Making A Dissertation Timetable Sheet

How Much Time Will You Need?

Conducting research is a very different kind of activity than you have done for most of your education. Despite educators' claims to the contrary, most of your time in school, even in graduate school, has been learning about findings, concepts and theories that other people have generated. For most students, their TE 995 practicum is likely to be their first attempt at developing new knowledge on their own. It is an extremely difficult process. This page gives you some sense for the actual tasks involved in doing research and how long each is likely to take.

Incidentally, while you are thinking about the time you spend on research, and on other activities that are independent of your courses, you should also think about how to use your 999 credit hours. The reason the university requires you to sign up for all of these is because it needs a way to acknowledge that, even though you are no longer taking courses, you are still here, still a student, and still working with faculty here. These credits represent the work you are doing when you are not taking traditional courses. They are intended to be used while you are working on your dissertation, but you can use them at other times as well. For instance, the university requires you to be enrolled when you take your comprehensive exams, but you may not want to take a course while also studying for the exam. In this case, you could enroll for some credits of 999. You might also want to enroll for more of these credits during semesters when you have assistantships that pay for your credits, rather than enrolling when you will need to pay for them yourself. The point is to pace your use of these, making sure that you eventually buy as many credits and the university requires, but also making sure that you are enrolled during the semester when you defend your dissertation.

So here are some scheduling estimates for your research projects.

Phase I: Developing Purpose and Strategy

(Plan on Two-Three Months of quarter-time effort)

1. Form a research goal or research question.

Formulating your study question is actually amazingly hard, and it can take a long time. You can't really succeed at this unless you have a good sense for the literature in the area and the prevailing theories because you need to build your study from these. Many students have a hard time narrowing their interests down to a manageable area, and once they do that, they still have to read literature within that area before they can get very far.

  • Start with a general area of interest, like misconceptions or high stakes tests or teacher beliefs or learning communities.
  • Read some research on this topic. Pay attention to the author's starting idea and to the research questions that he or she developed out of that starting idea.
  • Look especially for literature reviews because these papers often point out where the contradictions and gaps are in a body of work, and give ideas for what needs to be done next.
  • Talk to friends about your interest. Sometimes when you move away from the official literature, to a more informal setting, it is easier to "see" what you really care about.

2. Figure out WHERE to conduct the study

Sometimes the question of where to carry out your study will follow easily from the question itself. The question may suggest an urban context, for instance, or early grade levels, or teachers who have relatively more or relatively less experience. Not all questions automatically lead to a particular research setting, though, and even those that suggest a particular kind of setting don't suggest the specific setting. If you are looking for an urban setting, you may need to decide between Lansing, Battle Creek, Grand Rapids, etc. and you want to have a good reason for your decision. That is, you want to think about how the setting can increase your potential to learn from the study. Convenience is not a such a reason.

Here is the problem with convenience settings. Practically speaking, you need a site that you can get into. This is likely to be a place where you have worked, or done professional development, or supervised interns, or have a close friend. It is much easier to do research in a site where you have some ready access than it is to try to create access when you are a stranger. But when you write your research report, you will want to be able to justify your sample to readers by showing how this sample is relevant to your question. You don't want to say you went to this site because your cousin taught there, or because your husband is the principal there, or because you have been running a professional development workshop there for the past couple of years. While these things make the site convenient, they may also introduce a bias into the study and may make readers suspicious of how your data might be compromised by your prior relations with people in the school.

3. Figure out How to conduct the study

The question of how to conduct the study is a big one, and I have another page especially designed to help you with that.

Phase II: Obtaining Clearances from Faculty Advisors and an Ethical clearance from UCRIHS

(Plan on 3-6 weeks)

Once you have worked out the first details of your study, you need various approvals before you actually begin the work. If this is your dissertation, you need to prepare a detailed written proposal for your dissertation committee to review. These proposals range in size from around 15 pages to as many as 40-50 pages. The purpose of this review is to ensure that you understand the territory you are about to enter, and that you are prepared for the challenges you are likely to face. In essence, you committee asks demanding questions of you to protect you from discovering in mid-study that there is a fatal flaw in your reasoning or your study design.

