Planning Your Ideal PhD

Having a structured PhD plan can help you make progress when you lack motivation. One of the easiest things to do is to create a plan for your PhD that covers the years, months, weeks, and days. Each has a relevant level of detail. But they are referred to separately. So what does that look like:

  • Years – Broad goals.
  • Quarters – Specific data collection, collation and reporting activities.
  • Months – Things that might enhance or derail your progress.
  • Weeks – Repeatable structure, giving you a weekend.
  • Days – Defined schedule that sets limits on starting and finishing each day.


Increasingly, PhDs are planned, and project managed. That’s definitely the case in Australia, and I think it’s happening across the world. So, what does an ideal PhD plan look like? At the moment, I’m not really sure what that is. But I think I could have a good stab at it. Firstly, I think there are several plans that you need to make.

The first one is a plan that covers your entire PhD. The next one is a plan that covers each year. The next one is a plan that covers weeks or months, and the next one is a plan that covers days of the week. I’m not saying that everything needs to be planned out in detail across all of those things. Just you need to go to the level of detail that’s necessary for each plan. I think each plan shouldn’t be longer than a page at all. And then you might update the plan, one of the plans as you go. So, for example, if your research experiment doesn’t work out this week. It doesn’t mean you change your yearly plan. You change the plan for next week rather than anything else. That means you don’t have to have lots of different. That means you have more plans, but you make less changes to your plan. Some things that I think should be in your plan.

The first thing a lit review in year 1, and a new one you should be developing your research skills such that in year 2, and 3 in particular you can make some progress but year 1 is all about learning and getting up to speed. Year 2 is all about data collection in my mind, and then also learning to and making sure that you write things correctly. Record them correctly in your research notebook for example. Year 3 should be the final touches on any research experiments that need to be done and they’re not spending a lot of time actually writing your PhD. If you need year 4, that’s definitely where you focus on writing. If you want to think about a yearly plan, generally how I would think about breaking down an individual year would it be to break it down into lots of 12 weeks. So, that’s 4 lots of 12 weeks. That means 48 weeks which gives you 4 weeks of leave. And then within those 12 weeks, you might spend 10 weeks doing work. And the other 2 weeks doing a combination of reviewing what you’ve done, planning for the next 12 weeks, and writing up stuff, and having a break. So, hopefully that’ll help you out there.

From a monthly perspective, what I think about here is not specifically what you might do in a month, but the kinds of things that might influence what happens in a particular month. So, December being quite busy for Christmas, and Christmas related things. January being a time that lots of academics take off and so is an opportunity for PhD students to get access to equipment and reagents, and infrastructure that they might not otherwise get access to. Then you’ve got you know when things happen on campus in terms of start dates, end dates, examinations, all those kinds of things. So, noting those kinds of things on a monthly basis is quite useful and really there’s nothing more detailed than that to me. That’s just going to give you a bit of a heads up or what would I expect from my supervisor this month. Are they going to be busy? Are they going to be frustrated with certain things or how things are panning out? So, that’s useful to know.

On a weekly plan, what do I think you should do? I think you should definitely have a plan to take 2 days off a week. I don’t really care whether it’s Saturday, and Sunday but have 2 days off per week. It doesn’t have to be consecutive. So, I’ve heard lots of people argue that the days off in a week should be Wednesday and Sunday. So, that’s entirely up to you what you do and how it works for you but definitely take 2 days off. Then I reckon you should be doing about 8 hours work per day or having a workday that looks like 8 hours long. So that could be 9 to 5, 10 to 6, 8 to 4. It could be a bit longer but make sure you have a defined start time, and a defined end time. And then what would a structure of a week roughly look like? Well on day 1 of your week, you would review your plan and check that it makes sense. Then and obviously, start your workdays 2, 3, and 4 are probably doing experiments and collecting data. Probably doing a little bit of data collation and cleaning. Perhaps, doing some analysis day 2, 3, and 4 probably spending writing. Then day 5, you’re still going to do your experiments and what not, but now day 5 is all about finishing out the week. So, you’re looking back on what you did. Checking your plan against your actual to make sure that you’re getting good at planning.

Then you’re planning your next week ahead in terms of data collection, and writing, etc., again. Your plan for any particular day can be whatever you like but I really encourage people to work in sprints. So, 25 minutes of work, 5 minutes of rest. Now for some of you and for my PhD in particular as an example, it’s really hard you might argue to take that 5-minute break. So, then adjust that out. Maybe make it 28 minutes work, 2 minutes break. And the 2 minutes is really just an opportunity to put down your kit, and just focus you can do a quick meditation. You can go for a walk. It’s not meant to be disruptive. It’s just meant to give you a bit of a reset. A bit of a relaxation. It’s kind of like if you were to go for a run for example. and you just decided, “Yeah, I needed to have a break”. This is the equivalent to walking for a little bit before you start running again. I would strongly encourage you to only check email twice a day. That would be about 2 hours after your workday starts, and about half an hour before your workday finishes. Don’t spend any longer than 20 minutes or one time on your email. Maybe 25 if you want to go with the sprint rest idea. If you can’t handle the email in a minute, then don’t do anything with the email other than to allocate time to work on it and put that in your diary. And then reply to the sender to say this is when they can expect a proper response from you. But you need to let them know that you’ve seen it and you need to communicate to them when you’re going to get them information by.

So, there are some ideas about planning your PhD. I hope they’re useful. I’d love to know how you go. Send me an email. Send me a SMS or comment below as to what planning strategies work for you, and your PhD.