Building a thesis schedule

To someone like me, who after working as an academic spent many years in the corporate workforce running projects and staffs, it’s weird that graduate students are by and large not taught the basics of project scheduling to help them with their theses.  As a grad student, you have a good deal of time, money, and opportunity cost invested in your thesis, and its outcome is important to you and your career.  Building a schedule  for your thesis can contribute to your success in several ways:

  • you are more likely to finish when you plan to finish if you make a schedule.
  • you list your assumptions before you build a schedule.  Discussing your assumptions with your director of graduate studies, your adviser, and your partner is critical to your success.
  • you can map out time on your thesis against your funding, and see where the shortfalls are, if any.  The longer time you have to look for additional sources of funding or employment, the more successful at finding them in time you are likely to be.
  • with a rough sense of when you are likely to finish, you can make plans to enter the academic or non-academic job markets at an appropriate time.
  • if progress against your thesis schedule gets off track, you will have a rough idea of what the overall impact to your progress will be and where you may be able to catch up.  You will also have a much more realistic sense of when you are now likely to finish, given the changes.
  • dedicating time to your thesis helps you allow yourself to turn off when you are not working on it, reducing guilt at not working and the attendant burnout.
  • articulating assumptions and estimating how long things take are the core skills of scheduling. These two skills improve with practice and transfer well to academic and non-academic work of all kinds.

There are two main ways to build schedules: backwards from a deadline, and forwards from the start date; in practice, schedule-making usually combines both approaches.  Which one someone selects is normally a matter of temperament, and I’ve provided guidance for each. For those graduate students who encounter destructive myths about scheduling (it can’t apply to intellectual work!  the exact time it takes to make progress isn’t knowable!), I address them here.  For one of the best reads on the virtues of checklists and schedules in helping you complete big projects, read The Checklist Manifesto by Atul Gawande.

Don’t see your schedule question addressed here?  Email it to me at