‘You’re always planning!’: The perils and importance of thesis planning in your PhD

PhD Planning


The other half came home the other day to the sight of me sat on the floor, surrounded by small squares of paper with one or two words on, delicately placed in position to form a web of ideas. Faced with an arched eyebrow I explained ‘I’m planning’. J frowned, ‘You’re always planning’. It’s true. I am always planning. And I feel like I’m not getting anywhere because of it.


Behind me were several other pieces of larger papers with lists, a mind map, and some scrawls linked by arrows. I’ve always loved that moment in a crime thriller when the detective arranges everything on a notice board, linked by drawing pins and yarn and the light bulb appears before their very eyes, so I thought I’d try and re-create this, after failing with A4 paper and a desk, for my latest ‘homework’ from my supervisions – which has been to write a detailed plan, with chapter headers and explanations, for my thesis. Faced by the lack of a pin board, pins, and yarn, I set about cutting and ‘placing’ on the floor, ready and waiting for my light bulb moment.


It didn’t come.

Not in a flash of inspiration, at the very least.


Doing any form of research you’re continually faced with the idea that your work has to be ‘original’and ‘contribute something’. But after you’ve decided what it is you’re actually examining, after it’s been accepted, after you’ve done a literature review, you’ve started reading and writing, there comes a point when you’re so far in, but not far enough out again, that you get lost. You’re wading up a mountain of texts, theories, analyses, and ideas with no solid ground and no respite. I expected my original and brilliant idea to be there, visible from the bottom of this mountain, like a temple to the research Gods.


It’s not. And it wasn’t.


This is when I realised that not only do I have to scale this mountain, I also have to build the temple on the top of it. By which I mean, construct my ideas myself. They aren’t just there waiting. Moreover, there’s not just one aspect in this. As well as the many tools (theories, source texts, research, bibliography, language skills, etc.) you need to make the ideas, you need different points (floor, walls, ceiling, doors / or chapter 1 on subjectivity, chapter 2 on spatiality, etc.) to make the idea whole, or, at the very least, in a post-structuralist world where nothing forms a coherence whole, make the idea gel. This is why planning, careful, immaculate, and intense planning is needed. You need the blueprints, else it’ll all fall down.


I recognise this. I have always planned, and planned a lot at this. And even planned and planned again. But trying to do this plan has been a stumbling block. I’m wondering why I’m doing the thesis plan in my second year – shouldn’t I already have done it by now? If I haven’t done it does it mean I’ve not been working properly? Should I be doing this project? Am I getting anywhere? What even is my idea? If I don’t know the plan yet, does that mean there ISN’T an idea? Omg should I even be doing a PhD anyway?! And the questions spiral into a whirlwind of doubt gathering speed.



And that’s when I got my inspiration. Not for my original and amazing thesis idea. But, instead, for the idea that you have to form the idea yourself. And with the help of my careful cutting and placing, and the Palgrave Study Skills Authoring a PhD (Dunleavy, Patrick. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003) I set about constructing some form of structure for my thesis: I looked at the overall subject matter, my approach, my aim/thesis, and how to get there, through the different points I’d make. And now I have my chapter plan (…. I guess I’ll have do follow these same questions to structure each chapter now…).


But I don’t just have my thesis structure. I also have realised that planning, planning, and planning again is necessary and doesn’t mean you’re not making progress. In fact, the actual moment of putting words to a page is one tiny step in the process, bordered either side with more planning. For every hurdle (poor weather ruining the building process, a cave found under the site for the temple, etc.) you have to re-plan, and for every new idea (a heating system because it’s snowy on top of the mountain, or a window for the view) you have to re-plan. And you can’t plan without some initial ideas anyway (where the temple’s going to be, how tall, etc.). So I’ve come to the conclusion, that just because I feel late in doing this indepth plan, which made me think I’d failed the first yr of my PhD, doesn’t mean I am. And maybe, just maybe, I’ve got a more secure blueprint because of it. But even if not, don’t worry, I have a rubber and the backspace key. And I’m sure I’ll be planning again soon, but it’s still a step forward.

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