How to finish a project in 9 months

Do you have some key research results and an idea for a biological story based on them, but can’t seem to finish the project? Or a few directions you can follow for your project and a close deadline? Finishing a project, especially on a tight schedule, is a challenge for PhD students. In my case, it was a pregnancy that provided the deadline – here is how I dealt with the situation.
How to finish a project in 9 months

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I have to admit, I’m a person who likes to plan. Three years into my PhD, and when I realized the main technical breakthrough of my PhD was behind me, I knew it was the best time to expand our family. Indeed, at the beginning of November 2017, we found out I was pregnant. After the initial excitement, I started to think about how I would manage my time from this point onwards. Although my experience relates to a deadline imposed by pregnancy, the need to finalise work is likely a common challenge at a certain stage for all PhD students. Here is a glance at my experience of trying to finish a project on a tight schedule.

Set your goals

When you have a deadline, external or personal (e.g. grant or conference submission, end of your scholarship, etc.), you should first set your goals and aims for that time period. The first goal will of course be your number one priority – the one task you must complete at this time. In my PhD, I was working on at least three projects in parallel, together with additional tasks such as teaching and guiding younger students at the lab. As I had less than 9 months at the time I realized I was pregnant, I set my number one goal as: to write the outline of the paper on my main project and finish the core experiments for it. At this point, I already had a general idea of the scientific story as well as main results for this project.

The next two to three goals on this list could be things that are also important for you, but not necessary for achieving your number one goal, and may be more ambitious. These can serve as your plan in case the number one goal is achieved ahead of schedule. For me, the second goal was to actually write the paper on my main project.

Together with the main goals list you make, you could also prepare a ‘side-goals’ list. This list could include aims with additional tasks you have as a PhD student (e.g. training younger students, teaching, presenting at conferences, etc.) or side projects you are working on, and can be shorter tasks that are easier to check off your list and are good for the feeling of getting things done. Here you will also want to prioritize, in order to get a short, do-able list and avoid spending too much time on side projects. Having this list will help you to invest your time in a productive way while your main goal is stuck (e.g. when waiting for results in your main project or for comments from your supervisor on a manuscript). In my case, this list included one of my side projects with a collaborator, which was closer to publishing, in which my part was rather small and focused. All other side projects were set aside. Second on the ‘side-goals’ list was to train and prepare a Master’s student at the lab, to be able to continue some experiments in my absence.

Bottom line:

  • Prepare a list of goals for the time period you have.
  • Primary list:
    # 1 The most important thing you want to achieve that is possible in your time frame
    # 2 An expansion or continuance of #1, in case you get ahead of schedule
  • Side list (easier to complete):
    # 1 A collaboration project, in which you have a small, defined work
    # 2 Other tasks supportive of the main project

Having these detailed prioritized lists, I was confident that I would make major progress in my PhD before the baby came. I didn’t take into account that for the first three months I would be sick and not able to work so much…

Manage your schedule

As a PhD student, normally you control your schedule – usually, you don’t have a boss giving you daily tasks and mostly things are not urgent to be done now, as opposed to work in many other jobs. This can be a huge advantage when managing your time correctly and a major setback if you don’t. I personally, and I guess a lot of others, are in this field due to a big curiosity and interest. This can lead me to spend a lot of time on side questions raised from every result I get. When in a tight schedule to finish a project, you need a detailed plan to stick to. The plan should be a direct derivative of the number one goal you set on your list – the project you have to finish. For this was also an effect of the pregnancy. I used to spend all day at the lab and didn’t care about it so much. Now, getting ready for having a baby around I had to learn to work shorter days and manage my time more efficiently so my work was not damaged.

