Time Management for Graduate Students

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PSUClock.jpgOne of the most difficult things for new Graduate Students to manage effectively is their time. This is in large part because graduate study has built into it large segments of unstructured time that can easily be wasted. One of the most important skills graduate students can learn early in their career is how to structure their time effectively. 

I have gathered here some suggestions that might help students take control of their time so that it can be used most productively.

Know Thyself
I mean this not only in the ancient Greek sense of knowing one's limits--although this is part of it--but specifically I mean: know when you do your best creative work and reserve that time for writing or other intellectual activities that require a high degree of concentration.

  • Are you a morning person? Do you do your best work at night?
Time Thyself
One of the best tricks I learned some time ago was to set an alarm on my desktop for a certain amount of time during which I would focus on a single task, be it reading an article, writing notes, free writing or editing.  Focus on nothing other than the task at hand until the alarm goes off.

This timing strategy does on a small scale what you should also do on a larger scale: set deadlines for yourself. You can do this with self-discipline or shame; for the latter, try making an appointment with a colleague or professor in which you will discuss some element of your work that will be complete by that time. You'd be surprised how motivating it is not to want to seem clueless in front of others - this is part of what motivates many of us teachers to prepare like crazy.

Take Control of Email/Social Media
Studies have shown that each time you check your email it takes an average of 15 minutes to return to your original task. You need to take full control of when you give yourself over to checking email and other forms of social media.

  • Turn off the automatic alert on your email, IM service, etc.
Get Organized
You need to have a reliable calendar that you can easily use to keep track of all your appointments.  You also should have a dynamic way to track and prioritize what you have do. There are many computer programs that can help in this regard.

With regard to ToDo lists, it is helpful to be able to organize them according to projects that keep the work in various courses and other academic and personal projects separate.  I have been using Things lately, and like it quite a bit.  A nice, free, but less involved, list maker is available at Zenbe.com.

I have also been making excellent use of Evernote, which allows you to keep notes of all kinds in the cloud and syncs with multiple computers and smart phones.

A Quiet Space
It is not always easy to find a good, quiet space to work; one with few distractions.  It is critical to locate one, be it in your apartment, on campus or in a cafe.  If you are working in public, it is often helpful to have your earphones in your ears even if you are not actually listening to anything through them.  Earphones can function as earplugs, filtering out distracting noise and fostering concentration. Plus, people are less likely to interrupt you if they think you are listening to something.

Down Time
I often see graduate students who are exhausted and over extended.  People don't often realize that intellectual activity is often as tiring as physical exercise. Make sure you give yourself down time as it cultivates creativity and increases productivity.
  • Get enough sleep: it seems that less than seven hours a night cripples productivity, memory retention and creativity.  See this article on How Much Sleep Do We Really Need? on the website of the National Sleep Foundation.
  • Allow your mind to wander: I know it sounds strange for me to suggest this, but allowing your mind to go where it will as you perform menial tasks can help you work through a particularly difficult question or issue.
  • Move: when your body is healthy, your mind becomes stronger, so be sure to get out from behind the desk and walk or exercise. This is not wasted time, but part of an overall strategy of success.
  • Reward yourself with something fun you like to do when you have accomplished something; or use it as an end toward which your work is directed.

Some Resources

8 Comments

Very good advice, Chris.

As a kind of supplement to your suggestion #6 ("Down Time"), I would suggest something that has been very helpful for me over the years: "OFF Time."

One of the difficult things about academia, unlike other jobs that have more structured work days, is that one can feel as if one is NEVER "off" work. Even when I'm not teaching, or in meetings, or in my office, I still feel as if I ought to be reading, writing, or prepping... which is, of course, always true. We never "clock out" and our work is never "finished."

However, there's a point at which this approach to work renders diminishing returns. Even if it is a forced or arbitrarily determined time, I find that I need time in which I don't feel obligated to do work. When I was in graduate school, I made this time "Sundays." Now that I've got a job, my off-time is "after 7pm." It's a difficult limit to respect sometimes, but I simply don't work when I'm "off."

My experience is that this practice has made my "work-time" much more productive and structured, even if only because I know that whatever there is to be done MUST be done in that time. And, equally beneficial, it has made my off-time actually relaxing and restorative, as opposed to only slightly-less-stressed.

Great advice, Chris. I also wholeheartedly agree with the advice given above by Dr. J about segmenting your week or day. You will definitely be more productive.

I would like to add two comments. The first is that, no matter how much or how hard you think you're working now, when you get your first academic job, you'll wonder how you could have thought you were working hard in graduate school. Those first few years in an academic job are excruciatingly intense, and developing good time management skills in grad school will be essential to coping with several new course preps and all the other demands that will be made on your time. So, now is definitely the time to be thinking about developing good time management skills.

Second, I would like to recommend that you make a transition from thinking about graduate school as "being in school" to thinking about it as "having a job." That transition will result in something like what Dr. J. describes, and I think the shift in consciousness can't be overestimated. Think of coming in to work each day and doing your job(s) (your own course work, dissertation, teaching, etc.) While it's true that we typically feel that we're never "off" work as academics, we need to gain a deeper sense of what being "at work," means in order to create the boundaries between work and other aspects of our lives that provide good mental health.

