Building a thesis schedule forward from today

Here’s how to build a schedule forward from today.  You don’t need scheduling or project-management software to manage your thesis schedule, though you can of course use it if it helps.  I recommend doing some key tasks on paper initially, as noted below; how you transfer them to a calendaring or other organizing mechanism is totally up to you.  You may want to read the list of schedule myths before your start. 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.

Remember, the point of the exercise is not the schedule itself: it is to help you complete your thesis in as predictable a way as possible.

1. List your assumptions.  These are the high-level guidelines within which you now must work: they can, and often do, change over the course of your thesis.  Your assumptions should include financial ones, institutional ones, and personal ones.  Here are some examples:

  1. I will have two years post-candidacy exam funding and can apply for a non-guaranteed third year.
  2. One year of funding is a fellowship; the other requires teaching.
  3. My dissertation proposal must be approved no later than N months after candidacy exams.
  4. I will enter the academic or non-academic job market before my thesis is done / within N months of finishing.
  5. To be competitive in that market, I will need to present at N conferences and publish M papers by the time I enter the market.
  6. [Spouse] needs to start work in [other location] after N years to advance his / her career.

2. Before you build your schedule, discuss your assumptions.  Discuss them with your adviser, your department’s director of graduate studies (DGS), particularly if your conversation with your adviser does not go as you predict, and your spouse or partner.  The first two conversations should happen face to face rather than via email, even if you typically communicate with your adviser and DGS that way.  (Of course you need not discuss personal assumptions with your adviser or DGS.)  The conversations with your spouse or partner will probably be ongoing, but you should have an explicit discussion up front.

This is perhaps the single most important step.  If you have not read chapter 3 of Atul Gawande’s The Checklist Manifesto, “The End of the Master Builder,” on the importance of these conversations for successful project completion, I recommend it highly.

3. List all the required tasks.  This exercise not only helps build a schedule but reminds you that a dissertation is not an endless, unmapped road but a series of discrete, finite tasks.  Get your department’s and your institution’s list of required steps for thesis completion and submission, so you know all those last steps that take longer than you might expect. You should draft this on your own initially, and then get advice from your adviser, and especially from other graduate students, preferably from at least two students from your department, or at least your institution, who have finished within the previous six months. They will be your best guides to current requirements and realities that you will encounter.  Don’t neglect to list learning tasks, such as learning how to construct a database for your data or how to manipulate and display the images you will need to include in your dissertation, for example.

Yes, you will probably miss some tasks.  That’s fine: schedules can be updated and changed to reflect new information.

4. Estimate how long each task will take.  You should strike a balance between the excesses of hoped-for perfection (“pretty sure I can knock off chapter 2 faster than I have ever written anything before”) and abdication of responsibility, or despair (“who can tell?”).  If you have no idea how long a task will take, estimate: if you don’t know how long it will take to do a first draft of chapter 2, estimate that it will take as long as your first draft of your most recent seminar paper.  Here too you should ask for advice from those who have completed theses recently.

One critical skill in managing your thesis schedule will be learning how to ask, politely and professionally, when your adviser and other committee members, if any, will provide feedback on what you submit to them.  Anxiously awaiting feedback and allowing that anxiety to halt work is one of the single biggest causes of elongated dissertation schedules.  Ask others with the same adviser and readers how long it has taken to get work back from them; if it is reasonably promptly, you many not need to ask. If you speak to your adviser and get an unsatisfactory answer (“When I get back from leave in 6 months”; “when I get around to it”), consult your department’s director of graduate studies or a trusted faculty member.  Most advisers and directors of graduate studies are, in my experience, only too glad when graduate students want to manage their thesis schedules.

You don’t need to estimate down to the minute, or even the day.  Unless you know a particular task will only take, say one good day’s work, a week is a good unit of measurement to work with.

5. Figure out which tasks depend on other tasks.  As you list tasks, it will become clear that some tasks depend on each other — you cannot start writing a chapter that depends on data analysis without having first gathered all your data, to use an obvious example.  You should not, however, create false dependencies: it is not true that you cannot start drafting chapter 3 while chapter 2 is still being read by one of your readers.

6. List tasks that can proceed in parallel.  For example, if you will include a separate literature survey in your thesis (as opposed to in your thesis proposal), you might consider allocating a large block of time to get the majority of work done, but then a few hours a week or month to add new information as you uncover it.   There should be no meaningful time interval that is entirely waiting for someone else’s work, unless you are on vacation at that time (good planning, if so!); plan to start outlining the next major part of the thesis while you wait for feedback on what you just sent your supervisor.

7. List the tasks with their estimated durations in chronological order.  If you have had input from other graduate students and at least one faculty member, this task should be relatively straightforward.

8. Create a schedule.    I recommend that you do this part of building a schedule initially on paper, in pencil.  Print out calendar pages, a page per month, and lay out the tasks on them.  Remember to account for tasks that must be performed during standard workweeks, such as when research facilities are open. Remember to account for delays in  faculty responding owing to leaves, or to their not having access to email during their own fieldwork, for example. Remember to account for travel for conferences and research, and vacations, both yours and your adviser’s.  Remember the thesis is not all you will be doing, if it isn’t — you will need to account for time when you want to submit a paper for a conference or for publication, planning a syllabus and teaching, or otherwise doing work on something other than your thesis.

And, yes, you will not remember everything or foresee everything.  That is fine: schedules can change.  No schedule or plan survives reality intact and unchanged, and the ability to adapt is a sign of intelligence.

9. Examine the schedule for sanity.  If your schedule shows you finishing well beyond the date you hope to finish or can afford to be working on your thesis, you will have to adjust your thesis plan, the duration of some tasks, or your expectations, or some of all of these.

Important sanity check: the range of hours you will be able to dedicate to your thesis in any given week will range from 0 (travelling to and from and attending a conference; grading week), to 20 (a normal teaching week without papers to grade; part-time summer job), to 40 ( a work-week you can mostly devote to your thesis.  Just use what ever large, medium, and small numbers make sense for you and that you can realistically stick to.

10. Review the schedule with a graduate student or two who have recently finished their theses, preferably in your department.  Ask that they particularly help you with tasks you have missed (“it’ll cost you, but I found it worth it to pay a proofreader; it took a week to get the manuscript back”).  if the graduate student makes fun of you for doing a schedule, find a different graduate student.

11. Insert milestones to check overall progress, assumptions, and adjust the schedule if required.  Every month or two months, you should examine the schedule as a whole and make sure that your assumptions have not changed (“I thought I’d get funding that semester, but no, so have to double the length chapters 4 and 5 will take as I will also have to teach”).  Any time you miss a milestone, you will need to decide whether you can make up the time or whether you will need to slip other parts of the schedule to accommodate the miss.

12. Translate your schedule into whatever system you will use to manage it.  You can track a large project in Excel, any of many other applications, or a straightforward list on paper with dates.  A very helpful device is task reminders on an online calendar, if you use Outlook, Google mail with its calendar, or some equivalent.  Smaller tasks can go on the calendar; larger tasks should also have reminders set, say, 5 or 10 days before they are due.  Deadlines do focus the attention.  If you change your overall schedule, remember to change the dates in your calendaring system.

13.  Write your thesis.  That is, after all, what the schedule should help you do.

Good luck!