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It was a bit more than one year after I started my PhD studies that I attended a workshop about project management in research. The teacher first asked everyone when they were going to defend their thesis. Some were close to the end and had a fixed date. Some had like “around April year X”. I realized that in my university, even though guidelines indicated that PhD studies should be about 4 years long, the period was so flexible that I was unable to respond to this question…

It is more than 2 years after this workshop, and about one year before I actually graduated that I clearly established, together with my supervisor, that I was going to finish within a year. And for the first time, I could see the light at the end of the tunnel. At this time, I still had no published paper, I only had drafts and dreams. Meaning, one year before graduation the light was still very far away, but now I knew it was there. Results were that 1) I started feeling so much better because I could finally visualize myself graduating, and 2) this final year was the most enjoyable (not meaning less work) and productive as my paper was published in a good journal (eLife).

Indeed, it is only once I had a graduation month defined that I finally could apply the retro-planning technique which we were mentioned in the project management workshop. What does retro-planning means? Here my description of how I used it concretely. For me finally being able to visualize my graduation and to apply true project management techniques helped me feeling more in control of my PhD studies, and at the same time feeling less insecure and less stubborn because of the reflections and discussions which it promoted.

First I aimed for defending in July, but around January it got obvious that September was more realistic, so I discussed with my supervisor again, we adjusted plans and I was happy with it. I experienced for myself the beauty of project management: it is flexible. More than that, in research, it has to be flexible. As the teacher nicely said back at the workshop: it is only used to steer the process in the right direction. It promotes communication, clarification and motivation. Without an objective, it is highly difficult to apply project management, and, consequently, chances to get off tracks are even bigger.

You’re going to say that in many cases it is not possible to define the precise end date of a PhD project right from its beginning. So many things are going to happen and the date will most likely be pushed away!! Yes, this is true, I fully agree. But it doesn’t mean that one cannot try to define a tangible objective right from the start, does it? Yes, it’s most likely that the final objective will not be the one which was initially aimed for, but it’s OK, if along the way it is discussed again to bring more clarification and to make appropriate adjustments.

For me, but I believe for many other PhD students, not having at least an idea of which year and which month we should graduate is a source of anxiety. Without it we can’t visualize ourselves finishing, not mentioning thinking about what to do next. Graduation becomes a blurry, uncertain and scary thing which we don’t really want to think about, but which at the same time occupies all our thoughts. Who doesn’t hate the question “when are you going to finish?”. Given that several studies find that today almost half of PhD students are at risk of severe anxiety and depression, I think that getting aware of such an anxiety source is crucial (Evans et al., 2018; Levecque et al., 2017).

Maybe now you want to say that for some students it might actually be more stressful to have a finishing date defined right from the start. Maybe because the PhD program strictly defines the maximum length or because there is funding only for a specified period. But is the anxiety coming from the deadline itself or because along the way there is no appropriate “checkpoint meetings” to discuss and adjust the project in order to stay on track? I can easily imagine that giving a deadline but no appropriate project management tools must be as stressful as not having any idea of when to graduate.

In conclusion, regular discussion and clarification of both the supervisor’s and the student’s long-term expectations could help a lot reducing PhD students’ anxieties. I invite you to have a look at the recent review of “163 empirical articles on the topic of doctoral education” Sverdlik et al., 2018 (at least their table 2) or at my recent blog post where I highlighted the points that strike me the most in that review.

“Whereas most comments [from students about their] supervisors were positive (e.g., joy) and acknowledged their efficiency, support, feedback, and demeanor, it was the discrepancy between supervisors’ and students’ expectations that generated confusion, stress, and anxiety in students.” Sverdlik et al., 2018

I do believe that one-to-one checkpoint meetings every 6 months or 1 year to discuss the big picture of the PhD studies, i.e. the long-term objective and expectations, would help a lot students feeling less confused and more in control of their project(s). Needless to say, such discussions have to be constructive, the student should feel free to express his/her view and the supervisor(s) view(s) should not be imposed on him/her.

How to clarify these expectations? Check out this article where I provide a checklist of points to clarify!

Thanks for reading and stay tune! I also share my personal experience with some project management techniques like retro-planning and Gantt charts and even made a resource about project management for PhD students and supervisors!

Wondering what else can soft skill training bring to PhD students? Here my story: How a doctoral program saved my PhD.