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Long-term planning versus short-term planning

To what extent should I, as a PhD supervisor*, advise students to plan in detail or in outline and in the short or long term?

Differences for planning between exploratory and goal-driven research

The extent to which a student's research programme should be planned in advance depends on a number of things. One is whether the end point of the research, ie what is being aimed at, is already identified, as is usually the case where students are working under outside funding. With such goal-driven research, long term planning, at least in outline, is both possible and desirable. Nevertheless the student must be prepared to revise the plans, because a feature of all research, particularly over a several-year period, is that unforeseen circumstances always occur to disrupt even the most carefully laid plans. Common examples include, for example, illness, family problems, books or equipment not arriving on time, people not available for interview as arranged. The disruption can merely mean that schedules have to be revised, but it can be so severe that the student has to go for a fallback position and re-plan accordingly. The best advice is probably to plan in detail in the short term and in outline in the long term.

In some disciplines, it is common for the end point of the research not to be defined at the outset. The work proceeds by exploring a topic with the aim of identifying aspects to explore in more detail and eventually to focus on. Then the initial planning can only take place in the short term, because the next stage of the research grows out of earlier stages.

Most postgraduate research involves both exploratory research and goal-driven research, often on a number of themes in parallel, but the relative time-spans of each depend on disciplinary norms and the nature of the research. In the natural sciences, for example, the exploratory phase is usually quite short with the goal-driven phase occupying almost the entire programme. In other subjects long exploratory phases are common, with the goal driven phases relatively short, to draw the various threads together.

The value of planning for supervisors and students

Planning and documenting the plans are important for supervisors and students alike, for example:

Fitting in plans with external requirements

General information

Planning has to accommodate the various requirements over which supervisors and students have little or no control. Some such requirements will be dictated by departmental regulations or quality assurance procedures, which may, for example, require reports to be handed in at prescribed intervals or seminars to be given at defined points of the programme.

Other requirements are dictated by the institution, for example, in connection with timings for the upgrading of registration from MPhil to PhD and for entering for the final examination.

Yet other requirements may be dictated by professional or funding bodies.

Project management tools for planning

Simple documentation of plans may suffice - perhaps no more than a list of tasks with tentative dates. However, some students and supervisors like to present their plans as bar charts. These can be particularly useful where members of a research team are working interdependently and need to see at a glance how everyone else is progressing. There are computer software packages which produce bar charts. These have the advantage of allowing parameters, such as the contributions of particular individuals or the delivery dates of equipment, to be changed at will, hence to predict the resulting knock-on effects. Such software can thus be a valuable aid for decision-making in planning.

Bar charts are a common tool of project management. There are other tools; in fact project management is effectively a discipline in its own right and well worth the attention of supervisors and academic managers, particularly if they are involved with team projects. Projects shorter than PhDs, such as those which form part of taught masters or MRes degrees, need a particularly sharp focus on planning.

edited extract from no 2 in the Guides series

Resolving Common Dilemmas in Supervision
by Pat Cryer

© 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'.