Before starting I want to clarify that I am in no position to teach anyone about project management and that it is anyway not the goal of these articles. I just want to share my private experience of PhD student and it is by no means a complete description of what project management in research is.

About one year before I graduated and as we agreed together with my supervisor that I could finish in a year, I planned for the different steps of writing, submitting and defending my thesis using retro-planning, a technique I was mentioned in a project management for researcher workshop.

What does retro-planning mean? For me it meant:

  •  to defend in mid September
  •  I had to give my printed thesis to the university’s administration in beginning of August, together with the 3 reports from my committee members
  •  if I wanted to give 1 month to my committee members to read my thesis, then it meant that I had to send it to them in beginning of July
  •  which meant that I should start writing my thesis in beginning of May (i.e. 2 months before)

This also meant that in May and June I would not do any experiments, or only very small things. Indeed, like my colleagues, I had already experienced before that trying to write something while conducting experiments only resulted in being inefficient in both tasks, at least for us in biology. Being able to focus only on the thesis writing is another key to get it done in a short time period.

This retro-planning also allowed me to plan the writing, submission and revision of my paper, for example, to get the revision in July once I was done with the thesis writing.

And I think the most amazing thing in this story is that it really worked out this way! Oh did I mention that you need to actually write all this down? Draw it on your printed calendar to truly visualize it.

Truth is, it didn’t work exactly like this. At first I wanted to defend in July, but then in January it got obvious that September was more realistic, so I discussed with my supervisor again, we adjusted plans and this time it worked out perfectly :) In research, it is often difficult to define a clear deadline, so many things don’t work out as planned and a scientific question is never fully answered, there is always more to do. But like I argue in my last article, one can still try to define an objective and to apply some project management as it will help a PhD student feeling more in control and at the same time feeling more open to adjust plans thanks to the discussion and clarification which it promotes.

So this is it. Retro-planning is just naming a reflection which we might have done intuitively in our own head anyway. But the big difference comes when you to take the time to write it down, and to discuss it with your supervisor, otherwise chances to get off tracks are still high and it will only bring in more frustration.

For those who know the Getting Things Done (GTD) methodology, planning my final year with this technique was like moving “finish my thesis” from someday/maybe into current projects!

Conclusion = retro-planning rules, but to apply it, one needs a clear agreed-with-a-supervisor objective.

Retro-planning is also called reverse planning, reverse scheduling or backward planning, and obviously it can be used in many different contexts, your postdoc is coming to an end? Your grant is coming to an end? You’re leaving for a long time (for parental leave, for >1 month of conferences and traveling, or any other reason)? There you go.

If you’re a PhD student in Switzerland, don’t miss the project management for research and other workshops from the programme transversal of the CUSO!

In my next two articles I give some more tips to help plan a realistic To-Do list for the week and I discuss the pros and cons of Gantt charts for PhD students, subscribe here to get more articles directly in your inbox!



For PhD students in Life Science at the University of Fribourg (CH), have a look at the complete admin procedure for submitting your thesis here on the website of the graduate school, the last question in the FAQ.