Ghosting…it’s just not worth it

I’ve done an undergraduate degree, written a master’s dissertation and a PhD thesis, plus numerous essays for post-PhD qualifications.  I’ve never been tempted to get someone else to write them for me, but some students are.  It’s hard for me to put myself in the shoes of someone who has, or wants to, submit a piece of work they haven’t written themselves, but I thought I would try to examine some of the issues in this blog post.

PhD Comic A for Blog Post 11.10.2019

Ghosting, as it is sometimes known, is where you get someone else to write part of, or a whole, piece of work, which you then submit under your name.  It’s a type of plagiarism and in any decent higher education institution, it’s banned.  A whole industry has built up around this, where customers are charged by the length and depth of the piece of work they require.  In the past, I was under the impression that this was limited to undergraduate essays.  But I have since learned that this reaches all the way to doctoral level.  When I heard this for the first time, I asked “Where do they get people of doctoral calibre who have access to original data and can write a good quality 80,000 word thesis that makes an original contribution to knowledge”?  My next question was “If you tried this, surely someone would find out”?  I’ll come back to these questions later.

What kinds of situations would cause a student (both taught and research) to think about using a ghosting service?  The list below is not exhaustive:

  • Pressure: both academic pressure, if a student felt what they were producing on their own wasn’t good enough, and time pressure.  For example, needing to work close to full-time hours to afford the tuition means not enough time for research and writing. Perhaps an illness (both physical and mental) or chronic condition is also causing a build-up of pressure.
  • Not understanding the topic/assignment/research: what happens when, with the best will in the world, and lots of extra tutorial/supervision hours, you just don’t understand the topic, or what’s being asked of you?
  • Laziness: a student can’t be bothered to put in the required work.

Leaving the last point aside, I sympathise a great deal with the first two.  Sometimes it’s not enough to just get the degree, a student might need a certain class or grade to get a specific job or career opportunity.

I know there were weeks where I worked over 30 hours during my undergrad and I worked on-call during my PhD, often getting woken up due to emergencies several times a night meaning I didn’t sleep properly. Once you start working those kinds of hours regularly, the quality of time, not just the amount of time you have to devote to study and research, comes into play.  It’s hard to make progress with ‘bitty’ and fragmented amounts of time, especially when you’re already mentally drained from the work.  Also, having to deal with an illness or chronic condition may sometimes affect the time, and quality of time, you have to devote to research and writing.

Regarding a lack of understanding, I had an acquaintance that was undertaking a PhD  and unfortunately, she did not make it through one of her progression vivas because her skills in a certain area were deemed not to be up scratch.  Although a great deal of time and effort had been put into getting them up to scratch, those efforts weren’t enough in the end to make it through, which was undoubtedly devastating for all involved.

I don’t know that there are any satisfying all-encompassing answers to these very difficult situations.  I can suggest taking a suspension of studies to work to earn and save more money if that is the issue, or switch to studying part-time or distance-learning to allow more flexibility.  Having that extra time and flexibility may also contribute to a better understanding and higher quality research because there is more time to devote to it. It’s also worth asking your university for any support and help they can provide.

So, now we know just some of the reasons a student might be tempted to pay for a readymade piece of work, but what are the issues with that?  I’m sure most students are aware it’s not allowed.  In my experience, universities go out of their way to make sure students know this.  But beyond not being allowed, what are some of the issues that could arise from ghosting?

