Research methods books often treat research as if it exists in a bubble, separate from work, family, and social life. However, in reality, research has to be managed alongside all other activities. This is particularly the case for a long and involved project such as a PhD.
When I was writing my book Research and Evaluation for Busy Practitioners: A Time-Saving Guide, I interviewed 20 researchers in depth to find out how they managed the process. Many of them had done, or were doing, PhDs. I also drew on relevant research and my own doctoral experience. I found that there are four keys to successful management of the research process: plan, be organised, manage your time, and look after yourself.
My interviewees were unanimous about the need to plan carefully. Start with an outline plan for your whole PhD. Work out when you would like to submit your thesis for examination, and work backwards. My outline plan looked something like this:
Jan-Jun year 1 – read as much as possible, make notes, decide on methodology, write first draft of methodology chapter
Jul-Dec year 1 – read more, pilot and review data collection method, write first draft of literature review
Jan-Jun year 2 – collect data, begin analysis, read more, write second draft of methodology chapter, write first drafts of findings/discussion chapter and introduction
Jul-Dec year 2 – finish analysis, read more, write second draft of literature review and findings/discussion chapter, write first draft of conclusion
Jan-Jun year 3 – read more, write third drafts of literature review, methodology and findings/discussion chapters, write second drafts of introduction and conclusion
Jul-Dec year 3 – read more, write third drafts of introduction and conclusion, polish, proof-read, check references
Then break down each chunk into monthly goals, taking into account other commitments such as holidays. At the start of each week, check your monthly goals and make a to-do list for the week, then refer to this list daily to make sure you're on track.
Being organised will help you to put your plans into practice. If you can, set aside a space to work, and make sure you have everything you need at hand. Keep accurate records of your reading, data collection, and so on; this will save you time and stress.
You need to block out time in your diary to do research. Make sure you allocate enough time and use it effectively. Sitting at your computer, fiddling about on Facebook while exchanging text messages with a friend, does not count as effective use of time! One surprising finding from my research is that more time does not necessarily equal more productivity. People are often more productive when they work in short bursts in between other activities. A key skill for researchers is learning to use small chunks of time effectively. In half an hour you could read a journal article or write 250 words of your thesis. In 15 minutes you could make a phone call or two, or search the Web for relevant information. In five minutes you could read a page of a book or enter some questionnaire data into a spreadsheet. And if you have some spare time when you're not at your desk – e.g. waiting in a queue, standing in the shower, on the bus – you can think about your research, try to find solutions to any problems you may be facing.
And look after yourself. Remember to say 'no' – or learn to say 'no', if this is not a skill you've already acquired. Put your PhD first wherever necessary. You're making a major investment in your future which deserves to be a priority in your life. Network with other doctoral students for peer support – and don't feel you have to stick to students from your own discipline, as cross-disciplinary input can be very useful. If you haven't discovered #phdchat on Twitter, I would urge you to join this very supportive global community of doctoral students.
But at the same time, don't become too obsessive about your PhD. You need to stay in touch with your family and friends; take time off; reward yourself for hard work. Different rewards suit different people, so identify those that will suit you. Make them proportionate: for example, when you've reached your daily word count, you could take a break with a cup of tea and the newspaper; when you've finished a draft chapter, you might decide to have a good night out with friends. Doing a PhD is a major challenge, and every step along the way is a real achievement, so get in the habit of celebrating as you go along; it will boost your motivation. Best of luck!
There is more about this in chapter 4 of my book, and I have also written a short e-book called 'Managing The Research Process' which is currently available for 60p on Kindle and Nook and 98p on Kobo (prices may change). Other e-book titles are: Collecting Primary Data, Analysing Data, and Writing for Research.