How can you treat your PhD like a project?

As a “planner”, I found it very confronting when my usual organisational skills failed to wrangle my PhD into a set of nice, neat, sequential steps. But to hear that being “Lost in the Fog” is not a unique experience is comforting. Whether or not you’re an aspiring project manager, we can all learn a lesson or two here…

The Thesis Whisperer

Fiona Saunders is a Senior Lecturer in the Management of Engineering Projects at The University of Manchester and a part-time PhD student. Her research interests are in the management of projects in safety-critical industries. Prior to academia, Fiona enjoyed a successful 15 year industry career in project management. Fiona blogs at where the original version of the post was published, along with a follow up post.

Long before I threw caution to the wind and (as a mum with 2 small children) began my part-time PhD my Professor (@AndrewWGale) gave me a very wise piece of advice Don’t be afraid of a PhD, it’s really just a project”. Now that I am entering the 3rd year of my part-time PhD I want to reflect on the similarities between a PhD and a project and offer some tips on how to use the tools and techniques of project…

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A mid-candidature reflection

This blog is designed to help us all navigate the research process, by sharing advice and reflections about our own experiences. I recently chatted to one of our Veterinary RHD students over a lovely cup of tea, and it was a fruitful conversation.

In the beginning, there was an opportunity to do a research degree. Like many before, the “masters vs. PhD” question was posed, and the outcome was a part-time PhD enrolment – research would be part of the plan for the next 6 years. “I was to allocate 70% of my time to my clinical work, and the remaining 30% would be available for research. In reflection, this was just not enough – 70/30 might be ok for a masters, but poses challenges for a PhD. Maybe 50/50 would have worked better. 6 years is a long time to work on weekends making up the extra hours.”

Thankfully, previous study meant that skills in critical appraisal of literature were already well developed. A strong vision for the project, and savvy supervisors, resulted in a well-defined project in the first 6 months. But not all has been smooth sailing, so here are 5 “lessons learnt” from the experience so far.

  1. Plan your thesis. Get a chapter outline sorted early on – this becomes your table of contents. Then start writing. In a practical sense, this means turning your early investigations into something you can actually use. Your preliminary lit review notes become an introduction to your thesis. Writing up your methodology properly as you go means your materials and methods chapter is halfway there, before you even think about it as a chapter.
  2. Guard your time. Working in one-hour chunks around your other responsibilities might not be the most effective way to make progress. When you get a whole week to “work on your research”, plan it well. Order your reagents. Get your computer programs installed and working. Figure out how and when you will work, and what you expect to achieve. If you spend two days getting organized and planning, your whole week is quickly whittled away.
  3. A craftsman is only as good as his tools – so make your tools work for you. Referencing software is a good example; although Endnote is widely used, for some tasks (like searching and annotating) it can be clunky. For the purposes of this PhD, Papers for Mac suited much better. The lab book is another very useful tool – having all your records in one place, from thought processes to suggested computer code, becomes invaluable in the later seasons of the RHD process. If you can’t remember when you made a decision to go in a particular direction, writing your discussion will be harder than it needs to be.
  4. Recognise the rollercoaster. There is a cyclical feeling to any research project. Sometimes you’ll make great progress. Other times you might work hard for weeks and feel like you get nowhere. Ups and downs are normal. So, first accept that this is ok, and then do something about it! Often you will be stuck on one small aspect, and getting help from the right person with the right expertise can get you out of the doldrums and back on the right track.
  5. Networking! Get out there and talk to people. Meet your supervisors’ colleagues. Find ways to meet those working in related disciplines (especially our human health contemporaries). Go to conferences, both directly and indirectly connected to your area of investigation, and make the most of coffee breaks. These people will become your collaborators, fresh eyes on your project, and may offer the expertise you need to pull yourself out of a slump. Although some connections might be facilitated by your supervisor, it’s your project – so don’t be shy in getting out there.

From the joys of getting a valuable grant, to the anxiety of having to actually deliver on said grant, and looking ahead to the research questions you will answer post-RHD, it seems the research experience is delivering on the intellectual satisfaction front. There is always more work to do and new challenges to overcome, but satisfying the curiosity of an academic mind is a great reason to “do research”, and in hindsight it will all seem worth it.

So there you are – 5 quick tips from a current student. If you have an insight or thought about the RHD process, why not consider being interviewed for this blog, or even submitting a post from your own pen (or keyboard)? Get in touch at

Has this post struck a chord, or do you have something to say about these tips? Leave a comment and continue the conversation!

Can I do a research degree AND be happy?

One challenge that I have faced is negative feelings toward my project. Sure, I expected frustrations and challenges about the project, but I didn’t anticipate how that would affect me mentally and emotionally. I would love to feel positive about my research and the direction my thesis is heading, but there is so much uncertainty that some days happiness seems impossible.

In the face of these emotions, it’s nice to read something that doesn’t just sympathise but offers some real survival strategies. Inez von Weitershausen is a PhD candidate at the London School of Economics, and wrote an excellent piece the Guardian earlier this year entitled How to stay sane through a PhD. What a breath of fresh air. If your mindset is holding you back from making the most of your RHD experience, this article might be just what the doctor ordered.

My own advice for getting out of the slump? Break your routine. Try doing something different, whether it’s a change of location, mixing up the tasks you’re working on, or scheduling time to take a break and indulge in the rest of life – go for a walk, catch up with a friend over coffee, do something normal. Surely if it’s scheduled in, you don’t have to feel guilty about taking a “break” from your research. For me, sometimes it’s journalling my thoughts that helps the most – what seems like a big deal in my head comes into perspective when viewed through the lens of my scrawly handwriting in a nice notebook. Which reminds me, I must schedule time for a guilt-free notebook shopping session – which moleskine shall I choose this time? I feel better already…