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Responsibilities May Include

Begin – and continue – your thesis with the end in mind

Project and stakeholder management practices can help buffet thesis interruptions.


Defining success when you are a graduate student depends on your circumstances, which makes it critical to know what is in front of you and to be able to make early decisions about the path you will take. In Stephen Covey’s famous book, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, habit number 2 is to begin with the end in mind. From a graduate student’s perspective, this means defining what success will look like.

For a PhD student who is striving to become an academic in an extremely competitive post-COVID market, this can mean publishing a minimum of three high-impact papers. Students may have to choose between aiming at higher status journals and meeting their program deadlines, while still balancing everything else. It’s the classic tenet of project management also known as the iron triangle or triple constraint that emphasizes the basic need to compromise. Expectations must be tempered to recognize time and effort, as well as factors, such as a pandemic, that are out of one’s control. That is why the thesis is a living document that can change, as can definitions of success.

Academic candidates will want to begin preparing early for a top postdoctoral fellowship. To achieve this, you must become recognized early in your training by publishing a first-authored high-impact paper midway through the thesis, followed by networking at meetings attended by potential postdoctoral mentors. Independent funding will also increase your attractiveness.

For a student who plans to transition to a non-academic position, the definition of success is fuzzier and can introduce more conflict into the supervisor-student relationship. While publishing three papers may still be desired, it may not be as important as experience, such as involvement in patents, policy, internships, spin-off companies, etc. Goals that students set should be supported by the supervisor they choose.

Recognizing that the resource and impact expectations of a thesis are largely fixed (i.e., low and high, respectively), project scope is directly proportional to the time a student commits to the project. Students should estimate how long they will commit to the thesis, and then plan the scope of their project in line with the funding they will likely have available. While supervisors largely think of thesis projects in terms of objectives and sub-objectives, it is important for the student to organize the objectives by time.

A Gantt chart helps map out project timing, thereby giving one a better appreciation of time commitments. I encourage students to develop a Gantt chart along with their thesis proposal and to present it at every committee meeting. The chart should include both thesis and non-thesis activities (coursework, professional development, seminars, meetings, time for writing, etc.) This sets the expectations of a thesis supervisory committee. If a student wants to complete an MSc thesis in two years, then they should declare it by presenting a timeline in their thesis proposal and refreshing their thesis supervisory committee’s memory at every meeting.

If plans must change because of unanticipated risks such as a pandemic, it is important to redefine the scope of the project and the timeline. This is part of the student’s stakeholder management experience. The student must engage their stakeholders (i.e., supervisor and supervisory committee members) about a change in plans.

The supervisory committee and graduate program director can also help to diffuse tension in expectations between the student and the thesis supervisor. A graduate student should cultivate excellent working relationships with stakeholders using both formal and impromptu progress reports and queries.

A labour market survey I recently conducted of 93 non-academic companies indicated project and stakeholder management as the top two missing skills amongst new graduate student employees. By practising these skills during the thesis, graduate students can position themselves as an attractive candidate to potential employers.

The other six habits in Stephen Covey’s book are: 1) Be proactive, 3) Put first things first, 4) Think win-win, 5) Seek first to understand then be understood, 6) Synergize, and 7) Sharpen the saw. Habits 1, 2 and 3 focus on self-mastery and moving from dependence to independence. This is exactly what a student is doing in graduate school. Habits 4, 5 and 6 are focused on teamwork and moving from independence to interdependence. This is postdoctoral training material, although many PhD students may be practising this in their individual training environments. Finally, Habit 7 is about continuous improvement. Writing this article, for example, is my way of sharpening the saw.

This column appeared in the November-December print issue of University Affairs magazine. 

Derrick Rancourt is a stem cell biologist and professor in the Cumming School of Medicine, University of Calgary. He is an entrepreneurial scientist and director of Alberta’s Genome Engineering Centre. He teaches biotechnology business and professional development and serves on the Alberta Council of Technologies.
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