I am currently starting my PhD in physics. I like the work and the working environment, thus I chose the project. The onliest thing I am a bit worried about is that my supervisor is known for changing tasks during the project, regardless of deadlines. I already saw that during my master thesis in the same group, where he told me to start and finish another (rather large) lab task two weeks before my final dead line. I managed to do it, but I would prefer not to have such events again.
Thus I proposed the usage of milestones or project tasks for the project. He responded that he would prefer not to use them, due to possible (yet unknown) new discoveries during the research phase, which then could change the topic completely. That argument makes sense for me, too. But is there still a way to set up at least some borders in order to prevent surprises?

The lab task was basically designing, building, testing and running measurements with a new measurement setup for optical properties. It was discussed when I began, but never mentioned later, thus I may have forgot it (I am not without fault here, I have to admit). That lead to achieving the first real measurements ~30 minutes before submission deadline.
Some professors I knew and have seen the thesis afterwards made the remarks that that definitely increased the total scope of the thesis way out of the range of a common thesis.

Furthermore, I discussed the topic with him, and he agreed to make at least a rough draft of expectations, after he understood (as far as I could see) my concerns. So, I'll see...

  • It's not entirely clear to me what the source of the surprises is. If it's that you, e.g., run an experiment and get an unexpected result then there's not much you can do about that besides not running any experiments. You could refuse to follow up on unexpected results, but that could be detrimental to your thesis. If the surprises are coming from somewhere else, then where?
    – Ian_Fin
    Sep 12, 2016 at 10:32
  • By adding new project goals/tasks which are not discussed before regardless of deadlines.
    – arc_lupus
    Sep 12, 2016 at 10:53
  • 1
    Could you perhaps give a (if necessary, hypothetical) example? What you've said could span anything from following up an unexpected result, or moving away from a dead end in your research, to your supervisor saying "I've been at a conference and everyone is talking about X. You will now do X"
    – Ian_Fin
    Sep 12, 2016 at 10:57
  • PhD is full of such surprises, you are not certain what comes next. Sometime a good journal appear and you have to shutdown completely all your work and start writing paper. Sep 12, 2016 at 11:59
  • @Ian_Fin: Added, is that sufficient?
    – arc_lupus
    Sep 14, 2016 at 7:35

5 Answers 5


Learn to say no. Part of your PhD is to learn how to become an independent researcher, and that includes learning to prioritise tasks.

If he proposes you a new task that you don't think fits into your schedule, either tell him that you are busy with something else and cannot do it, or that you are working on something, but you can look into that once you are finished (include an estimated date).

You may find helpful to make a short term schedule with future tasks. If your supervisor insists on you doing something, present him with the schedule and ask what should you remove or postpone to fit this task. My girlfriend (way more organised than I am) usually has one detailed plan for the next 1-2 months to avoid this exact problem. This still gives enough wiggle room to accommodate new findings, while keeping the project moving forward, without getting too sidetracked by small findings. And of course, it is not set in stone if something big pops out.

Another think that you should consider is that often, your supervisor has no idea how long the tasks he is proposing will take. This is very common in computational fields, where adding a new feature may be immediate, if you already have computed everything you need for it, or it may take weeks if you have to do it from scratch. So, if you are presented with a task that you think is too big, give your supervisor a time estimate and ask him if he still thinks it is worth it, and if he is still up for it, what to remove from the schedule.


I can understand that your professor expects unexpected things to come up, but that doesn't mean you can't make plans or targets. I would recommend being firm with your supervisor (their way of working is possibly less important than your ways of working, given that as a PhD student you will be conducting much more independent research) and getting them to help you make reasonable targets.

However, you do have to be open to scrapping those plans, and it might make your supervisor more comfortable if you stress this point. You can plan for what you will do if everything goes well, but know how to change your plan if you discover something else interesting and want to change your focus. It's worth noting that many people don't know what their thesis will actually be about for their first year or so.

At my university, we have certain monitored deadlines, so you have to have decided on a vague research topic within 9 months of starting, and have a sensible plan for what will be included in your thesis about 9 months before your end of funding. (I'm in the UK, so funded for 3 or 3.5 years.)

If your professor is resistant to the idea, you could talk to other students and academics about how they plan or make targets for PhD projects. If your supervisor throws you a curve ball that you don't want to take on, you don't have to do what they say if you can demonstrate that it is not useful work for you, if it is off-topic or you have enough material for your thesis without it and don't have the time.


The real issue is that your supervisor is known for changing tasks during the project, regardless of the effect it might have on your deadlines. did you explain to your supervisor why you proposed the schedule? If not, I think you need to explain your concerns clearly to him.

You proposed having a schedule with milestones, which is a very sensible approach. Frankly I think it would be insane not to have some sort of schedule planned out with milestones, even if it is very high-level and subject to change. Make sure your supervisor understands that this schedule is a communication tool as well as a planning tool; it would help you both see how task will affect your schedule.

If your supervisor still doesn't want to deal with schedules, ask him what alternative approach he proposes to ensure that you finish your PhD within a reasonable amount of time. Whatever he suggests, make sure that you are satisfied with it before agreeing. It's important to sort these things out early in your PhD.


during my masters thesis in the same group, he told me to start and finish another (rather large) lab task two weeks before my final dead line. I managed to do it, but I would prefer not to have such events again.

That's the starting point for this difficult conversation. You'll have to present it as an "I-message". An "I-message" is where you explain how what happened affected you, and how the prospect that something similar might happen in the future affects you.

Once you get across how the incident affected you, and continues to affect you, then you may be able to start talking about possible solutions.

When you get to that stage (and I don't know how long it will take for your advisor to be ready to enter that stage), try to take a brainstorming approach, where you allow your advisor to contribute ideas as well.

If your advisor has trouble taking your "I-message" on board, be patient. Try again a little later on. Give lots of positive feedback whenever your advisor treats you with the respect you want (and deserve).


You can set multiple plans for milestones, such as the main plan A, second alternative B, and the third one C. If you fail in A, just move quickly to alternative B. This is an standard way for doing PhD work, because it is an unknown world for us before doing exactly what should we do to reach the results.

My proposition is to have a overall milestone including details for each step of your project and also have multiple plans(aims) for doing the same project.

  • The OP's issue doesn't seem to be the possibility of failure, it's that their supervisor may make unexpected changes to the project which aren't necessarily easily reconcilable with the various timescales of a PhD. As a general rule, I think it's good to map out milestones for a PhD, but I'm not sure how doing this solves the problem that the OP is alluding to potentially facing.
    – Ian_Fin
    Sep 12, 2016 at 13:59

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