Planning your PhD

As it will be mentioned often in these posts, a PhD is a long process that is not always very clear since the beginning what the ultimate goal is. It of course depends on whether you are working for a well defined project or for a broad idea of what needs to be achieved. To achieve such a long term and not well defined goal, it is beneficial to follow a specific reasoning. It is both beneficial for the quality of your work and also for the sanity of yourself. The approach I would like to describe is what I call a top-bottom-up approach. It’s a combination of a top-bottom and a bottom-up approach, because it follows more or less that order.

Setting the overall goal

The very first step that one needs to achieve, before starting to work for a PhD, is to define what is the overall and ultimate goal of the PhD. But by overall goal, I don’t necessarily mean what needs to be achieved by this specific PhD, but what is the end goal of this research. For instance, one example could be:

  • We want to find a cure for cancer Do not restrict yourself to realistic outcomes. Think big and think ahead in the future. But at the same time try to be as specific as possible, both in the problem that you are trying to solve and also some constrains that might exist. So let’s improve our example:

  • We want to find a cure for prostate cancer In your attempt to define this ultimate goal, after spending a bit of time alone and philosophising it, or spending hours reading relevant literature, try to approach other colleagues and talk to them about it. Don’t feel embarrassed that you are showing them you don’t know yet what you want to do for your PhD. Most people don’t have a clear view of what their research is really about in the beginning. By talking to your colleagues and supervisors, you can define further constrains that will be added in your problem statement. For instance, someone might tell you that a cure for prostate cancer already exists but it is very expensive or that it is very aggressive towards other cells of the body. Knowing this kind of information you can redefine your problem statement by adding more constrains

  • We want to find a cure for prostate cancer, that is viable economically and less aggressive than current techniques. After several iterations you will see things become a little bit more clear. Just stop when you feel comfortable enough that you have found what you want your research’ impact to be.

Breaking things down

As mentioned above, this overall goal will not necessarily be your own project’s goal. It is where your project will fit in and what problem will it help in solving. But if your overall goal would fit inside a PhD project, then it means you probably didn’t dream big enough.

After having defined a big fat goal to look towards, it is time to break things down to smaller parts. A goal might have different sub-problems to solve before achieving it. These problems can be separated both by domain and by level of difficulty. To clarify this, I will use our example goal that we set above:

‘We want to find a cure for prostate cancer, that is viable economically and less aggressive than current techniques”

This goal can be separated in two domains:

  • The medical domain, where the focus is on finding a cure and on targeting it only on prostate cancer cells
  • The economy domain, where the focus is on making this cure economically viable

As you can see, each domain can be separated in sub-goals, as it is more apparent with the medical domain in this example. There are two separate things where one is to actually find a cure that works for cancer cells and the second one is on trying to make a technique targeted only to prostate cancer cells. The fact that there are two sub-goals does not necessarily imply any preceding of one over the other. And that is a decision you will have to make.

Depending on what you want your focus to be, you can choose to follow a track that focuses on finding a cure and then relies on finding a way to make it more targeted, or first on finding a targeted technique and then making it work on cancer cells. Both ways make sense and are aiming at reaching the same overall goal.

The decision of the path you wish to follow is not an easy one, and it is strongly connected with what your team is capable of, what kind of equipment you have available and what is the plan of your supervisors. Therefore, this decisions must be again discussed and validated with your colleagues and supervisors.

Once you have your specific goal, you will need to proceed to the phase of dissection.

Dissecting your specific goal

You’re almost there: You know what the world needs (overall goal), what direction your contribution will be (specific goal), now you need to define what exactly your project will be about. This will probably be the most difficult part of this analysis.

This is when you will need to define what exactly you will try to solve in the upcoming 3 to 4 years. This is where your goal needs to first be dissected in the steps that need to be done and choose which of these steps will be left for someone else, working either in parallel with you or after you.

Let’s use our example again and let’s imagine that your goal will be on finding techniques to target the cancer treatment on the specific cells of prostate. This is probably a question that keeps busy thousands of researchers worldwide, so we need to narrow it down to something more specific. Let’s analyse two aspects of this research question:

  • Are we going to focus on specific cases of the problem This is an important question to ask at the beginning of your research, as specific cases of a problem might be able to be dealt with completely different approaches. For the prostate cancer example that we are using, this might mean that you have to find the relevant cohort. Knowing this at this stage of your research is important as you can investigate if there are enough patients with that special case in your region and if it would be possible to recruit them for your research.

  • What technique will we try to achieve this For sure there are a multitude of ways to approach this problem: It can be a radiation technique, it can be a technique using chemical receptors on specific cells, it can be a technique that targets the release of a drug in specific locations of the body, or based on temperature etc. etc. What will be your approach? Will you try to use an existing method and improve it, or try to come up with a new one?

Going back from bottom up

All this time, we’ve been doing half of the work; going from top (ultimate goal of research) to bottom (your specific project). Now it’s time to start going from bottom, back to up: How are you going to achieve the goal of your specific project?

Since you have already broken down your research in working packages, you can start fitting them in a time-plan. To do that, start by organising the working packages in order that they need to be executed first. You need to know what are the pre-requisites for each working package so that you can do the ordering. Write down all the possible pre-requisites that you might need for each one of them, either that the outcome of another working package, or work from another colleague, delivery of some equipment etc. etc.

Once you know the pre-requisites for each working package, you can better estimate the time they will require to be executed. Add some slack time in between just to be sure. Try to remember that whatever you plan, will probably be too short. So, in case you see that you won’t be able to manage some of the things in the duration of your project don’t be tempted to shorten the time needed for some tasks: it won’t happen!

What’s important to notice here is that this is a good exercise on planning and on predicting what can go wrong and how to achieve your goals. Equally important is to evaluate your progress in regular intervals. Have a look at your overall planning and see how far along you are with each of your goals one a monthly/bi-monthly basis. Besides the fact that this practise helps you stay on track, it can also help you detect deviations from your initial plans. As you will go along your research things might change. Priorities, different findings, related research you might encounter in literature which will either boost you or hinder you and so many more. Therefore, you might feel that your plans have been useless (and you won’t be so far away from the truth). However, no matter how useless plans are, planning is still a useful practise as it gives you direction.

Planning can also be on different levels. It’s good to have your overall PhD planning somewhere that you can quickly access/see, to inspire you to keep up the good work. But besides the long term yearly planning, it is good to also have a more specific monthly planning. This kind of practise helps you to deal with procrastination, as you have short-term goals to deal with.

Finally, the lower level of planning that can help you a lot is the weekly planning. I used to have the problem of being very unproductive on Mondays. And after attending a workshop on Time management, I got the suggestion of making a todo list for the upcoming week every Friday. I tried it a couple of weeks and I realised that the reason why I was not really productive on Mondays was because I didn’t know exactly what I had to do, where should I focus, what should I start with and so on… By doing the todo list on Friday, I could just work from the first minute (ok, let’s not exaggerate here) as I had relocated the decision making on the more productive Friday (where I had already built ‘work momentum’ from the week behind me).

Some comments about this approach

The top-bottom-up approach, besides the fact that it is very useful in defining your research question and giving you a direction in your work the following years, it is also very useful when explaining your research to others. It will be often that you need to present your work in an audience that isn’t necessarily from your specific field and you will have to present a lot of background. Information about how it fits the general scope of research are very important in this kind of talks, Doing all this work at the beginning of your PhD, helps you structure your presentations and your explanations to friends, colleagues, family or other professionals. You can find more information about this aspect on the Presenting your PhD chapter.

Tassos Natsakis
Lecturer on Robotics and Biomechanics


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