Schedule myths

When applied to theses, schedules sometimes have a bad reputation in academia, which is odd, given how heavily academic life depends on scheduled cycles to allow scholars and researchers to get their work done. Semesters or quarters allow faculty to divide their time between teaching, institutional work, and their own research in predictable ways, even when, as with all schedules, the unforeseen happens.  Here are some myths about schedules and responses to them.  Understanding the myths should help you make a thesis schedule, either from the deadline backwards or from today forward.

  1. “My work doesn’t lend itself to schedules.”  I hear this from academics occasionally, and I never know what it means.  All work that can be time-bound lends itself to schedules, some more detailed than others, some more accurate than others. A schedule should help you answer two questions: “am I roughly on track? and what can I do about it if not?”
  2. “I don’t know exactly how long anything will take.  How can I make a schedule?”  You make a schedule by estimating how long tasks will take based on the best available knowledge you have or can get, which means talking to others who have completed similar tasks on your type of project.  Then you adjust as you go forward.  Creating a perfect schedule is not the goal; finishing a thesis is.
  3. “I can’t make a schedule for a two-year-plus project; I can’t know what will happen that far ahead.”  Schedules aren’t predicated on precise and complete knowledge of the future — they are predicted on knowledge of a group of tasks and a desired timeframe for them, and the desire to understand whether you are progressing as planned, and, if not, what your options for change are.
  4. “I can finish my thesis without doing a schedule for it.”  You certainly can, and many people have.  The question is whether the benefits of doing a schedule outweigh the relatively small upfront costs of time, and whether you find those benefits valuable.
  5. “Something unexpected will happen, and the schedule will be useless.”  First part of answer: Yes, something unexpected will happen, because no plan survives reality untouched and unchanged.  You get a paper accepted at a conference, and have to spend two weeks working on it and another going to the conference; your laptop dies and you have to come up with money to replace it, so you have to do extra paid non-thesis work for a month.  But it’s when the unexpected happens that a schedule is the most useful to you, because it leads you to ask “have my assumptions changed?  have my circumstances changed? what do the changes mean about the time I can spend on my thesis, and when I can reasonably expect to finish?”  When you have a rough map in front of you, it’s much easier to make changes that get you where you want to go in the end than if you think “Now what?” and face a blank slate.
  6. “The schedule will take more time to do than it’s worth.”  Putting your schedule together initially should take no more than twelve hours of your work, plus an hour each with your adviser and director of graduate studies and two hours over a couple conversations with your partner or spouse.
  7. “The schedule will take more time to maintain than it’s worth.”  The schedule itself should take no more than a half hour a month, total, to check for completed milestones and to see whether you are on track.  Minor roadblocks mean maybe a hour to figure out how to adapt; the impact of major roadblocks and their solutions may take a little longer to understand.
  8. “Why would I bother with a schedule for my thesis?  I’ll never do this again.”  Whether you end up in the academic or non-academic workforces, running a project schedule is a useful, transferable skill.  That may not be a good enough reason to make one for your thesis, but it will not waste your time.

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.

Good luck!