During my PhD, the picture below was one of my favorite comics, because it is just so ridiculous. Just the idea that I could sit down one day and crank out my thesis made me laugh every time. It is, however, one of the things many PhDs don’t understand early in their PhD journey. Research and writing are long, often complex processes that cannot not just be done (particularly in one sitting). Neither research nor writing are singular straightforward projects. They require a lot of planning, restarting, and discipline. PhD research and writing cannot be undertaken on a whim and completed in a short period.
In this post, I am going to discuss the some things you should be aware of about setting and reaching research and writing goals and some tips for helping you reach your goals in a timely, although by no means short, fashion. As always, not all of these tips and tricks will work for everyone and everyone’s PhD journey is different.
This post was written by a recent PhD graduate (it is anonymous to keep the discussion frank) on behalf of Dave Maslach. This is part of the R3ciprocity project (Check out the YouTube Channel or the writing feedback software). R3ciprocity helps students, faculty, and research folk by providing a real and authentic look into doing research. It provides solutions and hope to researchers around the world. For more on this topic and to see what Dave has to say about meeting your research goals:
A PhD is a Journey
As has been mentioned in other posts on this blog, a PhD is a long process more equivalent to a journey than a day trip (for more on the PhD journey, see this post). Most PhD programs are between 3 and 7 years, a significant chunk of time. They are not meant to be completed quickly, although most programs are designed with a certain timeline in mind (see this post on PhD milestones). A PhD is about the pursuit and production of knowledge, a lengthy and at times unpredictable process. In a sense it does not really end. You may complete your PhD project, but the knowledge continues to be incomplete and may guide your future projects.
At the heart of doing a PhD is research and writing. Neither research nor writing is straightforward. As you research you discover new things, and that is also true of writing. Often people think of writing as just expressing what you learned in your research, but as you write you have to evaluate and think about what you have researched and that may lead you to new conclusions as you think through and express your knowledge. As both processes are immensely complex it is important to break them down into tasks and timelines to reach your goals.
Take the research one step at a time
At the beginning of a PhD the whole process can seem incredible daunting. There is so much to read, you have a ton of data to collect, a lengthy dissertation to write, plus all of the other commitments that come with doing a PhD such as being a Teaching Assistant, an Adjunct, serving on committees, doing public outreach, etc. (For more on what PhDs do all day see this post). The sheer enormity of these tasks and the time and financial constraint you may have, can make the end of a PhD seem unachievable. However, research and writing are not just one task. They are a series of smaller tasks that can be broken down and taken step by step.
Set Reasonable Goals During Your PhD
The first step to setting and reaching research and writing goals is break down the process and set smaller reasonable long-term and short-term goals. Every PhD task can be broken down into smaller parts. Breaking the tasks down into parts makes the work much more achievable and much less daunting. Here are a couple of tips for learning to break down your research and writing goals.
Unless you have stumbled onto something completely unprecedented for your PhD project there is going to be a lot of research you are going to need to read and include in your final thesis. During my first year I remember just staring at a list of 200 books and articles I had to read over the next 2-3 three semesters and thinking to myself, this can’t be done. It is just too much. That same overwhelming feeling also hit me every time I started a new chapter while writing, there is just too much, I’ll never finish.
I found that one of the easiest ways to deal with this feeling during my research was to break it down and set smaller goals for myself. If I needed to learn about a certain topic for part of my research, I would break down the beginning daily tasks like this:
- Create a keyword search list for library and database searches.
- Spend a few hours compiling a list of books and articles I needed and then rank them on importance.
- Head to the library and find the immediately necessary resources.
- Reasonable reading goal for the rest of the day – a couple of book chapters or articles.
- Read and make notes.
Breaking the tasks down into easily achievable steps made the process less harrowing and I felt like I moved a little bit forward everyday. Learning to set reasonable goals was a huge part of this. I was not then and am not now able to read 10 books a day or learn everything I needed to know in a few days or a way. That is a ridiculous goal and one I had to learn early on not to be mad at myself for not achieving.
Along with setting reasonable daily goal is also setting reasonable long-term goals. Research takes time. Not only do you have to read a lot, but you may have to travel to obtain resources and visit archives, you may have to meet with an interview people, or you might have an experiment that takes months to fully run. Make a long-term plan for your research goals. Most people take a few months to a year after their comprehensive exams to simply research. Don’t rush your research and plan and expect for it to be a lengthy process.
A good way to do this is to plan backwards. If you want to start writing by a certain day, make your goals backwards from that date for all the research and data collection you need to do. Make generous estimates for how long each step is going to take. For instance, I had to travel to archives abroad to conduct my research. I needed to visit the British Library to see some documents. Now if I could get immediate access to the documents and decipher them and take the needed notes it would ideally take me 2.5 to 3 days. I budgeted 5 days in the British Library because I went in the summer when they are the busiest, and I may run unto a situation where the archive spaces were full, someone else was consulting the document I needed, or I simply needed more time for translation and deciphering. It turned out I needed 4 days, so my generous estimate worked out in my favor, and I didn’t run into a situation where I was out of time and couldn’t finish my research.
