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Keeping to a research timeline

Overview
By the time trainees come to conducting a research project or undertaking a full time research position the chances are they will have been effectively managing their time for a number of years. So why does time management, efficiency and keeping to schedule become such an issue for those undertaking research? We often hear about fellowships terminating without the candidate having written up the project and the problems of attempting to complete a thesis having returned to full time clinical work.

With the inevitable freedom that comes with full time research also comes the considerable likelihood that time will be wasted! This can be due to numerous factors but working in an organised and efficient fashion will pay dividends in successfully completing any research project, no matter how big or small.

In any research project there will always be factors beyond our control. This is inevitable. However, trying to anticipate and mitigate against such delays is part of successful project management. People will develop their own ways of working, which will depend on other commitments, the type of project, the culture of the host institution and personal preferences. However, there are generic skills that can help when trying to stick to timelines. These skills are invaluable when combining clinical work with research, teaching and other commitments in future careers.

Potential obstacles to keeping to a research timeline

Delays you may not be able to control:
Life events
Ethical approval *
Grant applications *
R&D approval *
Input from collaborators *
Input from supervisors *
Peer review processes *
Delay in recruitment *

* denotes areas where good planning and project management can anticipate and reduce delays.
 
Delays you can control
Time wasting
Procrastination
Disorganisation
Eternally reading but never writing
Poor note taking, record keeping
Delays related to inadequate planning
Clinical commitments
Other commitments e.g. giving presentations, service development, supervising other projects etc.
 
1. Establish achievable timelines
Essential in planning and executing a research project, no matter how big or small, is drawing up and sticking to a reasonable and achievable timeline. This timeline can be in the form of a Gantt chart or a series of milestones and deliverables. Such timelines will always be requested as part of grant applications and progress reporting for PhDs and MDs. The timeline should be agreed by project supervisors and should include contingency plans for unforeseen eventualities. In addition it is useful to include all aspects of project design and execution in the timeline so that progress is made in all areas of the research simultaneously. For example, whilst waiting for an ethics review meeting, you could be writing up a draft of a chapter or review article, or whilst analysing data for a pilot phase you could be drafting the proposal for the next phase of the study.
 
2. Day-to-day project management
Effective daily time management is about setting short, medium and long term goals. Some people find making daily, weekly or monthly ‘to do’ lists helpful in achieving this. Such lists can be flexible but should be regularly reviewed to ensure that goals are not being missed or continually pushed back.  Common pitfalls in achieving this include the following;
  • Filling time with small less urgent tasks rather than tackling larger seemingly ‘insurmountable’ issues which may seem more daunting. In general, nothing is insurmountable and if it really is, then there will always be someone you can ask for help. Far better is to tackle the larger aspects of the projects and fit the smaller jobs in around them (see Covey’s Beaker).
  • Constantly being distracted from the ‘task in hand’ by less important but seemingly more urgent tasks. For example, by leaving outlook on when writing you can be constantly distracted by email requests. Similarly answering the phone and dealing with requests immediately can distract you from more important but seemingly less urgent jobs.
  • Never saying ‘no’. As an inexperienced researcher finding your way in a new field all requests to give presentations, help out with other projects, provide supervision to junior doctors etc can be flattering and are welcomed. However, completing your research projects and thesis is your main role. If additional activities are distracting you from achieving your principle task then you may need to be more discerning in what you take on. This is a good thing to take up with supervisors for advice.
  • Use your supervisors. Give them time to look through drafts, proposals, progress reports etc but provide them with realistic timelines for comments or meetings. As long as the timelines offered to your supervisors are realistic and agreed you should enforce these as much as possible.
  • Plan project outputs so that ‘fallow’ time between recruiting for example is used effectively.
3. General advice
  • Spending endless hours on a task is not necessarily good use of your time. Consistently arriving at work early and leaving late may be a marker of inefficient time management rather than an unmanageable work load. Better to set aims for your day, achieve them and leave work to do something more fun!
  • Use a reference manager / endnote package.
  • Try to keep literature searches up to date.
  • Save all useful articles in labelled folders and make notes on what you are reading.
  • Don’t delete early drafts of things you have written. Instead save them with relevant version numbers and dates before making changes. You never know when they may be useful.
  • When your work load seems overwhelming (which it will at various points) do not be disheartened and lapse into inactivity. Instead break down your ‘to do’ list into small more manageable tasks and begin to tackle them one by one. Achieving even small tasks when a workload seems unmanageable is a great encouragement.
  • Try to ‘hit the ground running’. Whilst there is no substitute for entering and analysing your own data in really understanding how to use a statistical package, it is worth establishing baseline knowledge through attending courses on statistics, writing, reference packages, literature searching etc as early on in the process as you can.
  • Take holidays!
 

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