  1. Blackmail: some ghosting services have been known to threaten their customers with exposure to their university/company if they do not pay more money and/or keep paying more money indefinitely.
  2. Ruining your career: here is an article that names not one, but four senior politicians who have either had their PhDs revoked or are likely to have their PhDs revoked due to public accusations of plagiarism.  This would make it difficult to be taken seriously and could affect your career and your ability to get jobs in the future.  Even decisions made previously in your career could be called into question.
  3. Making a serious mistake: Let’s say the ‘best’ case scenario happens and despite ghosting, you make it through your degree and into your chosen career.  Companies are likely to hire you based on what they think your knowledge level is, using your qualifications as a guide.  You could end up making a serious and even life-threatening mistake because you don’t have the knowledge required for the job you are doing. Not only could that ruin your life, but other people’s as well.
  4. Not getting what you paid for: many ghosting services boast about what they can provide, but the product is often poorly written, particularly at doctoral level where subject-specific expertise and an original contribution to knowledge are required.  It also may not be original work, even if it is advertised as such (i.e. it will not make it past text matching tools such as Turnitin).  You are very likely to get found out at this stage, which means you are the one that will suffer and you are unlikely to get your money back.
  5. Failing exams/viva: In the case of all levels of university student, including doctoral students who have to undertake oral exams known as vivas, you are unlikely to make it through these if you haven’t researched and written the work yourself.
  6. Getting thrown off of your course/getting thrown out of the university: in some universities it is an offence just to go on to a ghosting website.  Read your university’s policies surrounding this.
  7. Having to repeat a year: this will cause a great deal of expense and may affect scholarships, funding and/or visas depending on the person involved.
  8. Plenty of others not mentioned here…

I know there is more pressure than ever on students today, but I would encourage anyone who is thinking about paying for a ghosting service to seek out guidance and support from their university to do the work themselves.  In the end, the consequences are just not worth it.

The Attempted Murder of my Thesis part 3: The Vanishing Supervisors

It was a cold and windy day. At least, that’s how I remember it. I knew my supervisors both had announcements to make. I had no idea what to expect, so I was apprehensive. Then it happened. Within the space of a few minutes, both of my supervisors had vanished.

I should probably start at the beginning…

I had a senior lecturer (SL) and a Professor (P) as my supervisors.  There were a few other PhD students in my department, but not many, and in my first year, I had relatively little contact with any of them.  It was a fairly lonely existence, but I still had my supervisors and a third academic called my advisor, that I could go to.  I didn’t really get on with my supervisors on a personal level, but there was no doubt that we had, on the whole, productive research meetings and conversations.  At the end of my first year, both of my supervisors mentioned that they had something important to tell me.  These announcements were made not just to me, but to other staff and students in the department.  By the end of those announcements, not only did my supervisors vanish, but my whole career as a PhD student was in jeopardy.

The first announcement came from P. P had decided to retire, effective within a few months.  The second announcement came from SL. SL had accepted a job offer on the other side of the country and would be leaving, effective within a few months.  This second announcement was followed by the words “As you are still in your first year, I will not be continuing your supervision by distance-learning”.  It was therefore up to my university to assign me new supervisors.

This was a big blow to me – both supervisors gone at once??!!  It took me a while to absorb the implications of that.  First, there was a danger I would no longer be able to receive the subject-specific guidance I needed to continue.  Second, if that danger was realised, would I have to drop out of my PhD?

My university assigned my advisor to take over as one of my supervisors.  The advisor’s field of study was very different to mine, so there was only a certain amount of guidance that person could provide.  P on the other hand remained on my official documentation as supervisor, despite being retired from the University.  This produced the added complication that even though P was listed on the documentation, because P had retired, P could no longer be held accountable by the university, so there were no regular meetings and getting a hold of P to read my written work and give feedback for example, became very difficult.

PhD Comic for Blog Post 14.06.2019

So, how was I going to deal with this?  One supervisor who wasn’t a subject expert and one who was, but not within easy reach?

Partially due to the issues I mentioned in parts one and two of this blog post and partially due to academic necessity, I made contact with many academics both within and outside of my institution.  I asked several experts in various areas to read a relevant thesis chapter and I had several appointments with a statistician to check my calculations.  Sometimes, rather than reading whole chapters, I would give experts a bit of background and ask them to comment on specific ideas or pathways in my thesis.  I found these experts to be quite generous with their time, probably because I never asked anyone beyond my immediate team to read more than a chapter so as not to be a burden.  I received some useful feedback and several interesting suggestions on the wider thesis, despite the fact that some people I reached out to were not experts in my field.  Last but not least, for the practical things like learning how to use SPSS and getting willing volunteers for me to practice some of my experimental techniques on, my fellow PhD students and Research Associates were an invaluable resource.  The number of times I asked a fellow PhD student about a calculation or about an interpretation of something; it was wonderful to have them there.  It seemed like everyone in my support network was willing to help me fill the gap that losing two supervisors had left.

