I would like to follow up on my last post by going deeper into the three key dimensions of managing your life and your work as a Ph.D. student: self-management, thesis management, as well as information and knowledge management.
Too many balls to juggle
One of the main challenges of doing a Ph.D. resides in the fact of having to conduct a substantial research project – with all that this implies, while having to go about the usual demands of daily life. Some doctoral students are also expected to teach courses – the norm here in North America. Producing an excellent thesis is often not enough: in order to succeed in academia, a Ph.D. student must also build a great CV and network extensively. This involves developing a portfolio of teaching experience, giving conference papers, publishing journal articles, organizing conferences or seminars, and playing an active part in the research community. In some cases, this is in addition to having a part-time job to make ends meet, and to fulfilling family responsibilities.
It is therefore no surprise that the risk of “dropping the ball” is high among Ph.D. students. This is why it is crucial to have a solid system in place to help you manage your work – and more broadly your life as a whole. Investing time and effort to put a robust system in place from the start makes a lot of sense for Ph.D. students. Few do, however, and while some universities have been creative in their effort to develop training programmes, they seldom offer appropriate training in what is perhaps the most important aspect of preparing students to fulfil their potential: managing the many balls they have to juggle. The good news is: it is never too late to put a good management system in place.
The Agile Researcher approach
Filtering to stay in control
The truth is: you can’t do everything, and learning to identify what not to do is as important as knowing what to do if you want to keep your sanity and succeed as a researcher.
This is where filtering comes into play. Only by adopting a rigorous triage protocol to filter systematically everything which solicit your attention, will you be able to manage all the demands on your time, and more generally on your life.
You need a system to manage what needs to be done in both your professional and personal life. This is what I call the tactical level of self-management.
For this purpose you can either use a task list, or a visual board. I have used both in the past. Tasks lists (on paper or using dedicated software) can work. In my experience, using a Kanban board is vastly superior: I will present this tool in more detail in subsequent posts. There is, however, no best practice: what works well for you is good for you.
Irrespective of whether you use a task list or stickies notes on a visual board, your system should allow you to keep track of all the different things you need to do, or more precisely you could choose to do.
This system will be your HQ, your bridge, for managing at a tactical level what needs to be done without dropping anything. This will involve all aspects of your life without neglecting the personal and fun dimension. It will help you realize that what you can realistically do is, by necessity, limited, and that you need to concentrate on what matters most. The name of the game is not to become more and more productive by doing always more and more (like the hamster in its proverbial wheel), but getting the right things done (like the fox). It will also help you see the proverbial elephant in the room: you need to be extremely selective in what you are doing, because you can’t do everything.
Managing your Ph.D. thesis project(s)
Have you noticed how I write about project(s) rather than simply project(? This is because doing a Ph.D. often involves managing a portfolio of projects rather than a single research project. I will get back to this idea in a future post. What you need to know at this point is that an Agile approach is way superior to traditional project management to help you complete your Ph.D. Traditional project management is not adapted to the reality of research work. Developing a research project, defining a research question, writing up a thesis involves creativity. It is not about following a set of instructions, like you would do to put together a sofa from IKEA. You need a system that accounts for the back and forth of the mind. Gantt charts look pretty – logical and methodical, with milestones to be followed religiously – but they don’t fit the bill. A research project does not evolve in a linear fashion. Major shifts can happen following the discovery of a critical piece of information.
A system that accounts for the non-linear nature of research does not have to be complicated. The solution The Agile Researcher proposes is a simple system, based on the Kanban method, which consists in visualizing the work that needs to be done, and allows for rapid re-prioritization. This will help you become involved in dynamic planning and management of your project.
Managing information and knowledge
Keeping your documents organized with a robust filing system is also vital. This will allow you to manage information and knowledge you have developed. It seems to be something so straight forward that often little thought is given to the fundamentals until it becomes a problem that requires a lot of time to fix. In future posts, The Agile Researcher will introduce you to a series of fundamental principles that will save you time and headaches down the road.
I propose to further elaborate on each of these points in the next few posts in this series.
For the time being, I would love to hear from PhD students what has been the main challenge, they have been – or are being – confronted with?