You Need to Scale Up Your Research Project Timeline

If you know how quickly different research projects have gone in the past and the scope of your upcoming project, you have some of the key information you need to estimate how long you’ll need to complete that next project.1

That said, you’ll probably underestimate how long your next project will take if you don’t scale that estimate up. This tendency results from

  1. inaccuracies in small samples,
  2. differences between projects, and
  3. the planning fallacy.

1. Inaccuracies in Small Samples

Especially when you’ve just begun tracking how long your projects take, the information you gather won’t be very helpful.

That’s because you’ll have such a small sample. And the smaller the sample is, the more wildly it’s likely to diverge from representing what’s “normal” for you.2

That said, you won’t ever collect a meaningful amount of information about yourself and your research habits if you never start by having a small amount. So, the fact that you have have a small amount of information isn’t a knock against your having it. It just represents a reason to scale your estimates up even more at the beginning.

2. Differences between Projects

Your current understanding of your “typical” or “average” output might be based on a body of work with a different difficulty level than you’re about to tackle.3 If that previous work was easier, your next project will probably go slower by comparison, and vice versa.

Because projects differ from each other, you can also focus on previous projects that are more similar to the one you’re about to start. By excluding projects that are less similar, you can get a better sense of how long you’ve previously spent on the kind of work you’re about to undertake.

3. The Planning Fallacy

Third, people—including you and me—often have a “tendency to underestimate how long a task will take, even when they have actually done the task before.” This error in judgment is called “the planning fallacy.”4

So, your estimate of how long a project will take is likely to be overly optimistic. That’s especially likely when you have to communicate that estimate to someone else because then social pressure enters to encourage a more optimistic estimate.5

To account for the planning fallacy, you can be mindful of when you feel social pressure urging you to set a timeline that’s too optimistic for reality.

Scale Up Your Timeline

These challenges that help us underestimate how long projects will actually take need to be borne in mind. They shouldn’t be minimized. But they can be mitigated with strategies like I’ve mentioned above.

In addition, consider scaling up your initial estimate. Projects almost always take longer than you think they will at the start. So, you can get a closer estimate by allowing yourself some extra leeway for when “life happens” or a project moves more slowly other reasons.

The question then becomes: How much should you scale up your initial estimate? Greg McKeown suggests multiplying your original estimate by 1.5 times.6

That’s a good starting point, but the larger, newer, and more complex your project is, the more opportunities there will be for delays to add up. Anecdotally, I often find a multiple of 2 times is closer to the mark by the time the dust completely settles on a project.

Conclusion

Over the course of a research project, any number of things can conspire together to make that project take longer.

The unexpected will happen. You just can’t know in advance what it will look like.

But you can do your best to reckon with small samples, differences between projects, and the planning fallacy. And you can scale up your estimate of how long a project will take to complete.

With these adjustments, your estimate still won’t be perfect. But it’ll be a lot more likely to be a lot closer. And it’ll give you a much better basis for planning how you’ll bring your project to completion.


  1. Header image provided by Illiya Vjestica

  2. Daniel Kahneman discusses this principle as the “law of small numbers” in Thinking, Fast and Slow (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2011). 

  3. On not noticing these kinds of differences, see Kahneman, Thinking

  4. Greg McKeown, Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less (New York: Crown Business, 2014), 182; italics original. 

  5. McKeown, Essentialism, 182–83. 

  6. McKeown, Essentialism, 183. 

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.

Conclusion

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

Who Is Your Research Question Good For?

When you’re trying to choose a good research topic, there’s no silver bullet.1 But a fruitful search begins with your working to “see what is questionable.”2

Your research question can be one of two types: known or unknown. And at this point, the first-who principle raises its head yet again.

That is, your question is known or unknown according to whether it’s known or unknown by your audience.

Questions for Whom?

If your audience doesn’t know of your question as a question, they might think it’s already been resolved. Or they might consider it a non-issue.

In any case, if a question isn’t known by your audience, it falls into the category of unknown questions. Unknown questions can be some of the most exciting to ask and seek to answer.

But they do come with the added burden of clearly showing why they’re worth asking. If your research is answering a question that’s unknown by your audience, it’s up to you to demonstrate why your question is askable.

Why is it something that requires an answer for your audience? (And no, because you need to choose a topic isn’t a sufficient reason. 🙂 )

Helping Questions Arise

Once you answer that question for your audience, you’ll have created the room you need to show them the answer to the question they now know. You’ll have created what Lloyd Bitzer calls a “rhetorical exigence”:

Prior to the creation and presentation of discourse, there are three constituents of any rhetorical situation: the first is the exigence…. An exigence is an imperfection marked by urgency; it is a defect, an obstacle, something wanting to be done, a thing which is other than it should be.… An exigence is rhetorical when it is capable of positive modification and when positive modification requires discourse or can be assisted by discourse.3

An exigence is a key ingredient of any rhetorical situation that exists among you, your audience, and the constraints in which you make your argument.4

It’s a question that demands an answer. And it demands that answer not only to give you an opportunity to present an argument but also to satisfy your audience’s concern for the exigence’s resolution.

What this means is that—to whatever degree your question is unknown by your audience—you need to help your audience have the problem your question expresses.

Otherwise, they aren’t going to know your question as a question, as an exigence that demands a solution. And if your audience doesn’t see your research as addressing an exigence, you’ll have a hard time keeping their attention—let alone persuading them of your answer to a question they don’t think needs to be asked.

Conclusion

Once you settle on a research question, the first-who principle still applies. If your audience recognizes that you’re answering an exigent question, you’re good to go.

But if they don’t, you may need to do some preliminary groundwork to show why your audience should find your new question pressing.


  1. Header image provided by Oliver Roos

  2. Hans-Georg Gadamer, “The Universality of the Hermeneutical Problem,” in Philosophical Hermeneutics, ed. and trans. David E. Ligne, 1st paperback ed. (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1977), 13. 

  3. Lloyd F. Bitzer, “The Rhetorical Situation,” Philosophy and Rhetoric 1 (1968): 6–7; italics original. 

  4. Bitzer, “Rhetorical Situation,” 6; see also Hans-Georg Gadamer, Truth and Method, ed. and trans. Joel Weinsheimer and Donald G. Marshall, 2nd ed., Bloomsbury Revelations (London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2013), 370–87. 

How to Use Zotero to Properly Cite Grammars in SBL Style

You might think that citing a grammar according to the SBL Handbook of Style would be pretty straightforward.1 And you’d be right, but there are several special cases to account for.

1. Cite section numbers wherever possible.

Instead of citing a grammar by page number, you should cite by section number wherever possible to give the most precise reference. You’ll designate a single section with “§” and a section range with “§§”.

2. Cite grammars by abbreviation where applicable.

For many common Hebrew and Greek grammars, the SBL Handbook specifies an abbreviation by which to cite a given grammar (§8.4). You may find others also when you check IATG3.

For instance, Gesenius-Kautzch-Cowley is cited simply by the abbreviation “GKC”. Blass-Debrunner-Funk is cited simply as “BDF”.2

The full bibliographic information for these sources then goes in an abbreviations list and should not appear in the bibliography.

3. Adjust your reference manager’s output accordingly.

If you use reference manager software, you’ll want to consider how best to get that software to produce the abbreviated references you need for cases like this. If you use Zotero, you have two main options.

a. Enter footnotes manually, or use the prefix and suffix fields.

If you need to cite only one or more grammars only by an abbreviation(s), you can simply add a footnote and type the appropriate text without going through Zotero’s “add citation” process.

If you are citing a grammar(s) and another source(s) in a Zotero footnote, you can simply add the appropriate grammar citation text to the prefix or suffix fields of your existing citation, depending on whether you want the grammar citation to come before or after the other source(s) you are citing.

So, for instance, when adding or editing a citation, you could type “BDF §458;” into the prefix field to add a citation to Blass-Debrunner-Funk §458. Zotero would then build this text into the footnote so that the footnote will look as it should.

The upside of this method is that it is quite straightforward. The downside is that any sources you cite in this way won’t appear in any bibliography Zotero generates for your document.