Although there were plenty of other helpful and knowledgeable people around, being proactive was key!  I was the one who had to reach out.  I was the one who had to provide relevant written work for these people to feedback on.  I was the one who had to interpret their feedback and decide how to move forward. I was the one who still had to meet PhD deadlines, perform analyses, make conclusions and write all of this in a coherent thesis, even when feedback from P was not forthcoming.  So in that sense, it would have been easy to let the vanishing supervisors murder my thesis.  I could have decided that it was too difficult to continue and dropped out.  In my case, I think three things helped make my PhD success possible: 1) my attitude of not wanting to quit; 2) my willingness to proactively seek out other forms of guidance and 3) my fantastic support network.

Even if you are not experiencing a case of the vanishing supervisors, being proactive and inviting the feedback of others, like those you meet at a conference for example, will enrich you as a researcher and will no doubt enrich your thesis. Equally, never underestimate the value of having and building a support network, plus the ability to maintain a positive outlook, even when things look bleak.

So that’s it for this three-part blog post.  Now you know how loneliness, supervisor relationships, bereavements, relationship breakdowns and vanishing supervisors all conspired to murder my thesis.  If I could leave readers with one key message, it is that if I was able to finish this PhD journey successfully and stop my thesis from being murdered, you can too 🙂

The Attempted Murder of my Thesis part 2: Supervisor relationships

It was a cold, grey morning.  I was heading to campus for a PhD supervision meeting.  I was not looking forward to it. I found myself walking more slowly and stopping on the way to look in shop windows at things I wasn’t even interested in buying.  Anything to take my mind off of what would no doubt be a difficult meeting.  I didn’t know it at the time, but this was to be the first of many difficult meetings, followed by many nights crying myself to sleep or getting so upset I wanted to scream.  For me, this was certainly one of the worst parts of doing a PhD.

phd090409s

So there you have it.  My relationships with my supervisors were the next culprits that conspired to murder my thesis.  The relationships didn’t start out poor, in fact they were fairly good at the beginning…

I had a senior lecturer (SL) as my main supervisor and a professor (P) as my co-supervisor.  I interviewed with them many years ago for a fully funded PhD at a large university and was successful.  For me, the breakdown started with little things.  Once in the first couple of months, I showed up at my desk, put my coat on the back of my chair and went to the toilet.  When I came back a few minutes later, I had an email from the SL asking me where I was and why I wasn’t at my desk. I thought this was strange, but when I explained that this was bound to happen several times per day, that seemed to calm the situation down.

There were plenty of other instances, like the time I made a mistake in interpreting something and both SL and P made me have three separate meetings where I had to explain myself and apologise, but no matter how many times I apologised, they would schedule another meeting to go through it all again.  Eventually another academic in my department, who had helped me with the original interpretation, got involved and told them to let it go, which they did at that point.  There was also the time near my viva where I had anticipated a potential problem with some technicalities and averted them by finding the appropriate paperwork and submitting it to the University for approval, which was given.  I thought this showed real initiative on my part, but P emailed me to say “How dare you question me!”  Sometimes it seemed nothing I did was good enough.

One of the worst instances occurred a few months into my PhD when I had a close bereavement.  This was made worse by the fact that I’d had another close bereavement right before beginning my PhD, plus the breakdown of a serious relationship. I don’t remember either supervisor showing much sympathy, but P was the worst, saying “Aren’t you over them yet”?  Obviously I was shocked at this question, upset and found myself increasingly unable to concentrate on my research.  I certainly wasn’t told that interrupting my studies was an option – that only happened later when I opened up to an administrator about what was happening.  The administrator made it so easy and took me through the process of interrupting my studies. I decided to take 4 weeks interruption, grieve, and focus on healing so that when I came back, my head would be in PhD-mode.  The SL contacted me every other day while I was to away to see when I was coming back.  I have to say that made it hard to get my head back in gear, plus I had certainly lost some respect for both of them by this point.

I could go on and on with other instances.  But suffice it to say that my thesis could have been murdered at any point.  It would have been so easy to quit and move back to the city and friends I had left behind to undertake my PhD.  I even remember looking online for other funded PhDs but not seeing any in my field.  I knew I had to make a choice.  Who was going to suffer most if I quit this PhD?  I figured it was likely to be me, so I decided to keep going and not let anyone else ruin a great opportunity.