I agree with the advice offered so far--especially watching out for email as a distraction. I will also add, as a woman who had a baby two weeks after defending a dissertation proposal, who then wrote the dissertation over the next two years with baby in tow: make a schedule and stick to it. I wrote my dissertation along with parenting essentially by swearing by a schedule to write a certain number of pages every day, four days a week, whether they were "good" or "bad" pages--revision came later. It's served me well now when I juggle far more as a prof than I ever did in grad school.

I also agree that good boundaries about being at work vs at home are helpful. To some extent, being a mom was a help to my writing, as it gave me time to be away, to enjoy life, and to recharge my batteries, and limited the hours that I could work (thus making me extra focused when "at work" writing) and less stressed when not "at work" and enjoying the family.

Thanks for these excellent suggestions, Dr. J., Jill and Marina! The students found this very helpful. They had a number of suggestions of their own that were insightful.

My hope is that they will submit some of them as comments here and we can have a running discussion of good time management strategies.

I enjoy having this blog on time management. Thanks, Dr. Long!

I would like to share a writing tip that has worked for me.

As I am writing for the initial draft of my paper, I have at least two or three mini drafts along the way. When I reach a draft point, I print it for my review. As I review these drafts, I ask myself: "What should I write to give my paper better structure?"

Mini drafts help me stay motivated and see my progress as I write. Here is a concrete example of this tip for a 15 page paper:

1st draft-2/3 pages
2nd draft-10/12 pages
3rd draft-15+ pages

These first three drafts are "rough" drafts. As such, I have paid no attention to spelling and very little attention to coherence, etc.

4th draft-coherence, major revision
5th draft-typos, grammar,etc.
6th draft-typos

At this point, I generally submit the paper to my professor for comments. I find that having done all of this work makes the draft that he/she has commented on much easier to deal with.

Happy writing!

Great post, Chris. The capacity to face up to an enormous expanse of free-time and a potentially infinite number of useful and useless projects is the major obstacle to be surmounted in graduate education.

Echoing what others have said, treat it like a job. Work it eight to ten hours a day. (Admittedly I work a lot of weekends, too.) Set limits and schedules and stick to them. Avoid "crunch mode" and avoid slacking off. If you have an office or study cubicle at the library or favorite coffee shop, go to it, work, and then leave at the end of the day. It took me a long time to even get close to this goal, and I still struggle with it. When I manage it, however, I'm a lot more productive, and I notice a similar productivity in my colleagues.

A lot of us got into philosophy because it seemed to promise a job that was also a lifestyle or a mode of being. This may well be true, but as others here have mentioned, you have to know how to turn it off if you're going to be able to turn it on dependably.

These are great posts, and Penn State's graduate program is lucky to have so much guidance on what is a very tricky subject. All of the previous comments are extremely helpful, and I hesitate to add anything for fear of being repetitious. I think I'd just like to add something about what I see as the significance of concerning oneself with these kinds of 'practical matters.'

Part of "know thyself" is knowing the expectations that you have developed of what it would be to be a 'real professional philosopher.' It is important to have good examples of successful people whom you'd like to emulate, and good advice that stems from their experience, but in the end YOU are the only person who can determine what it will mean for YOU to be a professional philosopher. I myself have fallen into the trap of thinking that I wasn't doing it 'right' if I wasn't doing it in a particular way...this kills your confidence and becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Given this, I think one of the most important tasks of a philosophical education is to determine for yourself what it means to be a professional philosopher and what you think that should look like in your life. This will have something to do with the way that you prioritize the things in your life and the things in your work--as well as how you draw that distinction. It will also influence the kinds of structures you impose upon yourself for setting and accomplishing discrete goals.

In the end, this is a larger and harder thing to determine but one about which we would do better to be deliberate rather than haphazard. Determining one's self-understanding in this regard is, I think, the goal of the work of living and not merely of one's work life.

These are great posts, and Penn State's graduate program is lucky to have so much guidance on what is a very tricky subject. All of the previous comments are extremely helpful, and I hesitate to add anything for fear of being repetitious. I think I'd just like to add something about what I see as the significance of concerning oneself with these kinds of 'practical matters.'

Part of "know thyself" is knowing the expectations that you have developed of what it would be to be a 'real professional philosopher.' It is important to have good examples of successful people whom you'd like to emulate, and good advice that stems from their experience, but in the end YOU are the only person who can determine what it will mean for YOU to be a professional philosopher. I myself have fallen into the trap of thinking that I wasn't doing it 'right' if I wasn't doing it in a particular way...this kills your confidence and becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Given this, I think one of the most important tasks of a philosophical education is to determine for yourself what it means to be a professional philosopher and what you think that should look like in your life. This will have something to do with the way that you prioritize the things in your life and the things in your work--as well as how you draw that distinction. It will also influence the kinds of structures you impose upon yourself for setting and accomplishing discrete goals.

In the end, this is a larger and harder thing to determine but one about which we would do better to be deliberate rather than haphazard. Determining one's self-understanding in this regard is, I think, the goal of the work of living and not merely of one's work life.

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