The Plan of Attack…

…by Sophie / from the United Kingdom / PhD Tissue Repair / 4th Year

I recently got a terrifying email from my supervisor. She is super nice and supportive so it’s not the sort of email you might immediately assume a third year student is getting. It was a gentle suggestion to think about how I want to plan the next 9 months.

My first thought was NINE MONTHS WHAT no way I have far longer than that. But nope, if I want to be kind to myself and have a good 3 month write-up period I do actually have only 9 months of experiments left.

After the initial panic, I went into strategy mode. If a PhD teaches you anything, it’s problem-solving (and a shoddy work-life balance). We set a date to talk about it and I prepared a rough plan. I’ve no idea how I should go about this but something else you learn in a PhD is that there isn’t necessarily one right way to do something, it’s what works best for you to get the end result.

I actually started out with a thesis chapter plan. With Figure plans and everything, the whole thing was a bit intimidating when it was finished, especially when I realised half of the figures were based on data I haven’t even generated yet. Then I made a Gantt chart in Excel as a project schedule from this chapter plan, that lays out which experiments I need to do to make these figures a reality and what dates they need to be completed by. I hate both of these documents with a deep unbridled passion but I think they are so incredibly important that I have saved them both on my desktop.

The whole process made me think about the importance of deadlines and setting them for yourself. It seems such an obvious thing to say, set yourself deadlines as you go along, but when the three years of the project gapes ahead of you it can feel both overwhelming and reassuring. Thinking that you have all that time to fill with work might initially seem a lot but it’s always been somewhat of a comfort for me. I’ve got time, I would think, I’ll set that up later. But later is now.

I used to hate Gantt charts as they’re so hard to stick to over long periods. When Mr. Gantt invented them in the early 20th century I bet he never anticipated them being formulated on a complex computer program, nor how much fear they would instil in the hearts of every PhD student who has ever attempted one.

This one I’ve tried to break it down, with shorter term goals embedded within the broader ones. Then you get that sense of achievement, dopamine, whatever, when you can tick something off. The problem with science is that it doesn’t always work so you have to be ready to accept that no matter how hard you try you might not hit that deadline. And it doesn’t make you a bad scientist or a lazy person, you have to give yourself a break, go into strategy mode, make a plan and, finally re-jig your Gantt chart.

I actually made an “ideal” one and a “realistic” one with a few less things labelled TOP PRIORITY after I showed it to another PhD student and her only response was, “Well, it’s ambitious”. I like to be ambitious sure but I have to account for being human and having a life I suppose.

However, I reckon there is just about time for the occasional unproductive day but no more can I risk an unproductive week. Final year looms and I launch into it to face the oncoming experiments, glad that I have a good supervisor, some great lab support, and (surprisingly) a Gantt chart.

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