In my case, the project was to finish the experimental part for a paper.  The detailed plan was actually an outline of the paper. I prepared the figures planned for the story of the paper: in each figure, I included sub-figures with the results I had so far and actually used space holders for results still missing. I spent a few weeks only preparing this outline without doing any experiments. One would think that when you are on a tight schedule, you should do as much work as possible in a brute force manner and not waste any time on planning. In my experience that would be a mistake. Having a focused plan toward your goal is the key for finishing a project. Preparing the outline of the paper included reading and establishing the background for my work, organizing my main findings so far and of course a number of correction revisions by my supervisor. This outline was the basis of managing my schedule from this point onwards.

One of the obstacles in succeeding to finish a project is to have some spare time during your focused work (it could be even when you are waiting for a gel to run or for a sequencing result). You can find yourself with a few hours or even a few days when you can’t make progress in your main goal path. Then you think no harm will be done if you try something for a new idea that just crossed your mind. The next thing you know you find yourself working on two things in parallel: one is your main goal and the second is some random thought you didn’t really plan all the way through. Although this is great, and one of the best things in science, when you are on a tight schedule it can be your stumbling-block. For that reason, I had my ‘side goals’ list. Every time an idea for a new question to be asked popped into my head, I wrote it in a ‘future plans’ list. I was working according to the outline and only on related experiments. When I had some gaps or spare time I went back to the ‘side goals’ list and did tasks from that list. That was very productive and much more efficient than starting new ideas experiments I had randomly thought about.

Bottom line:

  • Take the time to plan an outline for the project.
  • When you have spare time, go to your ‘side list’.
  • If you come across a new direction outside your outline during the work, write it on a ‘future plan’ list.

Be detailed and flexible

In order to manage your time properly and see your progression, a detailed program should be made from the outline of the project, for example expanding each paragraph to a detailed work plan of the actual experiments you need to do. I recommend to write the detailed list in your calendar. The first few weeks will describe tasks in a detailed way (e.g. today I thaw cells, tomorrow I do DNA extraction, etc.) and later will likely just have a title of the experiment (e.g. this week I do cardiac differentiation assay), but every few weeks you can elaborate the experiments for the following weeks. In my case, after I had my outline I made a very detailed plan of the actual experiments for every sub-figure (which antibodies I will use for immunostaining or small molecules I have to test, etc.). Some of the experiments were validation or follow-ups for the main findings I already had. That was easier to plan in detail.

Nonetheless, although I based my plan on the results I had so far and on the literature, results can be unexpected. Changes can be also needed in your time frame for other reasons; for example, at some point, my heavy pregnant belly together with the Israeli summer heat made me realize I would have to take a week off before my due date, so I had to adjust the schedule accordingly. For that reason, together with your detailed and scheduled plan, flexibility is also needed. Every few weeks you should revise your plan, taking into account your new results together with the time you have left. Sometimes a minor change in the following experiments will be enough. Alternatively, if the new results change an objective or an argument in your project, you need to go back one level up and adjust your outline. All these changes should be done while remembering the main goal you set. That means your changes should still be feasible for achieving your main goal (finishing the project) within the time frame you have.

Bottom line:

  • Make a detailed work plan out of your outline. Insert it to your calendar.
  • Revise your work plan every few weeks. First do changes in the experiments details, then, if needed, go back to the outline for adjustments.

Does it work?

I will go back to the start for a second. Finishing a project meant for me to have one closed story of biological results that I had achieved with a new system I had created. Without framing it in time and in a story for a paper, I could have done hundreds of experiments for different angles and ideas we had. A similar project I was working on took me more than three years, and even then it didn’t really line up to one full story. Here I wanted to do things differently. At a critical time for the project, I stopped, planned carefully and worked according to a strict plan.

Want to know the end? After 9 month I had left two experiments, well defined and clear, and a Master’s student whom I had taught how to do them while I’m gone. And for the pregnancy? I gave birth on 7.7.18, exactly on my due date (a scientist’s son :)). Combining motherhood with a PhD is a challenge indeed. It is quite common in Israel, and I guess a little bit less elsewhere. If you want to hear more about it or if you have advice on finishing work from your own experience, I welcome you to share it in the comments.

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Go to the profile of Oren Avram
almost 4 years ago

Thank you Maayan for this great article!