If this is your 995 project, you will not need to write such a detailed proposal, but you will nonetheless need to persuade your faculty advisor that the study makes sense and that you are ready to go.  This may be done orally, but many advisors request a 2-3 page overview.

You also need to obtain an ethical review of your project from the University Committee on Research involving Human Subjects (UCRIHS). This committee is concerned about the ethical treatment of human subjects and reviews every research study involving human subjects that is done anywhere in the university.

UCRIHS has forms that you fill out describing your study procedures. They ask that you attach to their form copies of all data collection instruments (e.g. interview guides, questionnaires, etc.) and copies of all permission letters, including those you will send to teachers, to parents, and to administrators. The form is not too difficult to fill out, but it often takes 6 weeks or so to get their approval and they may ask for clarification on certain points before they give it.

Phase III: Conducting the Study

(Plan on 6 weeks to a year)

Once your faculty are persuaded that you are ready to start, and UCRIHS is persuaded that your procedures protect your research subjects, you are ready to begin the study itself. Your first step, obviously, is to send letters to all the relevant study participants asking them to participate and obtaining their informed consent. That means they need to sign and return these letters to you. Some school districts also have research approval processes of their own, so that you will have to again submit your plans to a district level review committee before continuing further.

Once these formalities are completed, the details of your study determine the time you will spend on data collection. If your study involves a mailed survey, you might be able to do the entire project in a few weeks. If it involves watching changes in student learning over the course of a school year, it will obviously take you a year to collect your data.

Don't forget, though, that collecting the data is just the beginning. If you are interviewing teachers, you will probably want to transcribe the interviews and analyze these texts somehow. Plan on about six hours to transcribe one hour of audio-tape.  If you can afford to hire a student helper to transcribe for you, ask several faculty members and secretaries if they know of anyone who has recently done some transcribing, who can recommend a qualified student to you. You will need someone who is reliable and who won't lose or accidentally destroy your data.

If you have videotaped classrooms, data "transcribing" is even more complicated. Most people don't literally transcribe their videotapes, but some do and this takes even more time. Many people choose to index the videotapes or to code them, rather than transcribe them, but indexing and coding are also time-consuming because you have to watch the tapes in real time, and you often have to watch them more than once.

Phase IV: Making Sense of Your Data

(Plan on 2-8 months)

Most students feel completely overwhelmed when they finish Phase III. Once you finish collecting your data and transcribing it, coding it, sorting it, or cataloguing it, you face the task of trying to make sense of it. You suddenly realize that you have far more data than you can manage and you don't know where to start or what to do.  Plan on a lot of false starts as you stumble through your mountain of data, trying to figure out what it tells you and how to summarize it in a way that is informative to the questions you originally posed. I am suggesting 2-6 months here, but many students need much more time than this.

Phase V: Writing your Research Report

(Plan on 3- 12 months)

Writing is also a highly variable process and is not unrelated to analysis. In fact, you should plan on moving back and forth between data analysis and report writing, because each will help you with the other. If you are writing regularly, your drafts will help you see what direction your analysis should go in, or what summary tables you will need in your text. If you are analyzing as you write, your nascent findings will guide your writing, helping you outline your text so that you can highlight the main findings. I have indicated here that the time for this could take anywhere from three to 12 months. Obviously you will need more time to write a dissertation than you will need to write a research report for your 995 practicum. Both texts will likely need a lot of revision though, since you are relatively new to these genres. Plan on revision and seek out faculty feedback to help with that process.

Phase IV: If this is a dissertation, you must defend it

Once you have a draft that your advisor believes is ready to defend, you will convene your dissertation committee.You will need to give each member a copy of the dissertation several weeks in advance, so that they have a chance to read it and study it. Meetings typically go like this: The chair of the committee presides, and pretty quickly turns the floor over to you. You then give an overview of your study, why you did it, what you found, what significance you think it has. Then the chair will open the floor for discussion. The format for this part of the meeting may be structured, so that you go around the room taking questions from each person, or it might be more informal, and everyone discusses one issue and then another. In either case, the meeting typically lasts for 1.5 hours, and people will be testing you to see if you are on top of the issue you have been studying.

PS: Don't forget that you need to be enrolled during the semester in which you defend your dissertation.


© Mary Kennedy, 2006

Here’s how to build a schedule forward from today.  You don’t need scheduling or project-management software to manage your thesis schedule, though you can of course use it if it helps.  I recommend doing some key tasks on paper initially, as noted below; how you transfer them to a calendaring or other organizing mechanism is totally up to you.  You may want to read the list of schedule myths before your start. For one of the best reads on the virtues of checklists and schedules in helping you complete big projects, read The Checklist Manifesto by Atul Gawande.

Remember, the point of the exercise is not the schedule itself: it is to help you complete your thesis in as predictable a way as possible.

1. List your assumptions.  These are the high-level guidelines within which you now must work: they can, and often do, change over the course of your thesis.  Your assumptions should include financial ones, institutional ones, and personal ones.  Here are some examples:

  1. I will have two years post-candidacy exam funding and can apply for a non-guaranteed third year.
  2. One year of funding is a fellowship; the other requires teaching.
  3. My dissertation proposal must be approved no later than N months after candidacy exams.
  4. I will enter the academic or non-academic job market before my thesis is done / within N months of finishing.
  5. To be competitive in that market, I will need to present at N conferences and publish M papers by the time I enter the market.
  6. [Spouse] needs to start work in [other location] after N years to advance his / her career.

2. Before you build your schedule, discuss your assumptions.  Discuss them with your adviser, your department’s director of graduate studies (DGS), particularly if your conversation with your adviser does not go as you predict, and your spouse or partner.  The first two conversations should happen face to face rather than via email, even if you typically communicate with your adviser and DGS that way.  (Of course you need not discuss personal assumptions with your adviser or DGS.)  The conversations with your spouse or partner will probably be ongoing, but you should have an explicit discussion up front.

This is perhaps the single most important step.  If you have not read chapter 3 of Atul Gawande’s The Checklist Manifesto, “The End of the Master Builder,” on the importance of these conversations for successful project completion, I recommend it highly.

3. List all the required tasks.  This exercise not only helps build a schedule but reminds you that a dissertation is not an endless, unmapped road but a series of discrete, finite tasks.  Get your department’s and your institution’s list of required steps for thesis completion and submission, so you know all those last steps that take longer than you might expect. You should draft this on your own initially, and then get advice from your adviser, and especially from other graduate students, preferably from at least two students from your department, or at least your institution, who have finished within the previous six months. They will be your best guides to current requirements and realities that you will encounter.  Don’t neglect to list learning tasks, such as learning how to construct a database for your data or how to manipulate and display the images you will need to include in your dissertation, for example.

Yes, you will probably miss some tasks.  That’s fine: schedules can be updated and changed to reflect new information.

4. Estimate how long each task will take.  You should strike a balance between the excesses of hoped-for perfection (“pretty sure I can knock off chapter 2 faster than I have ever written anything before”) and abdication of responsibility, or despair (“who can tell?”).  If you have no idea how long a task will take, estimate: if you don’t know how long it will take to do a first draft of chapter 2, estimate that it will take as long as your first draft of your most recent seminar paper.  Here too you should ask for advice from those who have completed theses recently.

One critical skill in managing your thesis schedule will be learning how to ask, politely and professionally, when your adviser and other committee members, if any, will provide feedback on what you submit to them.  Anxiously awaiting feedback and allowing that anxiety to halt work is one of the single biggest causes of elongated dissertation schedules.  Ask others with the same adviser and readers how long it has taken to get work back from them; if it is reasonably promptly, you many not need to ask. If you speak to your adviser and get an unsatisfactory answer (“When I get back from leave in 6 months”; “when I get around to it”), consult your department’s director of graduate studies or a trusted faculty member.  Most advisers and directors of graduate studies are, in my experience, only too glad when graduate students want to manage their thesis schedules.

You don’t need to estimate down to the minute, or even the day.  Unless you know a particular task will only take, say one good day’s work, a week is a good unit of measurement to work with.

5. Figure out which tasks depend on other tasks.  As you list tasks, it will become clear that some tasks depend on each other — you cannot start writing a chapter that depends on data analysis without having first gathered all your data, to use an obvious example.  You should not, however, create false dependencies: it is not true that you cannot start drafting chapter 3 while chapter 2 is still being read by one of your readers.

6. List tasks that can proceed in parallel.  For example, if you will include a separate literature survey in your thesis (as opposed to in your thesis proposal), you might consider allocating a large block of time to get the majority of work done, but then a few hours a week or month to add new information as you uncover it.   There should be no meaningful time interval that is entirely waiting for someone else’s work, unless you are on vacation at that time (good planning, if so!); plan to start outlining the next major part of the thesis while you wait for feedback on what you just sent your supervisor.

7. List the tasks with their estimated durations in chronological order.  If you have had input from other graduate students and at least one faculty member, this task should be relatively straightforward.

8. Create a schedule.    I recommend that you do this part of building a schedule initially on paper, in pencil.  Print out calendar pages, a page per month, and lay out the tasks on them.  Remember to account for tasks that must be performed during standard workweeks, such as when research facilities are open. Remember to account for delays in  faculty responding owing to leaves, or to their not having access to email during their own fieldwork, for example. Remember to account for travel for conferences and research, and vacations, both yours and your adviser’s.  Remember the thesis is not all you will be doing, if it isn’t — you will need to account for time when you want to submit a paper for a conference or for publication, planning a syllabus and teaching, or otherwise doing work on something other than your thesis.

And, yes, you will not remember everything or foresee everything.  That is fine: schedules can change.  No schedule or plan survives reality intact and unchanged, and the ability to adapt is a sign of intelligence.

9. Examine the schedule for sanity.  If your schedule shows you finishing well beyond the date you hope to finish or can afford to be working on your thesis, you will have to adjust your thesis plan, the duration of some tasks, or your expectations, or some of all of these.

Important sanity check: the range of hours you will be able to dedicate to your thesis in any given week will range from 0 (travelling to and from and attending a conference; grading week), to 20 (a normal teaching week without papers to grade; part-time summer job), to 40 ( a work-week you can mostly devote to your thesis.  Just use what ever large, medium, and small numbers make sense for you and that you can realistically stick to.

10. Review the schedule with a graduate student or two who have recently finished their theses, preferably in your department.  Ask that they particularly help you with tasks you have missed (“it’ll cost you, but I found it worth it to pay a proofreader; it took a week to get the manuscript back”).  if the graduate student makes fun of you for doing a schedule, find a different graduate student.

11. Insert milestones to check overall progress, assumptions, and adjust the schedule if required.  Every month or two months, you should examine the schedule as a whole and make sure that your assumptions have not changed (“I thought I’d get funding that semester, but no, so have to double the length chapters 4 and 5 will take as I will also have to teach”).  Any time you miss a milestone, you will need to decide whether you can make up the time or whether you will need to slip other parts of the schedule to accommodate the miss.

12. Translate your schedule into whatever system you will use to manage it.  You can track a large project in Excel, any of many other applications, or a straightforward list on paper with dates.  A very helpful device is task reminders on an online calendar, if you use Outlook, Google mail with its calendar, or some equivalent.  Smaller tasks can go on the calendar; larger tasks should also have reminders set, say, 5 or 10 days before they are due.  Deadlines do focus the attention.  If you change your overall schedule, remember to change the dates in your calendaring system.

13.  Write your thesis.  That is, after all, what the schedule should help you do.

Good luck!

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