Time management – grad school edition

What a wonderful time of year the summer is for graduate students and anyone in academia. More or less free from the throngs of people that are present during the major academic year, it should be a productive time of checking things of the to-do list and spitting out manuscripts or thesis chapters. Right? If only…


For those that do fieldwork, the summer can often be a busy time. However, that is not the main point I wish to make with this blog post. I want to discuss the skill of time-management and why so many graduate students (myself included) seem to lack it. Of course, this doesn’t apply to all graduate students, however my anecdotal evidence would indicate that a majority do have difficulty with it. Furthermore the number of people taking longer than the proposed program term may be somewhat related to ability for students to time-manage*.

*There are, of course, many different reasons that students do not adhere to the suggested timeline including personal reasons and reasons beyond their control (supervisors, bureaucracy, funding etc).

First, it is important to discuss some of the reasons that can contribute to poor time budgeting.

1) Lack of experience

There are very few ‘jobs’ that are as flexible and self-directed as graduate studies. I would argue that most work experience graduate students have is in significantly more structured jobs. What other jobs are you left unsupervised (pun not intended) to do your own work for weeks/months at a time? The outputs-based environment of graduate school, where it doesn’t matter so much when (or how) you do the work, so long as it gets done, is foreign to most new graduate students.

2) Lack of deadlines

Along the same lines as point one, the lack of structured (and plentiful) deadlines is something that we have not been exposed to very often. The idea of starting projects ahead of time and sticking to a specific schedule is ironed out during the undergraduate years when a never ending flurry of deadlines means prioritisation, last minute panicked writing and lots of coffee. I would suggest that undergraduate programs actually help to discourage true time-management skills as opposed to encourage their development.

3) It’s all in your head

I would wager that one of the biggest hurdles to being able time-management properly is that big lump of grey matter in our cranium. We are immersed in an environment where our supervisors and Sr colleagues (PDF’s etc) are busy wearing 10 different hats, directing multiple research programs, supervising students, writing manuscripts and teaching courses. Because of this a feeling of inadequacy (in this sense, purely related to time-management skills) can be present. “How is it that I have trouble finding time to write a darn thesis and teach some labs while these people are doing all that other stuff in the same time frame?” is a question that has run through my mind more than once.

I have finally realised how they do it: practice. They’ve all been at it longer than I have and have had time to figure out how to juggle their many responsibilities. This is a key point that should be considered by all graduate students and supervisors/advisors/mentors when setting output expectations; new grad students don’t have the same time management experience and should be judged accordingly.

Furthermore, the introduction of large projects and long-term expectations can loom over ones head as a new student. The idea of long-term projects (even as trivial as teaching labs for a semester) can sit over ones head, lead to stress and ultimately cause people to be flustered. And we all know how being flustered helps your productivity…

4) Distractions

Distractions to graduate students come in many different forms. From the trivial social distractions that result from working at a place that has alcohol served onsite, to the less trivial life-related distractions such as finding ways to survive off graduate school stipends. Perhaps a generational problem, but it does seem that the number of distractions to people of all ages seems to be increasing. Consequently, our ability to rid ourselves of distractions (self-control?) is decreasing.

Along this line, finding an adequate work-life balance can be a challenge for new grad students. However, this is a whole other can of worms for another blog post…

So now some ideas of how to develop time management skills. These are ways that I have figured out and that may help other new grad students. If I omit something, please let me know in the comments!

1) Set defined deadlines and short-term expectations/goals

While this may seem trivial, the impact it can have is far from it. Having a weekly expectation of output and having some way of evaluating your success at it is very useful. This could be in the form of having (bi)weekly lab meetings where you are expected to present the past weeks work or having scheduled meetings with officemates/supervisors. Either way, the slight pressure of a looming deadline can aid in promoting productivity.

2) Distraction techniques

While this is an area that I am not well versed in, I figure it should be discussed. There are multiple different techniques that can be used to help you focus and eliminate distractions. For example the Pomodoro technique uses a timer to focus you for a set period of time at which point you take a brain break. Personally, I prefer to throw on some white noise or some relaxing music and write until I need a break.

