Different people have different approaches to deadlines. Heck, many of us have multiple approaches to our own deadlines, depending upon what they are, who imposed them, and how crucial we see them to be at the moment. The two main approaches I tend to take with deadlines are been 1) turn it in before the deadline arrives or 2) undertake deadline-free projects.
As an undergraduate student I would usually start projects and assignments as soon as they were assigned, I always managed to turn in the assignment on the day it was due, and in the case of essays, I tended to have them “complete” with a few days to spare, so that I would have time to edit them before turning them in. In my historical recreation life I prefer the deadline-free approach. I am very fond of creating hand-sewn costumes which require much time to complete. Many of my friends, on the other hand, decide that they want a new costume for a specific upcoming event, and then spend many late hours the night before (or, often, every night for a week before) said event finishing up the costume “enough” to wear at the event. Not me, I prefer to approach my sewing with the attitude of “I need a project to work on at medieval reenactment events”. I then focus upon the process, taking care that my stitching is of the best quality, and enjoying the work for the peaceful relaxation which stems from doing the task, combined with enjoying the company of my friends while I stitch.
My approach to my PhD project has been a bit of a hybrid of the two attitudes. On the one hand, I am/have been putting in many hours of work, starting tasks as soon as possible after I am aware that they need doing. I always stop whatever else I have been working on to process the data straight away when I receive my microprobe results. I also continue to react to some sub-deadlines with my undergraduate approach. Each year I’d schedule my annual review meeting the first time they sent out the reminder that it was coming due, and would have mine done, turned in, and approval back from the University while the department was still sending out e-mails saying “some of you haven’t yet scheduled your annual reviews and need to do so soon”. When working on a paper in collaboration with others I generally sent back my edits/comments with 48 hours of receiving it from them.
However, there are other deadlines associated with a PhD project. These are the ones we set ourselves. In the annual review we are required to list our goals for what we will accomplish in the next year, and set dates by which these tasks will be accomplished. Each time I set these dates in consultation with my advisor, and each time, the tasks took longer than the amount of time set. I am now well past the first date associated with the task “submit thesis”, and only a week from the most recent date attached to that task, and still it is not ready to submit. The side of me which feels that deadlines exist so that we can have things done a week to three days before the deadline is somewhat twitchy about the relationship between the calendar and the various “submit thesis” deadlines I have failed to meet. On the other hand, the part of me which cares more about doing a task well, and because it is worth doing, and not because of deadlines, is happily puttering along, enjoying what I’m learning, content in the progress I’ve made. Which should I listen to? The stressed out “you are late” voice in my ear, or the “this is interesting, and wait, you haven’t looked at the data *this* way yet…” voice in the other ear?
I commented to my advisor yesterday that working on a PhD project seems to be a lesson in how not to meet deadlines, no matter how punctual one has been hitherto. He replied that in a three week project, if one gets 10% behind schedule, one can give up one day of the weekend, put in a long day, and catch up, but on a three year project if one gets 10% behind one day of hard work will not be enough to catch back up. Am I behind? It has been 3.6 years since I started this project. The Australian University system says that three years is how long a PhD project “should” take, and that if you ask nicely and show that the delays are due to circumstances beyond your control they will fund you for 3.5 years. So, the question really is, do I believe them? Is that really an appropriate amount of time to make the transition from “knowing little to nothing about metamorphic petrology” to “doctor of philosophy and expert of this tiny sub-set of metamorphic petrology as applied to this tiny portion of the planet”? Perhaps it is. Perhaps they are unrealistic in their time limits. Or, perhaps, they deliberately set impossible deadlines because they have found that in the old days, when PhD projects were meant to take four years, people took seven to ten, but now that they say we may have only three years, people tend to take about four.