Planning your PhD research: A 3-year PhD timeline example

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Elements to include in a 3-year PhD timeline

What to include in a 3-year PhD timeline depends on the unique characteristics of a PhD project, specific university requirements, agreements with the supervisor/s and the PhD student’s career ambitions. if(typeof ez_ad_units!='undefined'){ez_ad_units.push([[250,250],'master_academia_com-medrectangle-4','ezslot_7',340,'0','0'])};__ez_fad_position('div-gpt-ad-master_academia_com-medrectangle-4-0');

The example scenario: Completing a PhD in 3 years

Furthermore, Maria’s cumulative dissertation needs an introduction and conclusion chapter which frame the four individual journal articles, which form the thesis chapters.

Example: planning year 1 of a 3-year PhD

Example: planning year 2 of a 3-year phd, example: planning year 3 of a 3-year phd, example of a 3 year phd gantt chart timeline, final reflection, get new content delivered directly to your inbox, 10 amazing benefits of getting a phd later in life, how to prepare your viva opening speech, related articles, 10 powerful methodology courses for phd students [online], phd thesis types: monograph and collection of articles, better thesis writing with the pomodoro® technique, dealing with conflicting feedback from different supervisors.


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Guidelines to draw a timeline of your PhD

2018 Nov 20 | Resource , Soft Skills | 0

In a previous article I talked about how project management can help reduce PhD students’ anxieties . Most of my PhD I felt very much confused. Sometimes I could not even say whether I was still in the beginning, somewhere in the middle or close to the end of it. Therefore, I suggested that supervisors and students should try to define a tangible objective early on in the doctoral process, and that they should have regular check-point meetings to adjusts plans in order to keep the student’s project on track. I also mentioned that it is highly important to clarify what the supervisors and students long-term expectations are .

In another article I talked about Gantt charts , a great project management tool to draw and visualize a project outline.

Do you see where we’re going here? Let’s draw a timeline of your PhD in the shape of a Gantt chart! I know, it’s in the title ;)

In this other article about Gantt charts, I explained that there are some drawbacks to keep in mind. Indeed, upfront planning techniques like Gantt charts tend to lack flexibility and when things don’t work as planned it can actually increase the feeling of failure, which is exactly what we want to avoid here.

So, does it even make sense to draw a timeline early on in the doctoral process? I believe it does! We can keep the drawbacks of Gantt charts in mind and draw such a timeline if we define guidelines of how to use it .

1. Example & download:

I draw below an example for the institute where I did my PhD: the Institute of Biology at the University of Fribourg in Switzerland. Therefore, it is designed for a 4-year PhD program with annual committee meetings and for students who spend a lot of time performing lab experiments . However, it can be easily adapted to any field or any doctoral program.

You can download for free the Excel file I used to make this timeline by clicking here .

example of a phd timeline

Because I want this to be a general example but also because it is such a long time scale, I kept the level of detail to the minimum to make it flexible and to avoid over-planning . The time for each task here is a very rough estimate, it is meant to be adapted to what you think is best for you or to what is expected in your doctoral program. Importantly, the uncertainty level is increasing with time . You don’t have to start writing a paper on the 11th month of your third year, maybe you’ll start much earlier or much later and it will be perfectly fine. This is just a broad overview to help visualize what the main steps are, but their exact length or when they should start will get clarified once you are closer to it.

2. Why draw a timeline?

To draw such a timeline and for it to be realistic and useful, you are going to ask very concrete questions, to yourself and to your supervisor , like what are the important steps, what are the milestones (technical milestones for developing a protocol, committee meetings, exams…), what are the risks, do you have only one project or do you have more, maybe one large risky project and one smaller safer project, and all other questions which are relevant to you.

Project management is effective if concrete questions are openly discussed. If your supervisor doesn’t bring up these questions with you, it might feel quite scary for you to ask for it. To help you find the courage to so, I believe that having such a timeline will provide you a highly visual and attractive medium to foster these discussions.

When I learned about Gantt charts at the beginning of my second year of PhD studies, I draw myself such a timeline, but I didn’t dare to discuss it with my supervisor. With no surprise things really didn’t work out the way I planned it. Supervisors by default have more experience than a junior PhD student so they should know better what is realistic, what is expected and how much upfront planning can be done depending on the project.

3. Guidelines for how to make & use the timeline throughout your PhD:

This timeline is now a tool which is going to grow with you throughout your PhD. At first it is a rough overview of the main steps, if you keep it update with what you really do, at the end it will be a true overview of everything you’ve accomplished. Therefore, on top of guiding you through it, it will become a great tool to look back at your PhD experience once you’re finished.

Thanks for reading and I hope these ideas can help you :)

Make sure to read my previous article about Gantt charts where I explained that it can be used both for long-time scale like here, or on shorter time scale (like 2 months) with a higher level of detail.

Looking for more reading about project management for research? Have a look at the resource I made Project Management resource for PhD students and supervisors !

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example of a phd timeline

University of Jyväskylä

A typical timeline for the PhD project

Below you can find an example of the timeline for PhD project which gives you an overall idea about completing PhD degree in 4 years. Therefore, please do not copy-paste the example below to your application. For the application, you should personalize the plan to meet your own goals, list studies in a study plan (i.e. code, the name of the course, schedule), and give the schedule of research in a research plan. See more the guidelines of the study plan and the research plan .

Start planning by counting back from the desired graduation date and break every year into small milestones. Be realistic. The time it takes to write a manuscript, especially the first one, and thesis is usually much longer than anticipated. Therefore start writing as early as possible. Take into account holidays which can affect, for example, thesis examinations process. It is recommended that you invest the last year of your doctoral training solely for writing the manuscripts and thesis. Note also that the plan may change during the course of your PhD and therefore your plan should allow some flexibility.


Marino J., Stefan M.I. & Blackford S. 2014. Ten simple rules for finishing your PhD. PLoS Comput. Biol. 10(12): e1003954

The PhD Journey

Written by Mark Bennett

The PhD process is made up of quite a few components and milestones, from the literature review and writing up your dissertation right through to the viva examination at the end.

This section is a guide on how to do a PhD, providing in-depth advice and information on some of the main challenges and opportunities you’ll meet along the way. If you’re looking for a more concise overview of a doctorate, skip down to our summary of the seven main steps of a PhD and our PhD timeline .

example of a phd timeline

If you're interesting in studying a PhD in Switzerland, we have a details on how much it is going to cost you and where you can find the right funding for it.

example of a phd timeline

Applying for a PhD can feel a bit daunting. Here is a checklist of all the things you need to do to make sure you have everything covered in your PhD application.

example of a phd timeline

Thinking of applying for the Doctor of Engineering (EngD)? Our guide covers everything you need to know about the qualification, including costs, applications, programme content, and how it differs from a PhD.

example of a phd timeline

Not sure what to expect in the transition from Masters to PhD study? In this guide, we take a look at how the two qualifications compare, including applications, course structure, assessment and more.

example of a phd timeline

Every student will need to write an abstract for their PhD dissertation. Here's everything you need to know about what an academic abstract is and how to write one.

example of a phd timeline

What can you expect from a PhD? What's life actually like as a postgraduate student? Read our guides to the doctoral research experience.

7 stages of the PhD journey

1. preparing a research proposal.

Strictly speaking, your research proposal isn’t part of your PhD. Instead it’s normally part of the PhD application process.

The research proposal sets out the aims and objectives for your PhD: the original topic you plan to study and / or the questions you’ll set out to answer.

It also explains why your work is worthwhile and why it fits with the expertise and objectives of your university.

Finally, a PhD proposal explains how you plan to go about completing your doctorate. This involves identifying the existing scholarship your work will be in dialogue with and the methods you plan to use in your research.

All of this means that, even though the proposal precedes the PhD itself, it plays a vital role in shaping your project and signposting the work you’ll be doing over the next three or more years.

2. Carrying out a literature review

The literature review is normally the first thing you’ll tackle after beginning your PhD and having an initial meeting with your supervisor.

It’s a thorough survey of work in your field (the current scholarly ‘literature’) that relates to your project or to related topics.

Your supervisor will offer some advice and direction, after which you’ll identify, examine and evaluate existing data and scholarship.

In most cases the literature review will actually form part of your final PhD dissertation – usually setting up the context for the project, before you begin to explain and demonstrate your own thesis.

Sometimes a literature review can also be evaluated as part of your MPhil upgrade .

Research vs scholarship

Research and scholarship are both important parts of a PhD. But they aren't the same thing - and it's helpful to know the difference. Research is the original work you produce with your thesis. Scholarship is the expert understanding of your subject area that enables you to conduct valuable research.

3. Conducting research and collecting results

Once you’ve carried out your literature review, you’ll move from scholarship to research .

This doesn’t mean you’ll never read another academic article or consult someone else’s data again. Far from it. You’ll stay up to date with any new developments in your field and incorporate these into your literature review as necessary.

But, from here on in, your primary focus in your PhD process is going to be investigating your own research question. This means carrying out organised research and producing results upon which to base your conclusions.

Types of PhD research

The research process and the type of results you collect will depend upon your subject area:

Whatever subject you’re in, this research work will account for the greater part of your PhD results. You’ll have regular meetings with your supervisor, but the day-to-day management of your project and its progress will be your own responsibility.

In some fields it’s common to begin writing up your findings as you collect them, developing your thesis and completing the accompanying dissertation chapter-by-chapter. In other cases you’ll wait until you have a full dataset before reviewing and recording your conclusions.

4. Completing an MPhil to PhD upgrade

At UK universities it’s common to register new PhD students for an MPhil before ‘ upgrading ’ them to ‘full’ doctoral candidates. This usually takes place after one year of full-time study (or its part-time equivalent).

Forcing you to register for a ‘lesser’ degree may seem strange, but it’s actually an important part of the training and development a PhD offers:

The MPhil upgrade is when you take the step from the former to the latter.

The MPhil upgrade exam

Upgrading from MPhil to PhD registration usually involves a form of oral exam – similar to the viva voce that concludes a PhD. But, unlike a full viva, the MPhil upgrade is less formal and only covers part of your thesis.

In most cases you’ll submit a small amount of the material you’ve produced so far. This could be a draft of your first chapter (or part of it) and / or your literature review. You could also be asked to reflect on your progress in general.

You’ll then sit down with your supervisor and someone else from your department (familiar with your field, but unrelated to your project). They’ll offer feedback on the quality of your work and ask questions about your findings.

The aim of the process won’t be to examine your drafts so much as to confirm that your project has the potential to justify a PhD – and that you’re on track to complete it on time.

‘Failing’ a PhD upgrade is actually quite rare. Your university may ask you to repeat the procedure if they are concerned that you haven’t made sufficient progress or established a viable plan for the rest of your project.

What is an MPhil?

The MPhil (Master of Philosophy) is also a research degree, but its scope is more limited than a PhD (Doctor of Philosophy). And no, just like a PhD, an MPhil isn’t necessarily a Philosophy qualification. Our guide covers all you need to know about the difference between a MPhil and PhD.

5. PhD teaching, conferences and publications

During the PhD process, you’ll have lots of opportunities to take part in extra-curricular activities, such as teaching, academic conferences and publications.

Although it isn’t usually compulsory to participate in these, they can be an incredibly rewarding experience and will look great on your CV.

Teaching during a PhD normally involves hosting undergraduate seminars or supervising students in the lab, as well as marking work and providing feedback.

Academic conferences are an excellent way to network with like-minded colleagues and find out the latest developments in your field. You might even be able to present your own work to your peers at one of these events.

Publishing during a PhD will help you increase your academic profile, as well as give you experience of the peer review process. It’s not normally a requisite of your PhD, but publications will certainly help if you plan on applying for postdoc positions.

6. Writing your thesis

As the culmination of three or more years of hard work, the thesis (or dissertation) is the most important part of the procedure to get your PhD, presenting you with the opportunity to make an original scholarly contribution to your discipline.

Our guide to writing your thesis covers everything you need to know about this lengthy research project, from structure and word count to writing up and submission.

We’ve also written a guide to the PhD dissertation abstract , which is an important part of any thesis.

7. Defending your PhD results at a viva voce

Unlike other degrees, a PhD isn’t normally marked as a piece of written work. Instead your dissertation will be submitted for an oral examination known as a viva voce (Latin for ‘living voice’).

