Gantt Charts, or What Academics Can Learn From Project Managers, Part I

When I met with a colleague to talk about her Orals, she very kindly told me she had no idea how I managed all of the things that I do. I admitted that sometimes I only just barely manage to do them, and I said exactly the same thing to her. We both juggle multiple jobs, projects, talks, leadership roles, hobbies, trips, and so on. It’s hard to keep track of it all! So when it came time to meet with my dissertation committee for our annual meeting, I knew that making photocopies of my CV wouldn’t give them a real, tangible update on my progress.

My fiance is a financial consultant at one of “The Big Four” in New York City, and he just so happens to have an MA in Philosophy, so when I go to him for advice about project management or grant proposal writing, he has unique insight into both the business world and academia. In Part II of this series, I’ll tell you more about grant writing with the STAR method, but for this post I want to focus on why academics should consider creating Gantt charts to map out their time and manage it better.


What’s a Gantt Chart?

A Gantt chart is a map of your project’s schedule across time. The tasks that need to be completed are listed on the left side, or the vertical axis (and you can break them down into micro-tasks), and the time it will take to complete those tasks is broken up into intervals (of your choice) at the top, along the horizontal axis. Then you fill in the amount of time you’ll need/have for each task to be completed, creating a bar chart for your schedule. It’s a great way to see what you do all mapped out into a coherent timeline, and it’s also a way to foresee potential delays (vacation time, etc.) and manage or find a way to work around those delays.

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Using a Gantt Chart for a Dissertation

In the Gantt chart below (I used Google Sheets but you could also use Excel) you can see exactly where I am in my dissertation writing at the time of this post in April 2018. You can see I’m nearly done with my first chapter and well into drafting my second. “AM” in the highlighted field stands for “annual meeting.” Drafting the first chapter took me a long time but so far the second chapter is going much faster (you’ll see why in a sec). I can reasonably predict how the rest of my writing will go, and account for summer and winter breaks as well as when my adviser will be available to give me feedback (“FB” in the chart).

My Dissertation Gantt Chart

There’s more to it than this. To see the whole chart, click here.

Be Realistic with Goal-Setting

Things come up. A student suddenly takes up all of your office hours in crisis. Or there are too many amazing speakers and late night events in one week. It’s easier to make goals attainable with a Gantt chart because you can anticipate some delays well in advance and also use how much time you’ve spent on a task in the past to predict how long it’ll take you to complete a similar task in the future. But, as my partner says, it can all go down the drain in an instant when something unpredictable happens–and when doesn’t something come up?

It’s good practice to add a little cushion to each phase of a project. That’s why I kept my timescale monthly and fairly macro-level. Just charting my dissertation wasn’t really enough to show my committee all that I’ve been up to, so I added other writing projects (two articles and a book project) as well as my workload schedule. As you can see, there are three big reasons why the first chapter took me a longer time to write in 2017! I was working on two articles, and working at three jobs Sep-Dec, so I needed to stop teaching in 2018 to make room for a new fellowship.


You can only do so much, and if you track your time on a micro-level, you can easily figure out what projects or jobs you do that take up more time than others. If you need to give something up, weigh the value of the work and what it means to you with the compensation for your labor and the amount of time it takes up in your week. Teaching is high on my list of values–it’s very meaningful work to me–but I’m not going to be the teacher I want to be without a full-time teaching position, so I’ve had to rearrange my priorities until I can teach with the PhD.

Remember Big Events and Long-term Projects

In year two of dissertating, I no longer underestimate how much time my digital project, committee work, website, or back-burner hobby takes. It all adds up! Sometimes the dissertation is the first thing to be cut out of my weekly routine, but when I put it first I have to keep all the other plates in the air spinning.

So I added my Walden Soundscape project to the task column so I could stay on track with that as I work toward depositing it with my dissertation, and I added conferences as well. I used to go to four conferences a year and that was too much. I couldn’t produce material fast enough to make my papers distinctly different from one another. On the one hand, it was great for meeting people in the field, getting feedback from outside my department, giving myself mini deadlines, and I started writing chapter two with a good deal of material already written. On the other hand, the travel time and exhaustion can slow other projects down.

Screenshot 2018-04-27 at 9.03.30 AM

Work Backwards from the Job Market

I tentatively knew when I wanted to go on the job market, so I put it in the last row and suddenly my dissertation timeline didn’t make sense. I had to make it shorter. That lit a fire under my writing chair. I can’t go live on the market without having four chapters at least nearly done, and I can’t ask my committee members to write me letters for postdocs without having read at least two thirds of my dissertation. So even though I have two academic years of funding ahead of me, I know from working backwards that I need to get moving. Now.

Why Academics Could Use More Gantt Charts

They aren’t for everyone but Gantt charts have helped me write timelines for project budget proposals that won grants, and a Gantt chart is now helping me keep all the plates spinning in the air so they don’t break. Now I have a better sense of what I do, how I do it, and I have good reasons for why I need to say no to some things and yes to others.

I feel somewhat relieved. I’m managing my work stream instead of constantly putting out fires and anxiously assuming that I’m forgetting something. Worrying wastes energy. The only things not on the chart are my leadership roles and committee work, but those timelines are week-to-week and specific–that’s what my Google calendar is for.

Click here to see the whole chart. If you want help creating one for yourself, reach out and let me know!

Update: read more about how to use project management tools like Gantt charts in group work in your classes in a more recent post I wrote for Cengage’s Today’s Learner Blog: “5 Tricks for Successful Group Work.

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