CAKE Network: Planning the Year Ahead

The Community Advice and Knowledge Exchange (CAKE) Network is an opportunity for students to share concerns and advice on common research student experiences. We meet monthly on MS Teams and after each meeting, we’ll share tips, tricks and ideas that were collated at the meeting for the wider research community to benefit from. For more info on the CAKE Network, check out this blog post.

January: Planning the year ahead

Coming back to research after the winter break is tough for a lot of students, regardless of target degree or other commitments. We talked a lot about planning strategies, tips for motivation, and creating realistic goals.

How to plan

We talked a lot about the need to prepare for planning, and how daunting that can be (especially after extended time away from working). Here are some of the ways research students in Edinburgh plan their work to avoid feeling overwhelmed.

  • Plan one big thing a month and work on smaller projects which will lead to larger pieces of work; e.g. Jan: RD4, Feb: Ethics request with reading and notetaking to prepare for the literature review as a big piece of work down the line
  • Set weekly goals and choose between 1 and 3 things to work towards ticking off your list – that way if you finish early you can give yourself a break before the traditional working week is done
  • Plan to do less – you’ll feel more accomplished if you exceed your plan, but regardless you’re still working and it’ll feel more manageable
  • Gantt charts can be helpful to manage your time (if you use them consistently), especially if you prefer visual representations of your workload and time allocation


While the submission of the thesis is a Big Deadline that looms or lurks in the future for many students, setting deadlines can be a good way to ensure important aspects of research projects are completed in good time.

  • We discussed the pros and cons of including our supervisors in our time management and planning
  • Some students agreed that having supervisors set soft deadlines for specific pieces of work or tasks added motivational pressures to get work done
  • One student shared that they work backwards from your end date (including a buffer period for editing/extra time if work is delayed) and break their degree time into specific deadlines based on required elements or thesis chapters, e.g. Literature Review, Data Collection, Data Analysis, Methodology, Discussion, Conclusion, Introduction. The student finds that having six months to focus on a big-picture deadline, they can work out smaller weekly chunks to work towards a full thesis draft
  • Some students use writing groups as part of their accountability process – declaring what they’ll work on for the allotted time and focusing intentionally on one thing can help get work done when it’s hard to focus
  • Some students use holidays as a way to plan pieces of work , e.g. they finish data collection by the Friday so they can leave for holiday the following Tuesday and enjoy a few extra days of downtime

Working habits

There’s no right or wrong way to tackle the workload during a research degree, but sometimes changing things up a bit can help give new perspective. We heard about some different ways of working research students use to keep on track without burning out or overloading themselves.

  • Some students cap their research days at 4 hours of solid work (the pandemic and life in general has greatly impacted some students’ stamina, ability to work longer hours, or resulted in additional labour)
  • Other students break up their working days, e.g. working 9am-12pm, resting 12pm-3pm, working 3pm-6pm.
  • Some part-time students enjoy the flexibility of making their own schedules and interspersing their research with other work and projects, while others prefer stricter routines to have Research Days and Non-Research Days
  • One researcher finds the Pomodoro method (45 minutes writing, 15 minutes break x 2) a revolutionary way of working

Taking time off

One consequence of the pandemic and mandatory home-working has been that students haven’t prioritised time off. One student shared that it’s too easy to think they don’t need a break, so they’re trying harder to schedule more time off this year. Scheduling in specific days off can help break up the workload and give us motivation to work towards.

  • Some researchers do research on weekends, while others prefer to keep their weekends free of uni work
  • Another student has Twitterless Sundays to avoid the pressures and constant noise of Academic Twitter
  • During the holidays, one researcher turned their home desk into a snack desk so they couldn’t do any research during their time off
  • One student locked their laptop away for a week to ensure they enjoyed their downtime as fully as they meant to over the winter break
  • Another researcher shared that their friend organises a long weekend every 6 weeks and intentionally plans a fun activity to have something to look forward to

If you have more ideas to share or questions about planning the year ahead as a research student, drop them in the Comments below and let’s keep sharing our advice!

At February’s meeting, we’ll be discussing how to manage our relationships with supervisors – hope you can join us!

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  1. CAKE Network: Managing Supervisor Relationships - Edinburgh Napier Postgraduate Research Community
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