SBL Press doesn’t want sources cited by abbreviation in a bibliography anyhow, but in some cases, you might find that you want this (e.g., requirements from a professor, journal, or volume editor).

In that event, your best option will be to edit the bibliography that Zotero prepares to add any sources you’ve included in your footnotes simply by adding their abbreviations as text. Since you entered those citations simply as text, Zotero won’t “know” to add these sources to your bibliography unless you make those changes directly.

b. Install the current SBL style in your reference manager.

Other ways of getting this output automatically from Zotero may be on the horizon. But things are really quite easy if you have the current version of the SBL style installed.

Not long ago, you would have needed to install a custom variant of the main SBL style or edit the style yourself. That’s no longer necessary, however. The changes necessary to cite grammars and other sources by abbreviation are now part of the main SBL style.

You can get the style from the Zotero repository directly. Or if you drop your name and email in the form below, I’ll drop you an email about that style. I’ll also include the style for the Catholic Biblical Association, which uses many of the same abbreviations as SBL style.

Once you have the style installed, for any source you need to cite by an abbrevation, just add Annote: [abbreviation] in that Zotero resource’s “Extra” field. So, for instance, for Blass-Debrunner-Funk, you would add Annote: BDF.

The upside of this method is that you can cite grammars by abbreviation while using the Zotero add citation dialog.

The downside is that you might need to edit your bibliography, if you have one, to remove these sources and move them to an abbreviation list (per SBL style’s requirement).

But you will probably know pretty well which few sources are cited by abbreviations. So, you should be able to edit your bibliography as needed pretty quickly to relocate these sources.

Conclusion

In the end, citing grammars according to the SBL Handbook of Style is quite straightforward.

If you want to cite them while using a reference manager, the process may be a bit more detailed to set up since the manager may not have a mechanism for handling largely custom citation patterns like the abbreviations SBL Press specifies for common grammars.

But with some careful thought about how you want to approach citing these kinds of resources, you can certainly streamline them into your existing citation process.


  1. Header image provided by SBL Press

  2. Also important is SBL Press’s discussion of citing Herbert Smyth’s Greek Grammar

Focus on Writing While Zotero Does Even More Formatting

Zotero is a free tool for managing bibliographies and citations.1 It’s now even more useful for researchers in biblical studies.

That’s particularly true if you’re using the styles for either the Catholic Biblical Association (CBA) or the Society of Biblical Literature (SBL).

Catholic Biblical Association

The style for the CBA is what you’ll see if you read a Catholic Biblical Quarterly article.

Zotero has supported CBA style for some time. But per CBA’s current guidelines, the style now

  • Supports custom citations specified by CBA and stored in Extra via the annote variable (e.g., annote: BDF),
  • Allows series abbreviations to be stored in Extra via the collection-title-short variable (e.g., collection-title-short: NIGTC),
  • Truncates page ranges per the guidance of the Chicago Manual of Style (e.g., 115-116 becomes 115-16),2
  • Capitalizes English titles stored in sentence or lower case in “headline” style,
  • Gives citations with a “sub verbo” locator the “s.v.” notation and those with a “section” locator the § symbol,3
  • Overrides Chicago’s en dash with a hyphen when delimiting page ranges, and
  • Includes a period at the end of a citation.

The updated style now also corrects a few bugs in the prior version. These include

  • Correcting the output of a work cited with only editors as responsible parties from “, ed. [name(s)]” to “[name], ed.” or “[names], eds.”,
  • Correcting the delimitation and spacing with volume-page citations (e.g., “1:105”), and
  • Lowercasing “rev. ed.” and, if it appears other than at the start of a sentence, “ibid.”

Society of Biblical Literature

Like CBA, SBL style requires you to cite a number of resources by specific abbreviations.

I’ve previously discussed how you could modify the SBL style in order to store and cite by these abbreviations. That was pretty messy, but you could install a customized style file where I’d already made that change.

That worked, but it meant that you didn’t receive updates as quickly. It also meant that I had to keep re-producing the modified style every time an update came out. Or neither you nor I would benefit from the corrections that that update included.

Now, however, annote-based citations are supported in the SBL style that’s in the Zotero repository.

