Managing Time in Graduate School

Ann Forsyth's picture

Recently, a number of students have asked me questions about a similar topic-managing time. In graduate school there are deadlines. Some required tasks are not things you would choose to do unless forced-just like the world of work. At the same time one has a relatively large amount of flexibility as to how one organizes time to get it done. The tips below aim to help you figure out an approach to this difficult issue. They draw on my own observations. However, my able researchassistant Amanda Wilson provided some additional comments and I quote her fromtime to time! Errors are of course mine.

Don't mistake inputs for outputs. What matters in the end are outputs-did you write the paper, analyze the data, learn the skill, or demonstrate you area good team player? Busy work like endless team meetings or surfing the internet for the perfect photo of a pedestrian crossing may feel like you are doing something. However, you are really achieving little in terms of outputs. As in the world of work, just turning up for 40 hours per week does not mean you are actually doing anything productive. Saving the world is an output, not an input. 

Spend enough time, early on. However, graduate school requires substantial work and successful students put in enough time to get their work done early enough so they can polish and edit. They turn up to team meetings and help them be productive rather than a black hole-demonstrating the important planning skill of teamwork. When you have deadlines imposed by others-as most of us do-you need to work at putting in the hours. 

Track and balance your time. It can be easy to get absorbed in onetask, or to find yourself doing hours of administrative type tasks. Budget how many hours tasks will take, with some wiggle room. Periodically track your hours or your tasks.  How much time does email really take? Or blogging?  I have a daily research log with two sections-research/creative outputs and other. Having a routine can help here as well. Thanks to Amanda Wilson for reminding me about this one.

Plan out your semester and your days. Typically faculty members tell you on the first day of class what assignments and other tasks you will need to do that semester. Make a timeline or Gantt chart with those deadlines, then add in intermediate steps such as time to study for exams or prepare drafts and have them reviewed. Look for busy weeks and figure out how to make them less busy by doing work early. Add in key conflicts-your sister's wedding, moving house... Then plan out your days but as Amanda Wilson commented, be sure " to block out not only class time, but when you will study for each class."

Manage IT distractions. There are a lot of great new sources of information, and modes of communication, that can be both compelling and a total black hole in terms of time. Do you need to get rid of some telecommunications devices? Should you decide not to use some web sites or programs? Should you only use some in particular places or at particular times? You of course needto find a balance, however the communications revolution has not expanded the day while it has expanded the ways you can spend your time. In graduate school, and in the world of work for that matter, you need to set up an environment where you can focus your attention on producing important outputs. 

Figure out your own personal style andyour body rhythms. Do you need to let your mind run free when thinking about a problem? Do you sleep a lot? Are afternoons a bad time for you in terms of writing but OK for reading? Do you have super rigid constraints on your schedule such as a day job or a new baby? If so you will have to really tightly organize your work time. Figure out what works for you. Is it task lists, timelines, having a writing partner? Some people are motivated by guilt-and for them having someone play the role of "writing ogre" is helpful--but others need to work at a specific time of day or a specific chair or eating a specific food to get things done. The classic Writing Down the Bones by Nathalie Goldberg, while aimed at those trying to write in general, is useful in that it shows a wide range of strategies for getting fingers to keyboard and producing stuff. I switch modes. I always use a tasklist. At some times I also really work with a timeline or Gantt chart and at others I aim to produce a certain number of words a day and if I'm ahead I can do less (Excel can help); I know I write better in the morning and the evening. Rewards like favorite foods or time off can also help. Figure out your style.

Work with your motivations and goals. Why are you doing graduate school? Is it because you are desperate to get a better job? Are you really passionate about a topic and want to tell people about it? Do you want to change the world? Why are you doing this class? As a stepping stone to what you are really interested in? To learn an important skill? Not all motivations are nice-the saying that "there's no revenge like success" has motivated many academics to write. It is my sense that people who can focus attention and manage time, use their motivations to keep themselves working in the right direction. As Amanda Wilson commented it can help to "write out a goal list every semester that is both school and life related."

Know your trade-offs. In many programs a large number of students who are in full-time graduate programs, also hold down full-time jobs. They feel stressed about time. It is just not possible to do as well in this situation so resign yourself to lower grades. Of course if enough students do this they may put a great deal of pressure on faculty to lower standards and that does occur. But in the end these are trade-offs you decided to make and youneed to manage your time around it.

Just do it. It takes a great deal of time to procrastinate about working on a writing project. Just do it.

For more onthis topic see my earlier blog on the time/quality curve at My own university, Cornell, has sometips for time management There are some documents on learning strategiesand time management here: this one

Ann Forsyth is professor of Urban Planning at Harvard University.


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