. When she’s not agonising over her experiments, she loves to write and will cover most scientific topics if they stay still long enough.

In her spare time, she enjoys helping at public outreach events, hill walking and escapism at the cinema. She blogs at: