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“Organising your activities more carefully is an obvious way to gain more productive time.”
The most important thing to keep in mind throughout the dissertation project is there are two main aspects to manage; first is the wider project that includes your proposal, research and planning; the other is writing the report or dissertation itself. They are separate sections of the overall project even if they are intrinsically linked.
One of the main components of project management for your dissertation project is time management.
During your time at university, you will have already developed some time management skills, both consciously and unconsciously. When you had to complete previous assignments, attend lectures, or even to meet up with others to discuss university or none university topics, you had to manage your time effectively to be where you needed to be or do what you needed to do.
When it comes to managing your time effectively for your dissertation & project, you generally have more control over how you organise your time, but these means you have more responsibility to do it right. Here are some ways to rise to that responsibility:
List and prioritise tasks
The first thing you need to do, is recognise everything that needs to be done:
- Make a list of all project tasks - breaking it down into the smallest chunks you can think of.
- Order these by priority. You may want to use a priority matrix to help with this. Some tasks may be dependent on earlier tasks too, so make sure you prioritise anything that may hold you up.
Once you have done this, you are ready to start timetabling when to do each task.
It is personal choice what tool you use to timetable your work. Some people like to buy a large wall planner, others just use a calendar app on their phone. You may even have access to a specific project management tool. The important thing is to use something and that the tool is flexible enough for you to change things around easily - research is messy and things will not always go to plan.
- Start by putting in key deadlines and other things that cannot be moved (these do not need to be related to your research project).
- Look at the list of tasks you made earlier - decide how long you think you will need to complete each stage (this is obviously a guess at this point, but you need to start somewhere).
- Timetable as much as you can, especially high priority items or quick wins. Leave gaps though, to allow for some wiggle room when plans change.
- Remember to take into account when you work best. Most people work at their cognitive best about 2 hours after they wake up - so mid-morning is usually a good time for things you need to really think about. Leave mechanical tasks for when you know you will be more tired.
- Be realistic. You may struggle to get lab time when you want it, ethics approval may take longer than you anticipated, participants may be unavailable. Be prepared to move tasks and fill the gaps with things you CAN be getting on with (like reading and notemaking or learning new software).
- Leave time for writing up - work backwards from your deadline to timetable that part. However, remember that you do not need to finish your research before you start writing - introductions/literature reviews and parts of the methods section can be written at any time.
For more help, see our Time Management page.
Katrin Kilingsieck (2013) defines procrastination as:
the voluntary delay of an intended and necessary and/or [personally] important activity, despite expecting potential negative consequences that outweigh the positive consequences of the delay.
We know this is a big problem for a lot of people - in fact one of the top 25 most viewed TED talks is Tim Urban's Inside the mind of a master procrastinator - see below. It is always difficult to stop procrastinating when you seem to have so much time to complete one assignment - but there is a reason you have so much time - there is a lot to do!. Tim's tips for dealing with procrastination can be found on his excellent blog here: How to beat procrastination.
Visit our separate SkillsGuide on Beating procrastination for tips on how to avoid procrastinating.
No two students will have the same experience with their supervisor. Some will say their supervisor was amazing, some that they were awful - and every experience in between. There are, however things that you can do to manage the relationship and your expectations from it. There may still be unexpected issues, but you will have done all you can to ensure you get the support you need.
Remember this is supposed to be an independent project, their role is to support you through that - but there are limitations to what they can help with. They may also be supervising a number of different students and they will certainly have many other time commitments, so be realistic with your expectations!
The first meeting
Whether it is face-to-face or online, your first meeting is crucial as it sets out expectations for all future interactions. A lot of it will be spent talking about your research question, suitable methodologies etc. However, make sure you also ask the following:
- How often can you realistically expect to see me and how long for?
- Is it OK to email you with questions?
- What are your working patterns?
- Will you look at draft chapters/sections and give feedback?
- Is there anything you will not help me with?
- If you are unavailable and I am desperate, where else can I get support?
- Can we schedule another meeting now? (Even if this is a long way ahead - get in their diary!)
In any further meetings, make sure you come to them with specific questions to ask. You can also email these ahead of meetings to make sure your supervisor has an idea what you will want to discuss.
Always take notes, as it is easy to forget things afterwards. Consider asking your supervisor if it is OK to record the meeting - either using your phone in a face-to-face meeting or using the record feature in MS Teams. You can then go through it again later and pick out the key action points.
Even if your supervisor has said they are happy for you to email, keep this to a minimum. Remember this is an independent project and you shouldn't bug them about small things. Consider asking fellow students or the Skills Team if the question is fairly generic - only use your supervisor if real expertise in the subject or your methodology is needed.
If you are having real difficulties in getting to see your supervisor or in getting responses from emails, you should talk to or contact the module leader who may be able to intervene on your behalf. There may be a genuine reason why your supervisor is unavailable and they should be able to find this out and let you know, or mediate to ensure you get the support you need. In rare cases, you may be assigned a different supervisor.