Research Skills: Planning your PhD

I organised a session for doctoral students at the Instituto de Educação of the Universidade de Lisboa a few weeks ago about how to organise time and work while doing a PhD and I this post is an ‘offspring’ of that session. Click here for the slides.

These were the topics we explored:

  1. PhD Expectations and motivations
  2. PhD Typical milestones
  3. Planning and Managing your PhD (incl. Time management): Goal setting
  4. Look around for support

1. When you start a PhD, or any other big life project, it is important to think why you’re doing it. What are the reasons, the motivations, the ambitions, the expectations… Namely:

  • what do you expect from your supervisor and from yourself?
  • what do you expect to happen in each year of your PhD?
  • what obstacles do you envisage?
  • what are you most looking forward to?

2. There are some typical milestones that seem to be common to most PhD students:

  • Establishing foundations:
    • defining your research interests and questions
    • research methods training
    • plan structure of thesis
    • background reading
    • begin constructing bibliography
    • create some ‘keeping track files
    • start writing
    • project presentation/ defence
  • Further work
    • refine research question(s)
    • write literature review
    • write about methodology
    • submit proposal for conference(s)
  • Data collection
    • ethics
    • identify and recruit participants
    • fieldwork
  • Data analysis
    • create data displays
    • make sense of data
    • write about data
  • Working towards submission
    • review recent literature
    • writing/ rewriting chapters
    • full draft of thesis
    • career planning
    • editing and proof-reading thesis
    • notice of submission/ submission
  • Defence preparation

3. Planning and managing work: Goal setting

It is important to have clear goals, that will help you persevere in times you feel stuck, demotivated, overwhelmed, etc…

Think about your key milestones/ objectives on a short/ medium and long term, i.e. what are the key things you want/ need/ expect to achieve within the next 3 / 6 and 12 months?

It’s also important to think about the way you use you time on a daily basis, how long do you spend sleeping, eating, exercising, commuting, working on your PhD, reading, writing, … can you think of more effective way of using time?

4. Look around for support

Support could come from your supervisor and your peers but there is also a wealth of resources online to be explored. And there are two scholars that I would like to mention here for their online presence and resources are both useful and motivating:


Becoming Dr Mum – Combining PhD and motherhood


When I found out I was pregnant (in February 2012), during the 3rd year of my PhD I thought it would definitely be hard to combine being a mum and finishing my thesis. As a researcher, it seemed logical to look for articles and resources produced by others who lived the same kind of situation to make me feel less isolated.

I found a really interesting website, which presented the report of a study called: “Becoming Dr Mum: Combining Higher Degree Research with Early Motherhood”.

By reading about the study, which was carried out in 2009 at The Australian National University, I felt there were other women who had been through the same and that I would certainly make it too, and come out of the whole experience as a stronger person!

Having been through it, now already with my PhD diploma and my adorable (most of the time) almost 3 year old daughters, I know it’s hard, and I know it’s possible too. And actually, if I’m, honest I think having my daughters helped me have guiltless breaks from my PhD which is very healthy, and I wouldn’t necessarily have otherwise. And, at the same time, having the thesis always on the back of my mind made me sometimes put things in perspective, which is also really important because being a mother for the first time is a overwhelming experience, and it changes your brain, well at least the way my brain worked. And sometimes I’d find myself stressing about the weight of my tiny babies or worrying and ‘doing research’ about the colour of their ‘poo’.

Most of these ‘motherhood concerns’ are at the same very valid and very silly, especially if you’re lucky enough to have strong and healthy babies like I was; but it’s hard to get your brain to stop and in absence of other issues, those are the ones that seem to take the front row!


Tools for Writing


Here are 4 interesting online resources that can help in the sometimes difficult task of academic writing.

1. The Academic Phrase Bank from The University of Manchester

The academic phrase bank really helped me as I was writing my PhD thesis, even if you end up not using any of the sentences they suggest, just by reading them it can help you get unstuck when you’re looking for phrases to compare, contrast, be critical etc. .  that helped me at different moments

2. University of Richmond Writing Center

It’s called ‘Writer’s Web’ and has quite a bit to explore. It can definitely be useful and has information from ‘Getting started’, to ‘First drafts’, ‘Focusing ideas’, ‘Clarity and Style’, and much more.

3. The Cache (Tracy Duckart’s Instructional Website at Humboldt State University)

I think some of the Prewriting exercises and the Elements of Style are particularly interesting and useful. Some parts of the website do not seem to be working but then there’s things like ‘Avoiding Oatmeal Verbs’ (Referring to the verbs to be, to give, to have, to say, to use) which suggests verbs to use instead. And ‘My Best Advice about Thesis Statements: Tattoo on the inside of your eyelids the following definition: “[A thesis] is a debatable point, one about which reasonable persons can disagree. It is not merely a fact [. . .]. Nor is it a statement of belief [or faith] [. . .]. Neither facts nor beliefs can be substantiated by reasons, so they cannot serve as a thesis for an argument” (Hacker 574).’

4. ASK – Assignment Survival Kit from Staffordshire University

This one is maybe not that useful if you’re writing your PhD thesis as it seems to be aimed at undergrads doing their first assignments but I still thought it was interesting to look at their suggested steps when writing an essay.

You provide a start date a due date and select from a list of types of assignment and this software ‘will help you to plan your time and the steps you might need to follow to survive and produce your first piece of assessed work’.


I’m sure there are many others, and I will add to this list.

Please feel free to share other writing tools available online!