This is a formal procedure, during which you ‘defend’ your thesis in front of appointed examiners, each of whom will have read your dissertation thoroughly in advance.

Examiners at a viva voce

A PhD is normally examined by two academic experts:

Your supervisor will help you prepare for the viva and will offer advice on choosing an external examiner. However, they will not normally be present during the examination.

Ready to take the next step?

There's lots more information about PhD study elsewhere in our advice section . Or, if you're ready to start looking at different projects, why not check out one of the thousands of current PhD opportunities in our database?

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UCL Ear Institute


Typical timetable for full-time PhD student (3 Year)

Students and studentships.

John and Zoe…

Find out what our current cohort of research students are getting up to, where our past students have ended up and whether we have any Studentships currently advertised on our jobs page:

Treseder Lab

Fungi, Ecosystems, and Global Change

Sample timeline for PhD students

April 25, 2015 by Kathleen K. Treseder

example of a phd timeline

Read broadly and deeply in area of interest

Apply for fellowships and student-oriented grants

Develop plan for summer project (by April)

Perform field or lab project in summer

Develop idea for dissertation research and begin writing dissertation proposal (by December)

Complete formal literature review, meta-analysis, proof-of-method, or proof-of concept related to dissertation idea (by end of Spring Quarter)

Submit manuscript from above study (by end of summer)

Submit dissertation proposal to committee (by end of September)

Advance to Candidacy (by end of October)

Submit NSF DDIG proposal (October)

Perform field or lab research

Submit manuscript for completed lab or field work (by end of summer)

Complete remaining field and lab work

Apply for postdoctoral positions and funding

Finish writing dissertation

Defend dissertation and submit final version to UCI (by end of Spring Quarter)

Submit manuscript for completed lab or field work

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UC Davis School of Education home page

PhD Timeline and Milestones

There is no specific length of time associated with earning a PhD. Across disciplines and campuses, the average amount of time to earn the degree is between four and five years, although individual time varies widely.

The education program was planned to span at least three years and was designed for students who already have undertaken graduate work and already demonstrated competence and interest in educational research. The length of the program, however, is based on the student’s progress in mastering subject matter, preparing for examinations, preparing research proposals, and conducting original research. The nature of these activities differs and makes for considerable time variability among students in the same program.

Year-by-Year Guideline

A general guideline for planning your graduate program is described below.

During the first year, students normally complete any prerequisites that are deemed necessary by the admissions committee, the graduate advisor, or faculty advisor. General program prerequisites are noted on the Advising Form in this handbook.

In addition to prerequisites, in the fall all PhD students are required to complete the one-quarter, 4-unit Proseminar In Education (EDU 291).

All students will take the following methodology core courses:

Second year

During the second year of the program, students complete any remaining background course work or required course work. The rest of the second year is devoted to completing courses in your area of specialization. At least 32 units (approximately eight courses) are required for the area of specialization; these are selected with the assistance of the faculty advisor. You should also complete at least two advanced methodology courses.  Students will also complete the Preliminary Examination by the end of the second year.

Second/Third year

During the second and third year, students prepare for and complete the qualifying examination. The student and his or her qualifying examination committee will design a qualifying examination to assess readiness to complete the dissertation.

Fourth year plus

PhD dissertations must satisfy the standards and format of the Graduate Studies Office and those of an appropriate publications manual, for example, that of the American Psychological Association (latest edition). In general, the style and format of the journals by the AERA should be used in written work in this program.

The Office of Graduate Studies will assign a three-person committee to guide the dissertation, with one member serving as chair. Normally a student’s dissertation advisor will be the chair. All three members of the committee must approve the dissertation.

When the committee approves the dissertation, the student makes a public presentation of the dissertation results. The details of place and time for dissertation presentations will be publicly posted, and any member of the University community may attend and raise questions at this exit seminar. This presentation is not an examination, but an opportunity for students to inform members of the graduate group and others about their research. Participation in the process of research dissemination is viewed as a scholarly activity.

