Project Organisation

PhD's often struggle to communicate the range of skills they have to potential employers, and project management is a really important one. In 2001 the Joint Skills Statement by Research Councils (UK) specified that graduate students should be able to take ownership for and manage their careers progression by setting realistic goals, and identifying and developing ways to improve their employability. Although the subject specific skills you aquire may be very specific, over the course of a PhD you should develop a range of methodological and personal/ social skills that are widely transferrable, including project management and related personal skills of creativity, autonomy, team work, conflict management, communication and flexibility.

The key issue is how you communicate these skills to potential employers, and a central component of being able to do this is to start at the beginning of your project to implement sound planning techniques. Documenting and planning will help you practically to get what you need to do done in a timely manner. But, equally important, it will offer you many opportunities to reflect on your own practices and work. For example, if you have catalogued notes from each supervision meeting you will have a trail that regularly documents your work over the period of your PhD and illustrates key decisions, changes, problems and victories.

Hold your schedule lightly to begin with! It’s vital that you do have one, but remember the process of research and writing is not always strictly linear, so be willing to change, adapt and review as you go! There are a few key things that you can begin to do that will help you.

1 - Try to map out your year using a simple planner like this. Planning should help you to be realistic about the work you have to do and identify high pressure periods. However, along with big deadlines like supervision meetings or conference submissions, you should also think about how to break big projects up and put smaller deadlines into your planning.

2 - Focus on your current workload using a simple tool like a Kanban board. There are a whole range of digital project management tools (see Organisation and Time Management), whatever your preference, use something!

3 - At the very beginning of your PhD get into the habit of keeping good records of your activities and achievements. Having a comprehensive list of your activities will help you to give substance to claims that you make about your transferable skills when you are seeking employment. Include all the significant things you do; courses, teaching, professional skills development, presentations, language courses, leadership examples, funding acquisiton and anything else you think may be valuable. You could use this design or one of your own, but this information will be will be very difficult to collate retrospectively.

You might find it useful to engage with a more systematic tool to track your research and skills development. Use your institutional log-in to access Vitae's Researcher Development Framework Planner, or take a look at Science Career's Individual Development Plan. Having a digital or written portfolio will help you be more reflective, purposeful and strategic. It will help you to audit and analyse the skills you have and those you need to develop. When you finish your work it will be an invaluable log of evidence for you to use in your career progression.

As you plan keep in mind helpful questions: what do you want to achieve? What deadlines would be helpful? How can you break big projects up? What practicalities are there for achieving these different steps? Which should be prioritised and which are dependent on something else in order to happen?

As you begin to schedule things onto your planner (or Gantt chart) you can bear in mind related considerations and organisational issues.

Make plans with people:

  • Regular supervision meetings
  • Identify research participants
  • Identify collaborators
  • Consider requirements from
    research partners/ sponsors

Get permissions sorted:

  • For facilities, resources, data
  • From participants
  • To use/ reproduce material
  • Criminal records checks (DBS)

Organise space:

  • Labs, equipment and technology
  • Meetings
  • Interviews
  • Other facilities

Organise equipment:

  • IT and conferencing
  • Survey tools
  • Software for stats or data
  • Digital technology
  • Reference management

Sources and Materials:

  • Library access and digital sign-in
  • Materials to order
  • Information/ permission sheets for participants
  • Project management tools


  • Budget planning
  • Contingency planning
  • Identify funding sources

Fieldwork preparation:

  • Contact partners or identify them
  • Plan logistics and contingency
  • Develop ethics review

University documents:

  • Complete and file copies of
    registration documents
  • Clarify ongoing institutional requirements
  • Familiarise yourself with institutional support structures/ contacts

Conference goals:

  • Decide where you aim to present
  • Account for fees and costs in budgets
  • Apply for travel grants

Many of these initial plans will need revisiting and refining frequently through the project. Keep records of how your ideas, plans and organisation develop. This may turn out to be very useful when you write up your methodology and reflect on issues, problems and developments in your research design and methodology. These documents are also helpful to take with you to supervision meetings to discuss.

You can find more detailed advice about planning a research project in Stella Cottrell's, 2014, ‘Dissertations and Project Reports: A Step by Step Guide’, Basingstoke, Palgrave Macmillan (Falmouth University e-book) (University of Exeter e-book) and in other books on this resource list.