Gantt charts provide a visual method to view the overall length of a project, which tasks are dependent on each other, and track progress of the project. This explains why they are widely used in project management.
PhD students can use Gantt charts to visualize and track tasks and progress on their dissertation, as well as estimate when they may complete it. I have used this tool, and found it to be very helpful! Keep reading to see my charts, and some useful insights I’ve learned along the way.
My 7 tips on using a Gantt chart for visualizing and tracking PhD tasks and progress:
1. List out all the tasks
Start with what you know. Especially when you’re not exactly sure what your topic is, and are doing exploratory literature reviews and analyses, you might just have high-level tasks. The first few versions of my Gantt chart were high-leveled and very basic. It was a good starting point, and it evolved over time as I learned more and had more specific tasks.
2. Categorize tasks by dissertation sections
As I started working on drafting my dissertation when I had enough direction, I found myself continuously trying to remember which chapters or sections of my dissertation were completed, and which ones still needed work (including data analyses). I then categorized the tasks by major section in my dissertation, which I found extremely helpful. Categorizing the tasks by dissertation sections can also help you list the tasks you need to complete.
3. Estimate duration
Sometimes, we won’t know exactly how long a task will take us. That’s ok! Just do an estimate. Because remember, this Gantt chart will evolve as we learn more and get more information.
While estimating the duration, try not to be too ambitious, because you will easily discourage yourself or add unnecessary stress. You can make deadlines to challenge yourself, but be sure to keep balance between realistic and ambitious estimates.
4. Take dependencies into account
When deciding when to start a task or the duration of a task, consider dependencies. You could even represent dependencies by having arrows point to tasks they are dependent on. I personally did not do this because I didn’t want my Gantt chart to look too cluttered.
5. Plan to revisit sections to proofread and improve
If you look carefully at some of my Gantt charts, I have multiple blocks for the same task. This is because I plan to come back to that section to proofread and/or improve the section, or update it based on my data analyses. I think it’s good to come back to sections after you’ve given it rest for some time. It lets you proofread and improve more effectively.
6. Annotate the Gantt chart
Note questions, confusion, thoughts for future directions, etc. on or near the Gantt chart. This will help you remember and understand the progress you made on the task, and how your plans for the dissertation may change in the future. You can also use specific shapes or symbols to represent progress and notes (similar to bullet journaling).
7. Make updates as needed
You will probably have several revisions of the Gantt chart (I did), and that’s ok! With time and as we make progress on our dissertation, we will learn new things or make changes, leading to a new revision of the Gantt chart.
5 Ways to make the Gantt chart
1. Graph Paper
- Graph paper is helpful as the grid lines help align and scale the timeline and writing.
- You can use loose graph paper and hang on the wall. If you want the Gantt chart to be larger, you could put multiple graph papers together.
- You can use a notebook or composition book of graph paper – this option is more portable and is what I did.
2. Plain Paper
- You can use plain paper instead of graph paper, in the same ways as graph paper. Plain paper will have a nice clean look, but it will be a little more difficult to align and scale the timeline and writing.
- Whiteboards and blackboards allow for a larger, more permanent but also modifiable solution. You can erase and redraw parts of or the entire timeline.
- You can use any number of apps or methods to make a Gantt chart on a computer (such as, Excel, Visio, MS Project, etc.), and then print it. Once printed, you can hang it or add it to a binder/notebook/planner.
- The nice thing about making the chart on a computer is that it is easy to modify and update, and you can keep different versions of the Gantt chart.
5. Post-it notes
- Lastly, you can use post-it notes! Set up post it notes for the duration, and then post it notes for the tasks you need to work on.
Here are some additional articles that have useful information on making Gantt charts, and using them for PhDs:
- How to make a simple Gantt chart: This article provides steps on making a Gantt chart (generally, not specific for PhD).
- Visualising your PhD using a Gantt chart: This article has additional, useful tips on using the Gantt chart for PhD planning.
- Planning the timeline and progress of your doctoral dissertation: This article also talks about using a Gantt chart to plan a PhD, but with starting with the deadline and backcasting. This article also references to many other useful resources.