Academic Skills

How to develop an awesome PhD timeline step-by-step

A successful PhD journey begins with a solid plan that includes a PhD timeline. A thought-through and well-designed PhD timeline requires some time but can be accomplished in a few simple steps.

Why a clear PhD research timeline matters

Doing a PhD means committing to a challenging project that spans several years. Therefore, it is no surprise that doing a PhD can feel quite overwhelming. How do you even begin to tackle such a huge project?

A PhD timeline breaks down the daunting task of doing a PhD into an actionable plan with tasks and milestones along the way.

Even if not everything will go as planned (which is normal and no problem!), a PhD timeline can give PhD students peace of mind. A good plan, worked out in a PhD timeline, helps them to structure their time, communicate their goals and work toward specific targets.

Some PhD students are required to create a PhD timeline as part of their programme. Yet, even if PhD students are not required to do so, it is highly recommended to create a PhD timeline!

Step 1: Decide what to include in your PhD timeline

PhD timelines should be as diverse as PhD research projects: What you decide to include in your timeline should fit to your situation, goals and your programmes’ requirements.

Common elements included in a PhD timeline are the following:

  • Data collection: How, when and where are you collecting your research data?

  • Fieldwork: Is your data collection spread out or are you spending several weeks doing fieldwork? If so, when is this scheduled and how can you avoid overlaps with other requirements, such as coursework?

  • Experiments: Are you running experiments for your PhD research? If so, when? And how long do you estimate this will take you?

  • Data analysis: Once you have your data, be it quantitative or qualitative data, when and how do you analyse it? How much time do you block for this task?

  • Writing plan: When are you writing down your results? How can you break down writing into different parts, for instance, writing goals per chapter or article?

  • Publications: Publication requirements differ from PhD programme to programme. Even if you write your PhD as a monograph (instead of a selection of articles), you should try to publish something during your PhD. When would you have an opportunity to do so, and how much time does it require?

  • Conferences: Every PhD student should present at a conference during their PhD trajectory. Which conferences are you interested in? When do they take place, and when would you have findings to share at a conference?

  • Coursework: What are your PhD programme’s coursework requirements? What courses are you interested in, and when are they offered?

  • Other activities: Are there any other activities that are crucial for your PhD project? Think, for instance, about an extensive dissemination campaign, collaboration with external partners, internships, online activities etcetera.

Make a draft plan, including dates and times. Then move to Step 2: Discussing it with your supervisor/s!

Step 2: Discuss your provisional PhD timeline with your supervisor/s

Proactively creating your PhD timeline is a good step as a PhD student. However, you should share your thoughts and ideas with your PhD supervisor/s and get their input.

If possible, set up a meeting with your supervisor/s that is entirely dedicated to your PhD timeline. During this meeting, you can share what you created so far.

Then, you should discuss the following questions:

  • Is there anything missing in the PhD timeline?

  • Is the PhD timeline realistic?

  • Should anything be removed from the PhD timeline to prioritise other tasks?

  • Does the PhD timeline meet all the formal requirements to graduate within the designated amount of time?

  • Is there institutional support and sufficient financial resources for activities such as fieldwork, conference attendance, etcetera?

Make sure to take notes during the meeting, as you will need the answers to these questions to edit your provisional PhD timeline.

Not only will this discussion help you to finalise your PhD timeline. It will also help you to get clarity on your supervisor/s’ expectations!

You may also like: Planning your PhD research: A 3-year PhD timeline example

Step 3: Design your PhD timeline

Following the input of your supervisor/s, your PhD timeline will reach a more final stage. Now it is time to think about designing your PhD timeline:

A well-designed PhD timeline is not just pretty for the eyes, but it makes it much easier to have a good overview of all plans and milestones ahead.

Yet, it would be wrong to argue that there is a one-size-fits all solution to designing a perfect PhD timeline.

Maybe you are a very visual person and would prefer your timeline to illustrate a broad overview of the upcoming years. Maybe you are encouraged by checking things off your to-do list. In that case, a more detailed PhD timeline with many different tasks and milestones may be more suitable for you.

A common way to design PhD timelines is via Gantt charts. If you want to learn more about Gantt charts for your PhD timeline, check out my post on how to design Gantt charts in Microsoft Excel, Power Point and Word.

Example of a Gantt chart PhD timeline

Step 4: Regularly update your PhD timeline

A PhD timeline is there to keep you on track and to showcase the milestones that you reached in your journey so far. However, while it is good to have a solid plan, the future is impossible to predict.

Your PhD timeline should be a living document or chart. Update it regularly!

For instance, a conference may be cancelled. You may have a period of sick leave. An experiment may not work out as planned. Or writing a paper takes longer than expected.

Successful PhD students remain flexible and don’t panic as soon as something does not work out as planned.

So, use your PhD timeline to regularly reflect on your progress and your current situation. Update your PhD timeline when needed, to prioritise tasks and set more concrete and achievable goals for the upcoming months.

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