I look back now and realise that almost none of the issues were about the actual research; they were more about differences in working styles and personalities.  I think if I’d had more experience I might have been able to avert some of the issues by doing things differently, though some of the issues would still have happened no matter how much experience I’d had.  Along with a lack of experience, I just didn’t have the diplomacy skills I do now to help me navigate what was quite a difficult minefield full of internal politics, personalities and egos.  I knew I could never have afforded to complete a self-funded PhD, but I made the “mistake” of following the funding rather than looking more closely into the department and whether my personality and working methods would be a good fit with the supervisors.  This is something I would always advise potential doctoral candidates to consider, due to the length and often intense nature of the relationship.

So how did I get past these difficult relationships you ask?  First, the 4 week interruption of studies I took really helped.  I went away to a rural location, did some volunteer work and made some new friends.  I was about as far away from PhD land as I could be and it helped with my grieving process and stress levels as I got some time alone with my thoughts, despite SL checking up on me every other day.  When I came back, I started to build up my local support network (see my previous blog post: The Attempted Murder of my Thesis, part 1: Loneliness).  I got some helpful advice from administrators, my advisor and other supervisors at the University as to how to deal with emails, face-to-face conversations and difficult situations.  I tried to keep all of our conversations as much about the research as possible and as specific as possible.  I always had an updated plan on exactly where I was with my research, what I left to do and how long it would take me to do it, plus a list of specific questions I wanted answers to.  In this way, I was able to own the meetings we had and make sure I was able to get what I wanted out of them.  This meant I had to prepare a lot before each meeting, more than I had with my masters research, where I had a much more personable and organic relationship with my supervisor.  Although a ‘strictly business’ approach might not work for every student or every team, it certainly helped me.

Universities have had PhD training courses about how to work with your supervisor, how to deal with criticism and how to deal with difficult situations for years now.  These are definitely worth investigating, along with a myriad of online resources that deal with these subjects as well.  However, even with all these techniques under your belt, the issue must be tackled from the other side as well.  A successful academic does not always necessarily know how to get the best out of the diverse candidates they supervise.  That’s why face-to-face supervisor training, both for new supervisors and refresher sessions for experienced supervisors, is a relatively new concept that is just beginning to take off.  Sharing good practice and having supervisors interact with their peers continues to be successful at the University of Huddersfield.  Feedback from the supervisors has been largely positive.  Although training sessions on both sides may not be able to avert all conflicts, particularly those involving personality differences, having a toolkit of options on both sides should be able to help resolve differences much sooner.

Although sticking with it was the right choice for me, there is no right or wrong answer and it will come down to what is the best choice for each individual and their circumstances. Interrupting or extending your studies, changing supervisors, having a mediator and agreeing expectations for moving forward are just some of the options that may be available. If you are in the middle of trying to make that choice, please do ask your University for help and support.

The Attempted Murder of my Thesis, part 1: Loneliness

It was a dark and stormy night. My literature review was coming along nicely, but I could sense a disturbance in the Force. Day after day, coming into the shared postgraduate research office with no windows, staring at a computer screen, trying to absorb the literature in my field. I didn’t know it at the time, but I was to be the last PhD student in my department. That’s a story for another day, suffice it to say that I’m not talking about being the last person in the office of an evening. No. I was the final PhD student appointed in my department as it slowly and insipidly began to shut down.

http://phdcomics.com/comics/archive.php?comicid=1427

The consequences were many, but loneliness was one of the most devious culprits that conspired to murder my thesis. But how can loneliness be devious you ask? Because working alone is how a significant amount of postgraduate research is set up. So at first I didn’t mind that the very few other PhD students in my department were graduating or working from home. I needed, and wanted, to do my literature review and subsequent research on my own. But before I knew it, I was working in a dull grey shared office with no windows, strip lighting and desks for seven PhD students, alone…on a daily basis. There were days when the only time I saw another soul was if I happened to bump into someone exiting the ladies toilets as I was about to enter.

She is a cruel mistress, loneliness. Particularly as a PhD student. She makes you think you need her. She makes you think you are a proper and devoted PhD student. Then she slowly starts to creep in…and you notice yourself saying things like “I wonder how my PhD colleague x is doing? I haven’t seen him/her in ages”. That’s how it started for me. Then there were the times when I would leave the office at 5pm on a Friday afternoon and notice a group of PhD students from other departments heading out for dinner/drinks/movie etc. and I would say to myself “I remember when I used to be part of a group like that”. But as many PhD students do, I had moved to an unfamiliar city to pursue my PhD. I didn’t know anyone and had left all my friends, and my job, behind in a city at least 6 hours and several hundred pounds worth of a journey away. More than that, I didn’t have anyone I knew well who was going through what I was going through. No one to banter about research with. No one to tell me about a new paper they had read or a new piece of software they had tried.

About nine months in, it hit me…I had no local support network. I had few local friends and only sporadic contact with colleagues. It began affecting me more and more. I was upset about it on many an occasion, even while trying to struggle through reading papers alone in the office. This is one of the times that it would have been easy to give up; where I could have let loneliness murder my thesis. I could have so easily gone back to the city, job and friends I had enjoyed previously and I thought about doing so many times until I realised; no one was likely to suspect there was a problem if I didn’t speak up about it. I also wasn’t going to be able to build a support network sitting alone in a huge office day after day.

So instead of staying silent I went to the administrator of a department closely related to mine. I told her of my situation and how I wasn’t coping very well with the loneliness. I told her I thought I was missing out on having contact with fellow PhD students and how I never expected to be the last one in my department. Luckily for me she was great and acted straight away. I was given a new spot in an office with PhD students in a related department and was introduced quickly to the current PhD students and several PhDs who had just started. The existing PhD students had arranged for us all to go to dinner so we could get to know each other that same week. Over the years, my fellow PhD students and Research Associates gave me invaluable advice, guidance and friendship. As I was making an effort in my department I decided to simultaneously make an effort where I lived. So I ran for a position in the residents’ association of my PG hall of residence and was successful. I got to know a lot more people, some of whom I still keep in contact with 12 years later, and I helped organise parties, trips and events for residents. It was a win-win situation all-round.

About a year after this I was talking to some of my fellow PhD students in another faculty during a training course. They told me of their offices with hot desks rather than permanent desks that were often full by the time they got there, meaning they would have to work in the library or go back home. After several times of not being able to get a desk, or of finding the shared office too loud to concentrate, they began to work from home more and more and were encountering some of the same difficulties I had. I realised then how important it was for everyone to have a local support network.

So my top tip for anyone who finds themselves in this situation, particularly if you are at the beginning of your research degree, is to make an effort to build your local support network. See if you can move offices; try to keep in touch with people you meet on training courses; attend seminars – if they don’t exist in your department try setting them up yourself; organise a meet-up with your fellow PhD students every 2 weeks or similar if you all mostly work from home, or come up with your own solution. Asking for help and being proactive are key. If you are lucky enough to have the kind of environment that I had then please do get involved in the departmental culture. The benefits of doing so will not only help you to complete your research degree, but will remain with you for years afterwards.

Research Poster Design

I recently delivered a workshop on research poster design for postgraduate researchers (PGRs) co-developed by a PGR who had won awards for her research posters. This course is one of our more popular PGR workshops at the University of Huddersfield, so I thought I would write a blog post about some of the key issues to think about when designing a research poster.

If you are a University of Huddersfield PGR and would like more information, please login to Brightspace and visit the Researcher Environment module; Training and Resources section, and scroll down to Research Poster Design.  This is where the PowerPoint presentations are stored for all the training courses you can book via SkillsForge.

  1. Don’t I have to have results to design a research poster?

This is one of the most common misconceptions. It’s absolutely fine to submit an abstract for a poster even if you are at the beginning of your research degree and do not have results yet.  It just requires a slightly different design, which places more emphasis on your background and methodology.  You may also choose to have an ‘anticipated results’ section.  If you have the option of attending a conference early on in your degree, please do consider submitting a poster presentation because it will be a very useful learning experience.

  1. What are the main sections I should include on my research poster?

There are 6 main sections: Title, your name, institution and logos; Introduction/background; Hypotheses/Research questions; Methodology; Results and discussion; References and acknowledgements.

