By Claire Aitchison

This question comes up frequently for students and their supervisors as they try to plan for timely completion of the PhD. And we’ve written about it before.

We all acknowledge that writing productivity is more complex than any formula. But it is possible to make a reasonably accurate ‘guess-timate’ by adopting practices that increase productivity in combination with output calculations that are based on project targets, writing tasks, and real, personal circumstances.

A common practice is to identify the average length of a thesis (measured as chapter, page or word count) and estimate backwards from that. Without doubt, I agree that it is important for students to appreciate the size of the task ahead – and while word (chapter or page) count is a blunt instrument, it can be useful. As a recent blog indicates, identifying the target size for the thesis allows the writer to map out the number and relative size of chapters, and itemise the jobs ahead. But still we come back to the question of how long it takes to write a thesis. Is it possible to make a realistic assessment of the time we need to put aside for writing in order to meet our targets?

The long term schedule – planning to submission

With doctoral students I like to have an early conversation about the expected length of the thesis, so that we all agree on the size of the writing task. A draft Table of Contents with word counts for each segment becomes the working target guide. Next, we make an early Gantt chart to map out the months and years of writing ahead. This can be done using an Excel spread sheet (there’s lots of help online), or by using online Gantt chart software associated with a project management tool, such as Trello (check online for other options). Many universities also offer workshops on project managing the PhD, and these may recommend specific packages, approaches, or support.

But having a Gantt chart is only part of the story. Every other part is so much harder to pin down!

Some writing is slower, and some faster; some is light – even easy – and some is hard going. In initial discussions, when we need some (albeit imperfect!) guide for measurement,  I often suggest students allocate a minimum of three months for an ‘average chapter,’ adding or taking from this depending on the kind of writing task. If new reading and fields of knowledge are required, expect the writing output to be slower. On the other hand, some parts of the thesis will be quicker to write because no referencing is required. For example, in the method section, describing the sequence of data collection may be relatively speedy compared to explaining the choice of methodological approach. Co-authoring is often slower than solo authoring. Some chapters are smaller and should be quicker; however, the introduction is likely to take less thinking time than the conclusion. Typically, over the period of candidature as students become more familiar with the literature, their data and findings, it takes less time to write a chapter.

The writing schedule for everyday life

Making doctoral writing fit into everyday life will be what makes a plan achievable. And this requires an accurate assessment of one’s own life, writing preferences and habits.

I have built on Zerubavel’s book, The Clockwork Muse – a fabulous resource for making realistic plans, to integrate writing into our routines. I’ve used it with individuals and in workshops.

In the first place I ask students to identify how much time (hours) they can realistically aim to set aside for writing each week. The stated targets vary from 10 to 50 hours per week. We then set out to test the veracity of such goals by completing a weekly (or fortnightly) schedule. Sometimes, there is a degree of reluctance – but when this task is taken seriously, it generally reaps big rewards – and can be a PhD-life changing, activity! Here’s an example.WRITING SCHEDULE WEEKLY_Example

Making a schedule for a writing-integrated life

Complete the weekly schedule by first blocking out time that is not available: this might be work time, children’s sport, Friday prayers, and so on. Also set aside some time somewhere each week for fun, family and social activities.

Once these items are identified, the calendar suddenly looks very full – but before we try to identify the 10 – 40 hours planned for writing, we consider the following.

  • Idiosyncratic rhythms. Some people are morning workers, being most productive before the household wakes; some need total quiet, so avoid writing on campus.
  • Different kinds of writing. Try to locate cognitively demanding writing sessions when and where you write best. Use shorter time slots, or perhaps less peaceful locations, for undertaking mechanical work like updating references and minor editing. Identify suitably lengthy sessions for major restructures, or for responding to supervisor feedback.
  • To maintain momentum, if possible, it is better to write more frequently across a week, than in chunks of long whole days with large gaps between sittings.
  • Oh, and importantly, build in rewards and contingencies. As a doctoral student I had a favourite TV show which I allowed myself to watch (with an indulgent glass of wine) on Tuesday nights – provided I had completed my writing targets. I always identified Sunday afternoons as a ‘catch up’ space in case life had got in the way during the week. And when I didn’t use it for writing; Sunday afternoons always seemed so special!

Having considered these parameters, it is time to complete the schedule. Once that’s done, give it a test run for at least a fortnight before tweaking or reshaping. It is essential to have a timetable that is as realistic as possible – and then, stick to it.

Learning how to make realistic judgements about how long it takes to complete a given writing task is a skill that will be useful well beyond the PhD. Being able to more accurately predict one’s own writing productivity contributes to work-life balance and means co-authors will have better faith in your ability to deliver on time, reducing the likelihood of long, late, last-minute write-athons. It’s worth giving it a go!


Zerubavel, E. (1999). The clockwork muse: A practical guide to writing theses, dissertations, and books. Harvard: Harvard University Press.