Friday, 25 March 2016

Research Planning Tips

I have been starting my PhD planning, so I went looking online for a comprehensive list of project tasks. I was hoping to borrow the skull-sweat of others, and to get short-cut my own planning process; but I couldn't find a list. I have had to create my own, and through that process, I have revisited what good research planning and management entails.

Like all good projects, there are three aspects to be managed: ourselves, the research itself, and the process.

This article is focused on ourselves and the process. By getting these two things started, with self-discipline, the research takes care of itself.

To start with then, we need to manage ourselves. Our research project is all down to us, and if we are working at distance, then self-discipline and self-management becomes even more important.

We have to find tools and techniques that will work for us as individuals. I like to have two versions of my process, or, as I call it, my management plan. Those versions are a detailed copy of my entire plan, and an overview - a chunked down version showing the clusters of tasks in overview. A tool that allows me to see that easily is Excel, laid out like a Gantt chart (O'Donnell, 13 September 2011). Think Microsoft Project without the cost or complexity. The entries in my Gantt chart should read in exactly the same manner as the entries in my calendar.

Additionally, I find that my Google calendar (which is linked to my institution's Outlook calendar, my phone and my PC's Outlook) works for me. Even better: I can create my Excel sheet, then import the relevant cells into my PC's Outlook to create my calendar reminders, then use PPP Infotech's Calendar Sync Free to synchronise it with my Google calendar.

As we start our planning process, we need to think carefully about each of the following (Trinity College Dublin, 15 December 2015):
  1. Researching and adopting planning tools to monitor our progress (eg, Google calendar and an Excel Gantt chart)
  2. Estimating how long each task will take (NB: inaccurate estimates are better than none; we get better at estimating over time if we have previously gathered data and can use that for comparisons)
  3. Entering start dates, milestones and completion dates into our chosen tools
  4. Building in regular monitoring, both reviewing and revising
  5. Recording everything so that we aren't reliant on short-term memory (NB: short-term memory reliance is called 'forgetting'!)
When we start to pull it all together, there are an additional five useful steps to aid our planning process, or our management plan. They are simple, but should not be skipped (O'Donnell, 13 September 2011) or scrimped on:
  1. List all the activities to be completed
  2. Estimate the time required for each
  3. Put activities in order, prioritise, critical path
  4. Cluster work into related tasks and categorise
  5. Make it visual for easy reference
And, for me, point number five is where my two management plan versions come in: they are both entirely do-able if you use an Excel Gantt chart.

When I finished created my plan, I posted a link to it through Google docs for those of you, who, like me, went looking for a comprehensive PhD planning task outline (which is here). 

Then you can build off my skull-sweat :-)



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