Expected Timeline for Completing Program Milestones

Students entering the Ph.D. program in Education are expected to make timely progress toward completing their doctoral studies. We have defined timely progress in terms of several program milestones. The table below specifies the time that students should take to complete each milestone. Students are encouraged to complete program milestones sooner than indicated, but not at the expense of producing quality work.

Students who do not complete program milestones within a normal time period are considered by the GGE faculty to be at risk of not completing the program successfully and will be counseled by their advisor to help them get back on track as quickly as possible.

Program Milestone Years to Completion

MILESTONE #1: Course requirements completed, Preliminary Exam passed, & Qualifying Exam committee formed two to three years from beginning of program

MILESTONE #2: Completion of both of the following two separate steps:

MILESTONE #3: Dissertation completed within four years past Milestone #2, not to exceed a total of seven years in the program.

We expect students to complete each milestone within the specified period of time. We recognize, however, that students come into the program with varied backgrounds and interest, and these will be reflected in somewhat different timelines through and between program milestones. We also recognize that exceptional circumstances can make it difficult for students to complete a program milestone within the normal period of time.

Progress in completing program milestones is an important criterion in shaping faculty evaluations of student work, including evaluations for fellowship and travel support, teaching assistantships, and research assistantships. GGE faculty also look for indications of each student’s course completion record, writing and reading ability, and writing and research productivity.

Faculty members also view the PhD program as a point of entry for students into the educational research community. Evidence that students are taking some initiative in joining this community - through collegial engagement with faculty, other doctoral students, and educational researchers in other venues (conferences, associations, journals, etc.) – is regarded very favorably by faculty members, not only on its own merits but as a resource to students in developing professional skills and dispositions. Evidence that students are not engaged in collegial relations of this sort is viewed by faculty members as a liability for students who hope to complete the program successfully and in a timely manner.

Prof. Maisha Winn presents at a conference


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  1. Planning your PhD research: A 3-year PhD timeline example

    Example: Planning year 3 of a 3-year PhD Month 1: Maria starts a second round of data collection, this time in collaboration with a community organisation. Month 2: Maria starts to analyse the material of the focus group and develops the argumentation for her fourth journal... Month 3: Maria ...

  2. Guidelines to draw a timeline of your PhD | Academiac

    Example & download: I draw below an example for the institute where I did my PhD: the Institute of Biology at the University of Fribourg in Switzerland. Therefore, it is designed for a 4-year PhD program with annual committee meetings and for students who spend a lot of time performing lab experiments.

  3. A typical timeline for the PhD project — Department of ...

    A typical timeline for the PhD project Below you can find an example of the timeline for PhD project which gives you an overall idea about completing PhD degree in 4 years. Therefore, please do not copy-paste the example below to your application.

  4. The PhD Journey - Stages of a Doctoral Degree |

    PhD timeline 1 month: Meet with your supervisor(s) and discuss your proposed project. Here you will clarify any changes that are needed and agree a schedule of meetings and a plan of work for the following months. 3-6 months: Clarify the direction of your research, methods and the necessity of any research trips.

  5. Typical timetable for full-time PhD student (3 Year) | UCL ...

    Typical timetable for full-time PhD student (3 Year) By 1 month. Research Log activated. Field of Study agreed. Assignment of Supervisors. Timetable for supervisory meetings and progress reports. Before 3 months. Agreement of thesis work plan, research method and timetable.

  6. Sample timeline for PhD students - University of California ...

    Sample timeline for PhD students April 25, 2015 by Kathleen K. Treseder Year 1 Read broadly and deeply in area of interest Apply for fellowships and student-oriented grants Develop plan for summer project (by April) Perform field or lab project in summer Year 2 Apply for fellowships and student-oriented grants

  7. PhD Timeline and Milestones - UC Davis School of Education

    MILESTONE #1: Course requirements completed, Preliminary Exam passed, & Qualifying Exam committee formed two to three years from beginning of program MILESTONE #2: Completion of both of the following two separate steps: Qualifying exam completed


    PhD timeline Author: Queensland University of Technology (QUT) Subject: Sample generic timeline for research higher degree students Keywords: PhD Milestones, Stage 2, confirmation, annual progress, final seminar, lodgement, thesis writing, research process, approvals, outputs. Created Date: 20100103233603Z