the planning fallacy and the PhD

Planning. We all have to do it to get by. A lot of us hate it. Many of us overdo it. Some of us are serial planners while others make a plan and then sigh as it slips past. 

This post is for the planners who fail and the continual plan-adjusters. Some of the more successful planners might find it of interest, even if it only makes you feel better about your own relative prowess with the plan. It’s the first of a few on planning and this one’s about the PhD.

I guess you know there’s this thing called the planning fallacy. That’s when we make predictions about how much time something is going to take but underestimate the time. Sometimes what we are planning actually takes much longer to do than we thought. Our plan was wildly inaccurate. It gave us a false sense of being organised.

Psychologists say that planners often suffer from an “optimism bias” – we plan as if something is going to take a particular amount of time even though deep down we know that similar tasks have taken longer and/or that we need to leave time for unexpected events and our own wavering energies. And, psychologists tell us, other people have a tendency to have a pessimism bias when they look at our plans. They see all of the possible and probably things that might get in the way of our timeline that we have apparently ignored.

Now the planning fallacy can be a helpful idea for PhDers and those who work with them. Of course, like all ideas you can drive a truck through the ways in which the notion of the planning fallacy was deverloped if you want. But I prefer to think about what might be useful in the idea.

At the core of the planning fallacy proposition is the idea that people make plans on the basis of what they want to happen, rather than on what they know is more likely. Well, that makes sense. Unless you’re Eeyore and simply glad there have been no earthquakes lately, you’re always likely to hope for the best. Aim for the best case.

But what happens if you don’t actually know what is likely? This is the situation that most PhDers find themselves in. They can’t really tell how long it will take to do their data work because they’ve not done anything similar before. The PhD is likely the first time they’ve done a project of this size and complexity. They don’t know how long it is going to take them to analyse the stuff they have generated. They don’t know how long it will take to write a big monograph text or to get three papers published.

Despite not being able to know what doing the PhD actually entails, PhDers are continually asked to prepare and present plans for completion. While plan preparation certainly helps to get across the notion of an end point and a final deadline, what happens in between is a space which is largely imagined. Not based on prior experience.

I am sure that most supervisors do try to make PhDers aware of the amount of time that analysis and writing take. But these individual conversations would really be helped if we supervisors had more detailed resources available which would help fill in the knowledge gap about the time it takes to do and write research.

Perhaps somewhere some universities do have completed PhDers come and talk with starter PhDers about plans. And how their plans were not necessarily what happened. How they would plan differently if they had to do it again knowing what they know at the end. Perhaps somewhere some universities make serial plans from PhDers and/or actual timings available to new starters so that they can see for themselves where the time really does get spent.

Without some resources available to them PhDs making plans are really working in the dark. It is no wonder that optimism prevails. It is also no wonder that PhDers often find themselves running out of time and out of money largely because they had not been able to anticipate how long they would actually need to complete their work.

It does seem to me that universities need to do better in this area. It is not enough to set deadlines and ask for reports and plans. It is good, but not enough, for graduate services to offer workshops in project management. It is good, but not enough, for supervisors to discuss time and to ask PhDers to backwards map their PhDs. It seems to me that it would be VERY helpful if there were more effort directed towards building up understandings about time, and developing some plans and resources that really help PhDers to get to know what time is likely to be required.

This doesn’t mean more of the I-did-my-PhD-in-two-years-and-you-can-too, or I-wrote-my-thesis-in-three-months-and-you-can-too resources. It does mean talking out loud about the different PhD times that people take – it’s a range – and why. Different people have different projects, work in different contexts, have different supports and face different obstacles. But understanding the variety and the continuum of time taken might be part of the process of new PhDers getting more realistic about making plans.

Getting over optimism bias is always a matter of knowing yourself and your particular circumstances. And this might mean PhDers and their supervisors thinking more about scenarios than plans. What’s the best and what’s the just OK scenario for completion of this PhD? What needs to be watched out for as this PhD goes along? What are the signs that the best case scenario is off track? What might be done to move from what appears to be just OK to something more like the best case?

Understanding and taking account of the planning fallacy might be a bit of a first check on over optimism. Knowing the fallacy can be a reminder not to be over optimistic. A little prod to temper your enthusiasm.

PS And apologies to the PhDers I’ve worked with where I haven’t been as clear about this as I am right now. Thinking about the planning fallacy has helped me to learn about and from my past supervision experiences.

Photo by Estée Janssens 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 planning, planning fallacy, scenario planning and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

7 Responses to the planning fallacy and the PhD

  1. Cathy says:

    This is a very useful article. I have been perplexed by my inability to predict how long things will take. After being pretty accurate my entire academic life on how long I will need to write up a paper, I have found myself dead wrong now for a couple of years. Frustratingly I still do this – oh this will take me 2 weeks only to find it takes 2 months. I really lost confidence in myself. This article is helpful for me to see that it’s a common issue and not just that I’ve lost my ability to gauge time. I guess I just need to multiply by 5-10 whatever my first instinct is. Thank you for bringing this up!


  2. M J Curry says:

    Another great post! Supervision is quite different in the US than the UK, for a whole series of structural reasons. I have landed on having weekly check-in meetings with my students from the time they begin to write their dissertation proposal till they finish, though, sometimes that turns into a weekly email check in. I use these meetings to make suggestions to students about how to maximize their time, for example, to begin transcribing, as soon as interviews are conducted, and to begin coding as soon as transcription is done. I think students who are following methodological texts with no mediation from the supervisor or more experienced students can see the research process as being in discreet stages, rather than overlapping. That still doesn’t mean that data analysis and writing are predictable in terms of the time they take!


    • Sara Cotterall says:

      Regular meetings are great, and certainly not the norm in PhD supervision … but I believe they need to be accompanied by some kind of “big picture” conversation as well. A visual of some key points in the PhD journey mapped onto a projected timeline could be useful to refer back to from time to time … and of course it could be updated regularly too.


  3. Frank Carver says:

    As they say on the internet: “I feel attacked”. That’s exactly where I am – struggling to scrape the dregs from almost-empty pots of time and money into a completed PhD – and I have done a lot of reflecting on how I got here.

    It seems to me that there are two different kinds of estimation going on in PhD planning. The first, the time needed to do the work, is so obvious that it often eclipses anything else. Much more significant in my experience, and I would guess in many others’ too, was the time and effort needed to find out what to do. I have worked on many large projects over my career, from big software systems to novel series, and have established a pretty good idea of how long it takes me to do things. Naturally, my estimates of how long the PhD would take were based on that experience.

    When it came to the reality of the PhD, I rapidly realised that I had no idea what I needed to do. Worse than that, I did not even know how to find out what I needed to do. In my software development experience, I have always had some form of requirements, or at least someone to ask, and a way of testing whether the code did its job. In my fiction writing experience, I was free to write what I liked but could critique my work based on my own sense of quality built up from a lifetime of reading, combined with the ratings and reviews given by readers to similar work.

    In my quest to find out how to do a PhD, I read hundreds of blog posts, articles, and books. I attended training courses both internal and external. I read journal articles and slogged my way through some other people’s dissertation documents. The information I gained was always either too theoretical or too vague, or I could not be sure that it applied to my discipline or to my research. In short, I still had no way of evaluating my work. No way of telling if I was heading in a reasonable direction. No way of knowing if my research and my writing were valuable or gibberish. Paralyzed by a wall of unanswerable questions. I know my work will be assessed, but nobody will tell me what they want.

    This attitude of asking learners to produce work for assessment but not giving them the tools or understanding to assess their own work is endemic in academia. Even though the whole point is supposed to be learning, students are discouraged or even explicitly prevented from seeing previous student’s work and the feedback it received. Reviewers assess dissertations and journal articles for quality, but then hide that information from future readers.

    This institutional secrecy amounts to cruelty and bullying, administered by a self-selecting group of survivors who continue the abuse in the only way they know how..


    • Sara Cotterall says:

      I feel for you Frank, and suspect your experience is all too common.

      Liked by 1 person

    • pat thomson says:

      I’m sorry to hear about your experiences. Yes, absolutely, there’s clearly a lot more to completion than simply planning. I’m a big fan of getting as many resources together as possible for PhDers and supervisors as part of developing self evaluation. Let me know if there anything I can write about, but as you can see 1k posts tend to be very general and always too little.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Sara Cotterall says:

    This is a terrific post, and exciting because it promises more on this important topic. I couldn’t agree more Pat – UNIVERSITIES NEED TO DO BETTER WHEN IT COMES TO PHD PLANNING. PhD journeys are idiosyncratic and there is certainly no “one size fits all” strategy. But I am hopeful that some of your experienced readers will share useful tools.



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