There are other things you might want to include such as the name of your department, your supervisor, the logo of a research centre you are a part of or any funding bodies you are associated with.  Ask around your department for examples of research posters.

  1. My department uses a template for research posters – should I use it?

If you use a template then a lot of the decisions about colour scheme, background, font type, font size, font colour, spacing etc. will be taken out of your hands.  You may appreciate this, or you may feel constrained.  If there is some reason why you think another type of design might suit your research better, spend a short amount of time making a mock up and take it to your supervisor.  It never hurts to ask if you can break the mould because that’s what becoming an independent researcher is all about.

  1. What are the logistics of submitting a research poster?

You will most likely have to submit a short abstract to the conference you are applying to, rather than the whole poster. They will let you know if you have been successful and send you a list of guidelines to follow including size and orientation.  Make sure to double check these, and proofread, before printing!  You’ll then need to take your poster with you to the conference and set it up in the space specified in your guidelines.  You will get to take the poster back with you at the end of the conference.  Some conferences may offer to print the poster for you.  If so there will be a deadline for submitting them and certain file formats they specify.

  1. How do I present a research poster?

Normally there will be a specific room at the conference where the research posters are located. This room will most likely be open for the duration of the conference so that interested parties can look at the posters when it is most convenient for them.  There will also most likely be a specified time in the conference programme for research poster authors to stand next to their posters.  This gives you as a research poster author and presenter a chance to talk through your research to anyone who is interested. This should normally take no more than 5-10 minutes, but you may choose to exchange contact details with particularly interested parties.  Presenting a poster is a great networking opportunity so make the most of it!

If you are thinking of submitting a presentation instead of a poster, watch this space and have a look at this PhD comic by Jorge Cham.

Open Access Week

Open Access Week is a global event now entering its tenth year, and is an opportunity for the academic and research community to continue to learn about the potential benefits of Open Access, to share what they’ve learned with colleagues, and to help inspire wider participation in helping to make Open Access a new norm in scholarship and research.   To learn more about Open Access, check out the University’s Guide to Open Access.

The Graduate School and Computing & Library Services are offering two training sessions to help PG researchers learn more about the importance of Open Access to their research careers. Introduction to Open Access for PG Researchers will run on Tuesday 23 Oct 13.30-15.00 and Thursday 25 Oct 11-12.30.  Book through SkillsForge.

The documentary, Paywall: the Business of Scholarship, will be shown at 1pm on Thursday 25 October in Heritage Quay.  It is 65 minutes long.

Science is getting left behind. Streaming services have changed the TV and music industries forever – you can now access music and TV wherever you are in the world at a click of a button. According to Professor Jason Schmitt at Clarkson University, it is time for science to do the same: enable global open access to research. For too long, the public have remained unaware of the debate between traditional scholarly publishing methods and an open access model. Professor Schmitt’s film – Paywall: The Business of Scholarship – looks to change that, hoping to spark a public movement which breaks down the paywalls that limit access to research.

The documentary dives into the need for open access to research and science, questions the rationale behind the $25.2 billion a year that flows into for-profit academic publishers, examines the 35-40% profit margin associated with one top academic publisher and looks at how that profit margin is often greater than some of the most profitable tech companies like Apple, Facebook and Google.

Image1of2LibraryGuestBlog

Staff within the library developed The Game of Open Access board game last year as a fun way to learn more about why Open Access is important and how researchers can make their publications Open Access.  If you would like a Game set to play within your research group, please contact library@hud.c.uk

Image2of2LibraryGuestBlog

Tips for Project Managing a Research Degree

Are you in the middle of a research degree?  Or maybe thinking of applying for one?  When you compare a research degree with an undergraduate degree, there is a much higher independence level when it comes to driving the research forward.  Of course your supervisor should be there to help, your fellow postgraduate researchers (PGRs) will have some good ideas, and there will be training that you can access.  But in the end it comes down to you.  You need to meet deadlines, you need to manage your time and you need to ensure all the requirements are met.

“But how do I do this?” you might ask.