3) Use fellow grad students and colleagues to keep you honest

One perk of having fellow lab/officemates is the ability to have them check on progress and keep you honest as you go along. A little bit of healthy competition (for those that thrive on it) can be healthy and promote productivity.

4) Set up and (try to) follow a long-term timeline

During my first grad course I was required to make a timeline for my graduate program and was advised to pin it up somewhere I could see it. At first, I scoffed at the idea, but recently I have acknowledged it to be surprisingly helpful. I’m also glad to say that I’ve somewhat stuck to it… So far… Either way, the long-term goals helps to keep things in perspective and provide a little bit of motivation to meet the ‘deadlines’.

However, throughout it all, it is most important to make sure that you are personally happy and healthy. Remember that things, often out of your control, come up and require you to alter your timelines. Try not to judge your time-management skills against those that have had much more practice at juggling the aspects of academia than you have. Comparing my skill at running a marathon to that of an olympic marathon runner is not going to do anyone any favours. Whereas I run (recreationally), the olympic athlete has been practicing the skill for a lot longer than I have. The same holds true in academia…

On that note, I had better get back to some thesis writing… Apologies for the slow posting of past and upcoming blogs, thesis writing, fieldwork and just general life have been (and will likely continue to be) gobbling up my time. If you have any comments on time-management tips that weren’t included, please plop them in the comments! I could always use more…..



Thanks to Alex in the comments and Caitlin MacKenzie (@CaitlinInMaine) on twitter for these further suggestions that I either omitted or hadn’t thought of!

– Commit to doing a minimum of ___X___ number of hours per day of research. Not checking your e-mail, favourite blog post, cell phone or other distractions. Just research/thesis work.

– Another useful way of using technology to help keep you focused is through browser add-ons that prevent you from accessing your favoured source of procrastination. For example, I use one called “Nanny for Google Chrome” to help keep me on track.

– Have an organised method of keeping track of important to-do tasks and your schedule. Remember those things called day-planners? They can be very useful in time budgeting… I do my scheduling and task management through my Google Calendar but whatever method works for you, USE IT!

– Treat grad-school (as much as possible) as a regular job. By tracking your ‘billable’ time honestly, you can gauge how productive you’ve been in the day/week. One of the perks of the academy is being able to put those billable hours in whenever works for you.

1 thought on “Time management – grad school edition

  • Great post – and I can offer a couple of anecdotes, and my own tips.

    My MSc supervisor told me that I could finish my degree if I worked on research 4 hours a day. What he meant, of course, is actually working on research – not teaching, dealing with paperwork, checking e-mail (or commenting on blog posts …) but actual honest to goodness solid work. I think he might have low-balled it, but the basic principle appiles. Use a browser add-on to block your favourite procrastination website (news, blogs, twitter, etc), and don’t circumvent it by using a different browser, back-end work-around. You’d be amazed at how much time you save.

    While there are numerous distractions, the opposite can also be true – grad students can be workaholics (well, I was during my MSc). When I started a PhD, I had one rule: I would not go into the lab/office on weekends unless there was something upon which my whole thesis depended. Sure, I worked at home on weekends, but it was home. I think over the 4 years, I was only ever in 3-4 times on weekends.

    Now as a postdoc, managing multiple research projects, I make daily lists of tasks, and use a spreadsheet to keep track of projects – mostly a progress checklist (data collection, lab work, analysis, first draft, sent to coauthors, submitted to journal, revised). There’s also a column for what the next task is, and another for who’s supposed to do it. I start every week by looking it over, and updating the past week. Not only is it a great way to motivate oneself on a Monday morning, but it lets me plan in the near-term (for the next week).

    I also make prodigous use of my calendar on the computer, and review that regularly (something I never thought I would do as an undergrad, or MSc student!). Meetings, booked lab time, classes, travel, etc. all go in there, and I don’t make a commitment during working hours without checking it first.

    But above all, treat grad school as a job (and a good job at that). If you have to bugger off for an afternoon for a doctors’ appointment, for example, make the time up later (or even beforehand). Let your supervisor know if you’re worknig from home, or if you have to take an afternoon off.

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