PhD – plan B


Before I came into higher education I had a brief stint as a civil service strategic planner. I got pretty interested in the process of scenario planning – that’s where you develop a narrative about something that could happen in the future. Or better still multiple narratives. The point of scenario planning is to identify ways in which you might maximise the chance of your preferred scenario happening. But scenarios can also help you think about less welcome scenarios and how they might be dealt with if they actually occur.

The poster child for scenario planning is the Dutch Shell oil company. Shell’s planners researched events, places, people that might affect their business, even unlikely ones – and then asked What if?  Using scenarios, Shell anticipated what were almost unthinkable events – the 1973 energy crisis, the collapse of the oil market in 1986, the end of the Soviet Union, political conflicts in oil-rich territories. When the apparently impossible did happen, they had a Plan B. And a C and a D.

Now, something akin to scenario planning might be useful at the start of the PhD.

Most universities do periodically ask PhDers to develop a timetable to thesis submission. And most people make a plan that is their preferred outcome. So they finish in the shortest possible time. Nothing happens in their lives to disrupt the research or the writing. The research goes swimmingly, experiments all work out, people and places are all accessible and helpful. They can quickly make sense of the mountain of data they have amassed. They have no problems sorting out how to write a text and do the multiple revisions required. There are no issues in supervision. There are no issues in their lives for that matter – everyone around them stays well, and flourishes.

You can see where I’m going with this.

It’s sadly the case that there are some PhD scenarios that are relatively common. Unpleasant to contemplate I know.  But maybe there are benefits in thinking about the less-than-good.

Just imagine… What if?… The research doesn’t go swimmingly, experiments don’t work out, people and places are inaccessible and downright unhelpful. It takes far longer than anticipated to get the field work done. The mountain of data is hard to sort out. The transcripts take three times longer to transcribe than you thought.  Writing a big text turns out to be much harder than it looked. Those multiple revisions take forever. Lots of time is taken up with mandatory training. There are problems in supervision.

It’s research right? It’s not always straightforward.

Or… The landlord puts your house on the market. There are unexpected caring responsibilities for children or for elderly family members. Your partner is made redundant. Your own job is under threat. An already rocky  relationship is put under too much strain. You get sick. And in the UK context, the doctorate takes more than three years and you run out of money.

It’s life, right? Life happens during the PhD. Now of course your institution will have some processes that can help if any of these things happen – emergency funding, counselling, leave from the PhD for instance. But they can’t decide for you what to do when your best scenario plans go out the window.

Mmm. While nobody wants to think that things might go wrong, there may well be some benefit in being a little bit prepared. Shell weathered its first anticipated storm simply by being more frugal in preceding years. When the price of oil soared they had enough in reserve to manage the high price bubble.

Having a Plan B and maybe a Plan C might be a sensible thing for PhDers to do and to update throughout their doctorate. Of course you can’t anticipate everything and I’m not suggesting you can. Not everything is in your control. Lots of things aren’t predictable. Some things are unacceptable and need change, not you adapting.

But that’s the point really. Foresight comes from thinking in part about how decisions that are out of our control might affect what we want to do. And then remedial action follows.

Take that holiday now so you’re not exhausted when you have to write. Don’t agree to extra paid work next year when you’re analysing data. Do take on extra paid work now and squirrel away the money in case you take longer than you want. Plan to replace the laptop. Address that difficulty in a key relationship,  including supervision, before it goes on too long. Join that action group.

Preparing a PhD Plan B which anticipates disruptions to your preferred Plan A may well help you to better deal with something less than ideal if it happens. It might also help you to think about any possible preventative behaviours which make actually using Plan B less likely. It isn’t a guarantee of smooth sailing but it just might make bad stuff a bit more manageable.


Photo by JESHOOTS.COM on Unsplash



About pat thomson

Pat Thomson is Professor of Education in the School of Education, The University of Nottingham, UK
This entry was posted in academic writing, completion, PhD, Plan B, scenario planning, starting the PhD and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

8 Responses to PhD – plan B

  1. kelm2005gmailcom says:


    I am a PhD student who feels I fall within what you have described here. I have one year left before expiry of my topic.

    I quickly need someone who could read through my work before submitting g to my supervisor as I resume writing.

    Pls help I am still struggling with my chapter 2.

    Thank you


  2. Anna says:

    Good point! Years ago I lost my whole analysis when my win98 crashed. The programme I was using to analyze the data had a very specific method of saving files – not in one file but as links to different parts of the ‘heuristic unit’. The copy on the floppy disc was useless – after the crash, the links were gone:(


  3. awukuasiama says:

    Very useful lesson, which I learnt after suffering a crisis in the second year of my PhD studies.


  4. awukuasiama says:

    Very useful write up here. I learnt this lesson in my second year as a short crisis. It’s a journey and anything can go wrong. Other fellow doctoral students can benefit from this.


  5. Elham Zakeri says:

    Fabulous piece. This advice applies for life too.


  6. Hmmmmm, maybe it would help if we stopped holding ‘the’ PhD up as something ‘unique’, and instead just referred to it as research that happens in the course of life itself happening.


  7. Idorenyin Ekanem says:

    This is one if the best piece I have read on a Ph.D. Life really happens during this phase of life but with strong will and focus, I will overcome it. Thank you.


  8. ANTHONY says:

    Quite great comments.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s