PhD Comic for Blog Post 17.10.2018

Unfortunately, it doesn’t always go as smoothly as the PhD Comic above.  Knowing how to project manage is rarely explicitly taught as part of supervision meetings, and often does not come up until there is an issue.  More and more universities are however investing in PGR training courses.  At the University of Huddersfield, there is a time management for PGRs course (bookable through SkillsForge) and the University subscribes to Lynda.com, which has a plethora of project management training videos.

There are plenty of other tips out there, but since I have been there, done that and got the PhD t-shirt, here are my top 4 tips for project-managing your research degree:

1. Create a Gantt chart/timeline of your entire degree.  I wish I had done this at the beginning of my PhD.  It wouldn’t have been very specific at first.  It probably would have included just the big deadlines that I knew about at the beginning.  Once you know about specific tasks and deadlines, you can add them to your Gantt chart/timeline to give yourself an overview of what work needs to be done by when, what tasks need to be done before, simultaneously and after other tasks, and it allows you to more easily plan your personal life around busy times.  As your research progresses it’s so easy to let things fall off your radar because there’s so much going on, so the Gantt chart/timeline can also act as a handy reminder/to-do list.

2. Build in contingency time!  This is a really important one.  It can be done in different ways, but I personally favour building smaller chunks of contingency time in after each task or each couple of tasks.  For example, let’s say you have a task that you think will take you 10 days.  When you add it to the Gantt chart/timeline block out 12 days.  That way if you’re ill for a couple of days or the task is dependent on someone else who takes a while to get to it, you won’t be behind.  If the tasks go way over time, you’ll have to change your Gantt chart/timeline, but the chart should still help you see what other tasks you can be doing while you’re waiting for something else to move forward.  If you end up finishing before the 10 days…great!  That means you’ll have more contingency time to add to other tasks.  But please also be realistic with your time estimates.  It’s more tempting to rush or cut corners in terms of quality if you haven’t left yourself enough time in the first place.

3. Take note of your supervisor’s calendar.  This is something I did automatically during my PhD because I had access to my supervisor’s Outlook calendar.  But in some universities, staff and PGRs are not on the same system.  Whether you have to ask for breakdown at every supervision meeting of what their calendar looks like or whether you can see it yourself, make sure you build in contingency time around their commitments such as their holidays, conference attendances and around particularly busy times.  For example: you need your supervisor to sign off on a travel grant you’d like to apply for.  The deadline for doing that is on the 5th of the month.  So you go into their office on the 4th and find out they’ve left on holiday the day before and will be gone for a week.  Some things will be beyond your control like illness or emergency situations.  But if you consistently do things well in advance of deadlines and keep your supervisor’s calendar in mind (particularly when sending them long drafts to read), you should be able to stay ahead of the game.  It’s also a good idea to keep an eye on the holidays and busy times of other key staff members such as PGR administrators, co-supervisors, heads of department etc.  Remember to keep an eye on bank holidays and university closure dates as you might not be able to contact staff on those dates!

And last but not least….

4. Don’t get complacent!  So you’re sailing along through your research degree, staying ahead of all your fellow PGRs because you’ve been bringing your amazing project management skills into play.  So you think to yourself that you deserve a break and you should go travelling for a few months, or take on another project/job, or just do nothing.  You’re so far ahead of the game, what could go wrong?  Well, it doesn’t take too much to go wrong and that lovely buffer of contingency time you’ve built up could be torn down in a flash.  Until you’ve actually submitted your thesis, things could still go wrong!  Things that can eat into contingency time include:

  • supervisors suggesting you include another important chapter in your thesis at the last minute
  • major lab equipment breakdown
  • administration errors that mean you need to do a whole lot of chasing other people
  • realising at the last minute some of your statistical calculations are wrong/interpreted something incorrectly and therefore some of your conclusions will need re-writing
  • realising you’ve gone way over the word count and have to start chopping pieces out of your thesis or moving them into appendices
  • your supervisor gets another job/retires/is sick long term at a crucial stage of your degree
  • word-processing/formatting problems
  • losing part of your work that wasn’t backed up and having to re-write it

If you’re lucky enough to be on schedule or ahead of the game, don’t get complacent because these things can (and do) happen out of the blue and at any time.  The more time you have left yourself, the less panicking you’ll need to do!