PhD project or PhD projects?

Two of my PhD students have successfully defended their thesis in the past three weeks. For both of them, they have accomplished what constituted the biggest project (in term of scope and time) of their life yet.

However, is it really one project or a collection of multiple projects forming a whole, called a PhD thesis?

Let’s look at it closely. When you are an undergrad, things tend to be straightforward i.e. the road in going from  A to B is usually obvious: you learn new stuff, you get an exam on that stuff, you answers the questions on predefined topics. Even undergrad research projects tend to be usually projects with clear paths from beginning to end.

As you get to grad studies, there come a new paradigm: you (the PhD student!) get to formulate the question(s) for which, this is the new twist, you or your advisor do not know the correct answer(s) or the best (and easiest and safest and…) way to accomplish them. Let’s face it, if it was obvious it would be done by a technician following a recipe. This is also why a PhD project takes a few years to complete and sometime (often!), the final results is quite different than what you expected when starting.

For some, this is an overwhelming discovery. Here is how you should tackle it. First, think of it like going to the top of Mount Everest. You do not decide one morning that you will do it in one stride… you’ll never get there! Rather, it takes planning and smaller steps. This is the same for your PhD project.

So the overall project goal (at least from the point of view of the PhD student) is to get the diploma and on to the next step. However to achieve this goal you will need to break it down to manageable “steps” or smaller projects. So in a sense a PhD project is a collection of smaller projects.

The road to your PhD might very well look like a collection of projects similar to this:

Project 1: Comprehensive literature review and PhD research theme definition (P..S.: include a few sessions with supervisor)

Project 2: Plan , design and run a few simple, easy experiments to get the feel for it – got to start somewhere 😉

Project 3: Paper #1 (I found something interesting, which the field might like!)

Project 4: Plan , design and run a new set of experiments base on my latest, greatest idea (which is idea #26!)

Project 5: The results a great. I plan to submit an abstract and get to give an oral presentation at this incredible international conference

Project 6: Paper #2 (this is my best and greatest work to date)

Project N-1: write thesis (I am done… my supervisor said so!)

Project N: prepare for thesis examination

In the example above, I used the publication of scientific manuscripts to mark important steps in the completion of a PhD thesis. It serves multiple purposes, including the fact that a PhD thesis is all about making a significant scientific contribution. It also ensures that the student get the credits for his work (at least in my group, each student get to be first author for their work) and it is also a critical part of the PhD learning process. One might argue that it is difficult to separate the “sub-projects” like this. Maybe, but once you get in a mode of preparing a paper, it is a project in itself which will involve more validation, experimental works, writing (and arguing with the referees sometimes) and so on. However when done, that chapter is closed and you can move on to another one. So, yes, these are “sub-projects” or simply projects whose completion support the achievement of the primary goal (overall project).

Therefore, do not hesitate to break down your PhD project in smaller pieces. Each time make sure that they fit with the overall goal (you should never lose sight of the bigger picture) and move you forward to graduation.


  1. Of course any large project can be broken in many smaller parts, that can each be handled as a project.

    But for me this raises a much more powerful question. The standard definition of a project in business is that it has a start and an end, and there’s operations that is ongoing. The definition is based on the key assumption that ongoing operations is stable, and a project is an temporary activity that creates a change.

    It may have been a nice definition in the past. But today we are faced with a fast pace of innovation and a ever changing environment. Status quo does not exists any more. So even regular operations can be projectized, because any project can only live without changes for a short period of time.

    Long long long ago, someone was lucky if you had one innovation in your life. Then it became two. Then three… then four…

    Now change is constant with a ever increasing pace.

    How long does it take today for knowledge to become obsolete and superceded…

    The ability for the 21st century. Be confortable in changes.


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