How Long Will Your Research Project Really Take?

If you had no constraints on your research, how long the project will take to complete might not be that important a question.1

As soon as you have to complete a research project under specific constraints, answering the question of how long the project will take becomes more pressing.

One constraint might be the opportunity cost of what you’re not doing while you complete your project. Another might be the deadline you have for the project set by your professor, a contract, or a process like tenure review.

As constraints accumulate, it becomes increasingly helpful to have a sense of how long your project is going to take. That way, you can plan the time you need as you work to complete your project on time.

Memories of the past are imperfect. Forecasts for the future are more so. But there are 3 principles that can help you grapple with how long your project is likely to take so that you can plan accordingly.

These principles are to

  1. Track your progress,
  2. Set your scope, and
  3. Scale your timeline.

The first two I’ll discuss here. The last one has several sub-parts. So, I’ll go into detail on that next week.

1. Track Your Progress

If you’ve been around financial people, you’ve probably heard a disclaimer like “Past performance is no guarantee of future results.” But of course, past performance is a key ingredient in the process of forecasting future results.

You might have a sense of some unusual bumps in the road that lie ahead. But if you don’t know how you’ve done in the past, you won’t have any basis from which to adjust your future expectations up or down.

You can avoid this situation by tracking your progress as you work through a project. It doesn’t need to be complicated. You could just keep a simple log of how long you spent working and how many words or pages you wrote.

As you gather a larger amount of information about your own writing process, you’ll get a better sense of where your typical baseline is for how quickly you move through different kinds of projects.

2. Set Your Scope

When your project is done, how long should it be? How many words or pages should it have?

Without a definite scope, you can’t say when your project might be done. It might just continue growing in size as you continue spending more time on it.

Having a clear end goal is one of the constraints that’s helpful in giving you a sense of how long your project might take. The fuzzier your idea of your final project’s scope, the harder it will be to estimate how long it will take.


If you know your typical output and how long your final project needs to be, some simple division should tell you how long your project will take, right?

Not quite, you still need to scale your timeline up because it’s probably underestimating how long your project will take.

  1. Header image provided by Illiya Vjestica

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