All / Originally Posted on Skirt

A Model of Efficiency

In addition to helping out at the conference over the weekend, I also had a meeting with my supervisor.  Supervisory meetings are designed to accomplish one thing: to terrify you into actually doing some work so you won’t have to show up without something to hide behind.

No, seriously, my supervisor is very supportive.   But fear of one’s supervisor is an innate part of graduate studentship, no matter how on top of things you feel yourself to be.  This was demonstrated vividly to me when my supervisor asked me to produce a complete draft of my PhD by this December. 

I think I must have visibly flinched when she said it, because she immediately pointed out that this would give me about two months to complete each chapter, plus I’ve already done finalized drafts of the first two.  (Which, given the fact that I had to completely change the research population for my PhD, are going to need such heavy revising that it’ll be like writing two new chapters in the end anyway.) 

She also wants to hold supervisory meetings more often now – once a month instead of once every two months.  This probably will go some way to ensure that I actually produce some work, since she lives in London and it’s a little silly for me to go all the way up there if we don’t have anything new to talk about. 

To help me get a handle on the tasks before me in the next nine months, I decided to turn to that old staple of PhD organizational facilitation, the Gantt chart. 

A Gantt chart is basically a big timeline that (in theory) helps you block out all the tasks you have to do within the time you have allotted to do them, so that once you’ve finished you can sit back, look at it and say, “Blimey, that’s a lot to do until December!” 

They’re also very useful for helping you determine how far behind schedule you are when you’re in the middle of things.  I made a lovely Gantt chart to plan my Master’s dissertation in the summer of 2007 which had a very measured, sedately paced approach to obtaining sources, actually reading and taking notes on the sources, then analysing and putting into words everything I’d learned.

As you may have already figured out, that’s not how life goes.  Instead, I spent many hours staring forlornly (and guiltily) at my cheery little Gantt chart, which unfortunately didn’t nudge its bars around just to make me feel better.  On the other hand, if it had, it would have looked extremely empty in the first two-thirds of the summer, then extremely full in the final three weeks.  (Though I still maintain that all that time spent doing nothing was actually productive time – I was unconsciously ruminating on the subject.  Or at least that’s what I told everyone at the time.) 

I use Excel to make my Gantt charts, and generally it takes me so long to do this that I might as well just get a giant calendar and scribble all over it.  In fact this would definitely be more productive but as I’m sure you all know, there is nothing to encourage feigned productivity like something that actually needs to be done.  This is why students’ rooms are so clean right before exams. 

But the thing about Excel is, if you want a chart to behave as a timeline, that is, to have dates on the X-axis, then instead of doing something sensible like entering the start and end dates in somewhere, instead you have to figure out a strange and seemingly meaningless numerical scale.  My current Gantt chart, which runs from the 1st of April through the 31st of December, has a minimum value of 39904 and a maximum of 40181.  (Also, for some reason, these are actually the values for the Y-axis, even though that’s the horizontal one on this chart.  I don’t understand, but it seems to work anyway.) 

Just to make things especially interesting, you can’t change the size of the labels on the chart, either.  This means that if I have a really long label, like “write paper for Connections conference, Bristol”, it runs into and completely obscures the next label (”Saqarah Hafla; London Trip”).  So either I have to make the print really small so it all fits on one line, or delete half the label (”Wr. ppr fr Conn Conf Brist.”)I really don’t know why I bother. But I’ve included a copy of my chart here, so that when I’m complaining about how much work I have to do in about four months’ time, you’ll know EXACTLY how far behind I am: