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Time management for effective student research


It is all too easy to work hard, in terms of putting in time and effort, while achieving next to nothing. One very useful way of overcoming this problem and making sure that your work is always on-target is to stop and check that you are always in one of the roles outlined below. Through appreciating which one you are in, or should be in, at any particular time, your work will become much more productive.

The four core roles in which research students need to operate

There are four main roles in which research students need to operate, and they are presented below roughly in the order in which students need to start occupying them. There will, however, inevitably be a certain amount of to-ing and fro-ing between them and cycling around them.


  • An explorer to discover a gap in knowledge around which to form the research question(s) or problem(s) or hypotheses, etc. For those students who know their research problems from the outset, the time spent in the explorer role can be very short, although not non-existent, because the problem still needs some refinement. Other students need to spend a considerable time in the role. Most of the time the role is likely to involve reading round the subject, but research can be such a variable undertaking, that students may need to drop into the role at any stage.

detective   inventor

  • A detective and/or inventor to find solution(s) or answer(s) to the research problem(s) or questions etc. The role is that of a detective where the question or problem is about something unknown and an inventor where the problem is to develop or produce something.

visioner or thinker

  • A visionary or creative thinker to develop an original twist or perspective on the work and a fall-back strategy or safety net if things don’t go according to plan. Also, if necessary, to find a way of ring-fencing nebulous or discrete investigations into a self-contained piece of work appropriate for the award concerned.


  • A barrister to make a case in the dissertation or thesis for the answers or solutions to the research problem(s) or questions (rephrased if necessary in terms of terminology appropriate for the work and field of study). Evidence is necessary but never enough; how it is used is all important. Never fall into the trap of assuming that once the data is collected, that is the endpoint.

Subsidiary roles in which research students need to operate

Sections from The Research Student's Guide to Success in the chapter on getting into a productive routine

The importance of a productive routine

Maintaining a sense of direction: roles in which researchers need to operate

Keeping records of on-going work

Finding out where your time goes

Using time efficiently when supervisions and seminars are cancelled

Matching the task to the time slot

Handling interruptions

Coping with information overload

Managing time at home with partners and family

Managing time at the computer and on the Internet

Attending training

Using research seminars

Networking and serendipity

Keeping ‘office hours’ versus using the ‘psychological moment’

Keeping ‘office hours’ versus keeping going for hours at a time

Matching your approach to your preferred learning style

Using music to manage yourself

Directing your research to suit your personal needs and preferences

Maintaining a healthy lifestyle

Being realistic with yourself

Research students may, of course, occupy other roles at times, such as fire-fighter, manager, negotiator, editor, journalist, etc., but these reflect the sorts of task which everyone, research student or not, has to handle on occasions, and do not generate any sense of overall direction in the research.

© Pat Cryer

* 'Supervisor' is a shorthand for 'research degree supervisor', 'advisor' or 'tutor', and applies to varying extents for all research degrees: PhD, DPhil. MPhil, Prof Doc and even undergraduate and masters' projects. In some countries, notably the USA, a 'supervisor' is known as an 'advisor'.