Get a good idea of your working pace and be realistic about your abilities. Don’t set yourself up for failure by not budgeting enough time for each task you need to complete. Be realistic, be consistent, and prepare for roadblocks.
Writing During Your PhD
The same sort of things applies to writing. As part of my drive to finish my dissertation I went to a dissertation bootcamp run by my university’s library where they gave us dedicated space to write, as well as several tips and tricks. One of the most important was to set reasonable writing goals. The comic above is a good example of a terrible writing goal. You are not going to just sit down and write your thesis. It takes planning, outlining, rewriting, and again simply the dedicated time. Even setting a weekly goal like writing all of chapter 2 was unreasonable.
Writing, like research, can be broken down into smaller tasks. During my PhD I set a goal of a chapter a semester (I did a History PhD, so my chapters were upwards of 50-60 pages each). This was an attainable long-term goal around all of my other duties. However, I also had several short-term goals. I would plan backwards from the end of semester. If I wanted to give my advisor a chapter draft by final exams, I would set a target date for a full rough draft two weeks before that, and then break down the sections one by one and make smaller goals for them. Additionally, I made daily goals for myself as well. For particularly long and complex chapters my daily writing goals would look like this:
1. Theory 1
2. Theory 2
1. Theory 3
2. Theory conclusion
This was an attainable and compact goal, that allowed me to work through chapters section by section. Writing section by section worked best for me. I did not pay attention to word counts or page counts in my initial writing stage. However, I know other people who do much better with more quantitative goals like that. They set a goal or a certain number of words or pages per day.
It is also important to remember that writing is a process and your first draft is not your final draft. It does not need to be fit to be seen by anyone, and you can always change it when you edit. The most important part of writing is to just start, which sometimes is a goal accomplishment in and of itself. Even if you do not feel like you are ready to start writing and you need to research more, start writing, things may become more clear to you as you run through your own thoughts and try to express them. That happened to me fairly often throughout my PhD, my ideas coalesced or sometimes even changed as I worked through them in writing (it is even happening right now – this was not the direction I had intended this post to go!).
Take it at your own pace and don’t compare yourself to others
PhDs are a journey, and everyone’s PhD journey is different. Just because someone else is advancing through their research or writing faster than you are doesn’t mean that you are achieving your goals incorrectly. Rather your goals are different. Every researcher has different needs and resources they can access. During my PhD I had members of my cohort who were North American historians, so they progressed through their research faster simply because it was more accessible. They did not need to travel abroad to access their resources, they just had to go to the next city. That did not mean they were better than me or doing something I was neglecting to do, rather accessing my material was simply going to take longer.
It is always hard not to compare yourself with other people, especially when you perceive them to be doing better than you, but you need to remember that everyone moves at their own pace. There isn’t one right way to do research or reach research goals, a lot of the PhD journey is dependent on the individual. Be kind to yourself and keep moving forward.
In conjunction with being kind to yourself, always remember to practice self-affirmation. The research and writing process can be grueling and you may find yourself facing periods when you don’t feel like you are making progress or that your project is worth it. You may find that you are failing to meet your research goals. You may even find that you face opposition from the outside world, particularly if you are working on an unusual or taboo topic (see this post for more on taboo topics). Always remember that your research is important. You were accepted into a PhD based on the merits of your project, and it is normal to get discouraged and feel like you can’t reach your goals.
At these times it is good to remind yourself (or have someone else remind you) that what you are doing is important. It may seem scary, daunting, and like the end will never come, but just keep telling yourself you can do it, and you are making a difference.
Be selfish with your time
A good way to make sure you are going to make the reasonable goals you have set, is to be a bit selfish with your time. As a PhD you are going to have several demands on your time, research, writing, teaching, committees, and that is just at the university. You of course will continue to have obligations to your friends and family as well. Because of all these demands, it is important that you set boundaries, and say no to some projects and extra work. There will be times when you feel like everyone is asking you to do something on top of all the work you are already doing. It is ok to say no and be a little bit selfish when you need to be. A PhD doesn’t have a set timeline, but you still want to finish eventually so you are going to have to buckle down and just spend some time just researching and writing at the expense of other things.
Life happens – be flexible
Finally, be flexible with your goals because life happens, and you cannot control everything. Sometimes even though you have planned and used a generous timeline to set your goals you still won’t make them. You might get sick, have a family emergency, suffer an injury, etc. There things are all part of life. During my PhD I saw several people get delayed in their goals because of things beyond their control such as a severe concussion and a difficult illness. These things can’t be helped, and it is more important for you to recover than to try to push through them. You’ll reach your long-term goals more easily if you take the time to deal with the issue at hand rather than try to work on your PhD through it.
Remember to set reasonable goals with achievable timelines, but also to be kind to yourself. You are after all human, and this is a long process. Achieve your goals, but don’t get down on yourself if they get a little delayed or have to be changed.
If you want to read a few more blog posts like this, check out: