1. Managing yourself

This involves things like:

  • Getting organised
    • developing plans for getting things done
    • using a diary for daily "to do lists" and a monthly/yearly planner to keep a track of irregular commitments like seminars you wish to attend or the timeline for submission of a paper to a conference (e.g. due dates for the submission of an abstract, the submission of the full paper for review, or the submission of the revised paper for publication in the proceedings, etc)
    • depending on the complexity of the project you will be undertaking, it might also be useful to learn about and develop a Gantt chart.
    • also see more information about organising yourself
  • Self-motivation
    • following through on your plans in a timely manner
    • getting things done when someone isn't chasing you up or when what you are (or aren't) doing isn't visible to others
    • also see more information about motivation
  • Understanding yourself
    • when/where do you work most productively?
    • why do you procrastinate and what can you do about it?
    • do you need a looming deadline to get yourself motivated? Does this result in you doing your best work? If not, what can you do to change?
  • Skills development - identify and meet needs:
    • e.g. development of library and IT skills, scholarly writing, etc.
  • Making sure you're not overcommitted
    • Do a time audit. Use a weekly planner to see where all your time is going and to help you make decisions about what to cut or cut back on if you're overcommitted.

Common Issues Facing Research Students:

  • Dealing with large blocks of unstructured time and very distant deadlines.
  • Dealing with the uncertainties of research - like explorers, you're constantly faced with the questions: "Which way should I go?" and "How long will it take?"
  • Juggling all your commitments (e.g. family and studies).
  • Procrastination.

However, a research degree has quite distinct stages, each with their own challenges. See more information about coping with the highs and lows of doing a PhD.

The "life cycle" of a PhD or Research Masters also varies from discipline to discipline, so talk to other PhD students, post-doctorate students and your supervisors about their experiences and knowledge of the typical/ideal life cycle in your discipline. Use what you learn to make your own long-term plans and goals. (E.g. How long is the final write-up likely to take?)

Some Tips:

  • Treat your research studies like a regular job and set yourself and keep regular office hours.
  • Break big tasks into sub-tasks. "Tick off" the sub-tasks to gauge progress and to give yourself a sense of progress. This will help with motivation. (Put a dummy due date into the UQ Library's "Assignment Writing Planner" to get an idea of what this would mean in the context of writing a coursework assignment:
  • Have regular meetings with your supervisor(s). Their interest in your work and questions will help you to maintain interest in your work.
  • If you start avoiding work in a significant way, see a Student Counsellor or Learning Adviser at Student Services as soon as possible. They will provide an independent and confidential perspective on things and may be able to help you get "unstuck".
  • Vague goals like, "I need to work on my literature review" or "I need to stop putting things off" are unlikely to lead to productive action. Use "SMART Goals" or "What? How? When? Where?" statements" to increase the likelihood of getting something productive done.

2. Managing tasks

As mentioned above:

  • Writing a daily "to do list" in a diary is one way to make sure you use your time productively each day.
  • A monthly/yearly planner (basically the squares on a calendar) can help you to keep a track of irregular things, like due dates for conference submissions, or when a progress report is due. A planner can also help you to set goals for the achievement of sub-tasks in a large project, such as the date for completion of a questionnaire, the mail out date, the reminder date, etc.
  • A major project with multiple sub-components, some of which can be done in parallel (i.e. at the same time) and some of which must be done sequentially (i.e. one after the other), can be organised using something like a Gantt chart.

3. Managing resources

Organising the hard copies of the papers you read:

  • One idea is to file these according to subject area (e.g. papers which all investigate a common question for example, and you might also have a research methods folder).
  • Another idea is to use folders with plastic display sleeves to organise papers according to themes and perhaps in a "text book order" to help you remember whether a particular topic is covered early or late in the file. The plastic display sleeves make it easy to flick through the papers to find the one you're looking for.
  • Also observe and ask what others with more experience do.

Organising electronic copies of papers:

  • If you collect papers in electronic form, then similar issues arise - searching through a folder with 120 articles in it when you can't remember precisely what you called the file can be both frustrating and a big waste of time! (Note though, that it's very hard to thoroughly and critically review a paper if it's in electronic form.) Consequently, a logically organised folder-sub-folder structure is important to organise with your electronic files as well.

Keeping track of papers which are read over an extended period of time:

  • Unlike a coursework assignment where you collect references for a particular topic and consult them over just a period of a few weeks, when doing research you may need to consult and/or reference something you read a couple of years ago. How do you remember/find where you read something over such a long time period without doing a lot of flicking through files and papers? In the "old days", people used to use card files (which are still available in stationery stores), but these days people tend to use bibliographic database software like EndNote and Ref Works, which can also help you with your reference formatting. In addition, to be systematic and critical in your synopses of papers you read, you might use the following questions to guide your note taking:
    • What was the question/issue/problem addressed/investigated in the paper?
    • How did the authors go about doing this? (e.g. research design, sample size, or other characteristics that might affect generalisability).
    • What were the key findings/arguments?
    • What are the limitations of the paper? (e.g. unanswered questions, limits to generalisability,  or problems with confounding factors, etc.)

Keeping track of multiple versions of papers.

  • On occasion, when writing a paper or thesis chapter, you might wonder if a different approach or organisational structure might work better than the one you're taking at the moment, but you aren't sure, so you don't want to delete your current draft. To keep a track of which is the most current version, you could use the "date modified" feature in "file properties". But a quicker and easier approach is to use version numbers (e.g. filename-v1.doc; filename-v2.doc etc.).