One of the most challenging aspects of graduate school is the sheer variety and number of projects and responsibilities you have to manage on a regular basis. Things might be a bit calmer in the first year as you focus on classes and only start working on research but the pace will pick up as you go.
To illustrate my point, here’s an example of what I had to get done in a week in my third year:
- Read 9 articles for 3 classes (at least 1 hour per article, sometimes more) = 9 hours
- Write 1-2 papers for classes or do other homework (from 1 to 3 hours))
- Attend classes (on average 2.5 h class each -> 7.5 h)
- Conduct 2 in-person classes (2 h 40 min class time + 1.5 hours for the prep work right before class and afterwards)
- Conduct the online class section (send emails and reminders, update content on the Learning Management System) (1-2 hours) [I did many things on top of that in my online class but it’s not a standard TA practice so I won’t include it here]
- Answers students’ emails, sometimes meet with students (varies wildly, from no time to 2 hours depending on the week).
- Attend the TA meeting (1.5 h)
- Attend all research meetings (2-3 hours)
- Grade assignments for the week (1-3 hours depending on the week)
- Work on my research (including fieldwork, data analysis, paper writeup and submission, and a ton of other tasks) (anywhere from 4-5 to 15-20 hours, with high variability based on the week)
- Other school-related activities (mandatory events, non-mandatory events, one-time meetings, paperwork) (1 h)
On an easy week, my working hours might have totaled at about 33-35 hours, and during hard weeks that number went up all the way to 56+ hours. The variability in my schedule and time commitment was huge, so the estimate might have fluctuated a few hours every week. Usually, if I had fewer responsibilities that week, my time got filled with never-ending research work, bringing my working hours to the average of about 40-45 hours per week - a standard workweek.
Now, I had two problems with all this. First, how do I fit it all in my weekly schedule where some only commitments are set in stone (such as teaching time) but others vary from week to week? Second, how do I keep track of all my projects and responsibilities and get things done without losing my mind? I tried all the approaches I could find, hoping that I could settle on one and go with it. I found that even though one approach can work for a few weeks or months, I had to change it up and find other ways of working and planning to keep up with new tasks and unexpected circumstances. Below, I’ll describe 7 methods I used to stay on top of work and the lessons I learned about time-management in the past few years.
Digital calendar/planner is a must
I never had a calendar or planner in high school or undergrad. I would write things down on a piece of paper or keep them in my head.
By the end of my first semester, I realized that not having a notebook or app that keeps track of all my meetings and deadlines is a time-management suicide. Whenever I needed to schedule a meeting, I had to find my notes somewhere on my phone, laptop or a piece of paper, recall if I had anything else planned, and only then I could name a date and time that was open. It was annoying and inconvenient. Oh, and did I mention multiple international Skype calls that required coordinated the time difference of 7 to 11 hours every week?
So I started trying different types of planners to keep track of my schedule. I tried a few paper planners. I had a big calendar on my wall. I used a small notebook planner. I bought a fancy planner with “goals for the day” and other prompts in it. None of them lasted. They failed because (a) I was too lazy to write in my fixed commitments for every week; (b) I left my planner at home multiple times; (c) I wanted my planner to look cool and didn’t like crossing things out when I made a mistake or cramming extra to-dos in the corner of a page (yeah, I was an unhealthy perfectionist back then).
Instead, I turned to digital calendars, and they worked really well. I ended up using Google Calendars because it’s free, synchronizes to all devices, sends reminders and in general is very customizable. It also automatically populated specified weeks with weekly events, which saved me tons of time. It took time to get into the habit of putting my meetings, commitments and deadlines in the calendar right away instead of trying to retrieve them from memory or random papers but now it’s almost automatic. The reminders are also helpful in case I forget about an event. Finally, since it’s on my phone, it’s always with me.
Chunk it up
In my undergrad, I was able to power through 5-6 hours of studying at a time and get things done “in sprints”. In grad school this simply doesn’t work. Writing a manuscript for publication requires hours of research, analysis and actual writing. High-quality material cannot be produced overnight. This is especially obvious with dissertations which may take a year or two to finish.
Trying to get it all done in a few hours won’t work most of the time. I am very much a person who wants to get stuff done quickly in one go and stretching out my work on something for a few days or weeks drives me nuts - but I can’t get it done otherwise. When I tried to work for very long stretches of time on the same thing, I got burned out in a blink of an eye and had to take time to recover, further delaying the completion of my projects.
Chunk it up! Look at your project, divide it into small subtasks, and spend a couple of hours each day tackling them. Do the same for all of your responsibilities. Progress might seem small and insignificant at first but it will add up quickly and shows fantastic results.
Hours/Work Goals: Set a regular work routine with a clear cut-off point
If your schedule is hectic, you might have a hard time cramming non-urgent but important work (such as academic writing or working on your thesis) into it. This can lead to pulling all-nighters, neglecting personal care tasks such as sleeping and working out, and isolation (if you prefer to work alone like I do), none of which are healthy.
To counteract it, I use the simple Hours/Work Goals framework. The idea is to set a manageable time goal and a work goal for every day. The time goal is how many hours you want to spend working on a project; the work goal is what you want to get done during each work session. You stop when you hit any of the two. It’s totally fine not to achieve your work goal if you achieved your time goal, and vice versa. This helps ensure that you don’t try to cram more work when you’re done, and that if you are frustrated by your work or have low motivation, you still stick to your work routine regularly instead of procrastinating.
This summer, my consistent work goal is 4 hours a day for my dissertation. My work goal for today was fleshing out the ideas for my intervention and sketching them. I managed to get it done in under 2 hours, so I stopped working on my dissertation for the day and I’m currently writing his post. If I hadn’t finished my sketches, I would have stopped after 4 hours anyways.
This framework literally saved me during my Candidacy exam and is currently saving me during my work on dissertation. When my motivation or energy levels are very low, I downsize my time goals to 2 or even 1 hour, set a timer and work only to achieve my time goal. When I feel all fired up and ready to conquer, I increase the time limit. It works because I know that I will be done in a finite amount of time, which motivates me even at the all-time lows.
I found that my ideal time goal is 3-4 hours when I feel great. My productivity declines sharply after that. Therefore, I usually finish my most important tasks within 4 hours of work, and spend 2-3 more hours on tasks that require less concentration. That said, those 3-4 hours of work are done in quiet environments at the peak of my concentration without any distractions and with a couple of small 5-10 minute breaks. It’s surprising how much one can do in the state of flow!
Prioritize and set your own deadlines
Work in graduate school is infinite. You can always read more papers, write more articles, and do more research. However, we only have so much time and energy. Just like in any other job, you will have to set your priorities and act accordingly.
Everyone’s priorities are unique but I will share my experience of choosing what’s important and what’s not. I found that meetings are at the bottom of the list for me. A lot of meetings are busy work or talking that doesn’t help your own goals. Some of them are not necessary at all. When I can, I try to keep meetings to a minimum. I also schedule my priorities first (e. g., writing time, teaching work) and then meetings to make sure my day is not full of gaps between them and other responsibilities.
Even though I’ve heard the “you’re a student and a researcher first and only then a teacher” mantra more than I can count, I never agree with it. Teaching has always been one of my highest priorities because I absolutely love it. And who can even call themselves an education researcher with barely any teaching experience in the first place? So I scheduled teaching tasks to take priority over meetings and sometimes at the expense of putting less work into research. On the other hand, I prioritized certain parts of research work, exams and my thesis and dissertation because without them I can’t complete my Ph.D. program, so my most productive hours were dedicated to these activities.
Finally, I learned that setting your own deadlines is very helpful because many tasks in grad school don’t have a firm deadline. I could have defended my Master’s thesis in my second year or my third year. I can submit my new manuscript this week or a year from now. I can run the analysis on data I collected last semester this week or next semester. You get the point. I started emailing my adviser with the deadlines I promised to meet. For example, this Friday I am supposed to send him the first draft of our new paper. Now that he knows it, I have no excuse and have to get it done. In the same way, I am giving myself deadlines for subtasks to make sure I progress toward the big goal. Use this technique to complete the projects that are huge and scary; otherwise, you might procrastinate on them for weeks on end.
Try thematic days
If your schedule and deadlines allow, you can try tackling work by a specific theme or project on any given day during the workweek. Let’s say you have homework, your own manuscript to write, and teaching work. You can do all of your homework on Monday, spend all Tuesday working on your manuscript, and all Wednesday preparing for classes and grading. Alternatively, when working on a huge project, you can split it in chunks and dedicate one day to each chunk at a time. I found that thematic days are hard to do consistently because things come up unexpectedly. You can implement them during certain weeks for a couple of days - for example, have a writing day each Friday or a research-only day each Thursday. It’s a good way to dedicate your work time to deep focus on an important task.
When you feel overwhelmed, you might want to delegate some of your tasks. If you want to write a paper that requires coding qualitative data, you can invite your classmates or colleagues to work on the project with you and take part in the publication. If you struggle with statistics, find a colleague who knows stats well, collaborate and let them handle the stats part for you. When you can’t make yourself write, start a writing group and meet with friends regularly and write together. You can do the same with homework. While not without pitfalls, collaboration is an effective way to decrease your workload when it gets tough.
Things will take longer than expected. Emergencies and random things will come up taking up time in your schedule. Even your own motivation and habits might stand in the way of your productivity sometimes. All of that is totally fine and happens to everyone. Just revise your schedule and, when possible, deadlines, and keep working toward your goal. You will get there eventually!