In addition, for some time, citations with section locators have had a space after § or §§ that shouldn’t have been there (thus, e.g., “§ 105” rather than “§105”). That’s now fixed too.

So, if you cite a grammar, you can just choose “section” as the locator type. You don’t any longer need to drop in § or §§ as the first characters in the locator field.

Just choose a “section” locator, and enter the sections you’re citing. Zotero will take care of the rest.((These comments pertain to the note-bibliography version of Zotero’s SBL style. If you use the parenthetical citation-reference list version, the behavior may differ.)

Conclusion

Citing sources is important work. And no matter how good software gets, you still have to know the style you’re writing in because you’re responsible for the final product.

That responsibility doesn’t shift when it’s challenging. But that doesn’t mean you have to do everything by hand.

Careful use of tools like Zotero will go a long way in helping you keep your citations in order while also clearing your way to focus on the substance of your research and writing.


  1. Header image provided by Zotero via Twitter

  2. If you specify the locator type as “section” rather than “page,” however, Chicago-style truncation doesn’t currently happen. 

  3. The style should be able to output § when you cite only one section and §§ when you cite multiple sections. But it currently uses § even when you cite multiple sections. 

Why You Need to Ship for Feedback after Distribution

The only way to know whether you research is publishable is to ship it.1

You can and should ship for feedback. And good shipping for distribution is still shipping for feedback.

That’s true before publication because it will help turn any “no’s” you receive into improvements in your research.

But even after publication, the best shipping for distribution still includes an openness to feedback.

Shipping for Feedback after Publication

After a piece has been published, responses might be positive, or they might be negative. Often, they’ll be some of both.

But you’re shortchanging yourself if you only consider either the positive or the negative responses.

The positive ones are most encouraging. You need that. The negative ones are probably be most educational. You need that too.

Just like when you ship for feedback to improve your work before seeking publication, it’s nice when critical responses aren’t trolling. But even when they are, it’s possible to read past that.

And the more you open yourself to look past the emotions bound up with having your work critiqued, the more you’ll be able to learn from those reviews and use them well.

Your openness to feedback even after publishing might even give you new ideas or help you produce better work in the future.

An Example of Using Feedback after Publication

One example is Tom Wright’s Justification.2 In that book, he’s responding primarily to John Piper’s Future of Justification, whose subtitle makes its critical stance fairly apparent, A Response to N. T. Wright.3

But Justification doesn’t just restate arguments Wright had previously made. It includes some distinct, new approaches to the debate about justification in Paul.

Justification shows an openness to provocation, an openness to critique, that leads to adaptation and attempts at refinement.

You might fall on either side of this debate between Wright and Piper, or you might take the choice for “none of the above.”

But in any of these cases, Wright’s Justification provides a helpful example of the kind of adaptability that can and should go along with shipping, even when you’re shipping for distribution.

A Concluding Encouragement

So, there are two ways to ship your work. You can ship it for feedback. Or you can ship it for distribution.

But even when you ship for distribution, shipping well means being open to feedback you might receive, whether before or after publication.

Shipping for feedback is primary. Yet that shouldn’t be the only shipping you ever do.

By continuously shipping only for feedback, you avoid shipping something for distribution that isn’t entirely perfect. But you also miss out on actually contributing to the discussion.

Shipping only for feedback doesn’t allow you to help the who that your research is really for in the first place.4

So, don’t get stuck. Work, write, rewrite, revise, and ship—ship both for feedback and for distribution—recalibrate and revise where necessary, and ship again.


  1. Header image provided by Bench Accounting

  2. N. T. Wright, Justification: God’s Plan and Paul’s Vision (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2009). Since its initial publication, the volume has also been re-released with an updated introduction (2016). 

  3. John Piper, The Future of Justification: A Response to N. T. Wright (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2007). 

  4. For a similar point, see Stanley E. Porter, Inking the Deal: A Guide for Successful Academic Publishing (Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 2010), 160–162. For the principle of the priority of who over what, I’m particularly playing off of and adapting the discussion of Jim Collins, Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap … and Others Don’t (New York: HarperBusiness, 2001), 41–64.