I always thought that getting your PhD was only about better time management
One morning I stood up from my desk around 10 am after spending an hour dutifully answering all the emails in my inbox.
Collaborators, students in the class I was teaching, friends, and family members all decided to ask me for favors of various sizes that morning.
At the time, the word “No” was hardly in my vocabulary, so I replied to all the questions and made notes of all the favors I would do later in the week for others.
I went to the office to get a glass of water and to get mentally ready for analyzing data for my thesis research the rest of the day.
But, as soon as I filled my cup, my lab mate walked in and put a tray of home-made fudge brownies on the table next to the water cooler.
“I made these for my sister’s birthday party yesterday,” she said. “They are soooo awesome, you have to try one before they disappear.”
She was right. I hadn’t had a fudge brownie that exquisite in a long time.
I had to find out her secret recipe. It would be a great way to surprise the students in the class I was teaching.
Before I knew it, it was 10:30 and I was still in the office talking to my labmate about fudge brownies.
“I’ve got to go,” I said glancing at my watch, remembering that I had to send my data analysis to my supervisor by the end of the day so we could discuss the next steps in my thesis research.
I sat down at my computer, and I decided to “check my email quickly” in case anyone had any questions about the emails I sent earlier.
As I expected, more emails populated my inbox.
Most of them were from my students who were getting ready to present their final projects at the end of the semester.
I wanted to make sure that they had all the information and support they needed and I replied to their emails in as much detail as possible.
By the time I answered their emails it was almost 12 noon.
I hadn’t made a dent in my data analysis, which I had to send to my supervisor by the end of the day.
I wasn’t particularly hungry, but I went outside to the Chinese food truck to get my lunch before the line took up the entire block (it was the best food truck on campus).
I got lucky, there were only a handful people ahead of me.
But, all I could think of while waiting was “Where did my morning go?”
On my first day of graduate school I remember asking my supervisor “What are the typical
work hours here?”
“There are no set work hours,” he replied. “You manage your own time. But, as you can see everyone gets their work done.”
At the time this sounded like an ideal workplace. Setting my own work-hours?
It was a liberating thought after four years of college, where I was juggling classes, studying for exams, doing problem sets, and working part-time in a Chemistry lab.
I had heard stories of students who took 9 or 10 years to get their PhDs (the average for my department was 6 years), and I decided that I would do everything possible to get my PhD in the shortest amount of time possible.
I showed up punctually at 9 am every morning, and (after checking my email) I either studied for one of my courses or set up my experiment for the day.
While I was taking courses for the first 2 years, I also wanted to generate data as quickly as possible.
I stayed at lab sometimes until 9 or 10 pm , and I worked on Saturdays too.
But, my data was inconsistent, and I did the what seemed to be the most logical strategy at the time: I worked even longer hours and on Sundays too.
I worked as many hours as I could, but I also went through periods of low energy where I was just a “warm body” at work.
I was physically in the lab, but I couldn’t focus because I was mentally exhausted.
In retrospect, my lack of focus makes complete sense.
Think about it.
How can you stay sharp if you never give yourself a break?
How do you know if you are on the right track if you don’t get consistent feedback?
When “are you allowed” to take time off if there are no set hours?
I learned the hard way that in an unstructured environment, like graduate school, y
ou have to be your own boss.
And, you’ll be the toughest boss you’ll ever have.
When you are your own boss, it is very tough to get a realistic perspective of where you are in your thesis research.
Just to be on the safe side to make as much progress as possible, most graduate students work very long hours 6 or 7 days a week.
This ruthless schedule leads inevitably to physical and mental exhaustion.
At this point you may feel too fatigued to work.
You might miss a deadline, and feel like you disappointed your supervisor.
Then, when you have a surge of energy or motivation you start working again, but without structure or feedback you may fall back into the same schedule where you drive yourself to the point of exhaustion.
This pattern can become a vicious cycle, which leaves you more frustrated each time you go through it.
Eventually, you may conclude that you are “not smart enough” for graduate school because so much time has passed by without any measurable progress.
In an unstructured and competitive environment like graduate school, how do you manage your time?
How can you stay focused throughout the day so that you make consistent progress on your thesis?
I remember feeling incredibly relieved after I passed my qualifying exams.
With no more classes or exams to study for, I would have so much time to do my research.
But, during my celebration party one of the senior students shook my hand and said: “Congratulations on passing your exam! Easy part is over!”
At the time I thought she was kidding and we had a good laugh together.
But a few months later I understood exactly what she was talking about.
I had too much time on my hands, and no one told me what to do or how to manage my time.
Sometimes I spent 10 hours in front of the computer, but I had little to show for my time at the end of the day.
To make matters worse, I developed chronic back pain from sitting so much.
I realized it was not a good idea to work all the time and I decided to go swimming several times a week.
While I felt a little guilty initially for “leaving the lab”, the commitment to go swimming put structure into my days.
I knew I would have less time at work, and I was forced to prioritize during the rest of the day.
You can also put structure into your days by blocking out time for exercise, hobbies, and time with your family and this will make you more productive on the long run.
Like 99% of the population, I used to start my days by checking my email.
As a consequence of “dutifully” responding to everyone’s request, sometimes my entire morning went by without any measurable progress on my thesis.
I was also part of several collaborations that were “interesting”, but I knew they would not become part of my thesis.
These collaborations took time and energy away from my own thesis, and sometimes I didn’t even gain additional skills to expand my expertise.
While my supervisor encouraged these collaborations, I didn’t have to do them.
I joined these collaborations because I wanted to seem like a “good” graduate student in hopes that this image would help me graduate sooner.
My thesis committee didn’t care about my side projects. They only gave me the green light to defend when I had enough data for my own thesis.
Yes, your supervisor may ask you to do side-projects and sometimes you have to do them.
But, just shifting your mindset and making your thesis your #1 priority at work will help you to discover ways to make progress, even if you have other projects to work on.
If you have a choice, be wise about which side-projects to take on (choose ones that will expand your skill set), and how much time you will commit to them so you don’t jeopardize your own thesis.
Most graduate students who fall behind their timelines are not slackers.
On the contrary, most graduate students are diligent and ambitious and aspire to be professors.
To “motivate” themselves to work harder, many students compare themselves to senior students who have published several papers or (worse) tenured professors.
As a consequence of constantly comparing themselves to more successful people in their fields, students may put so much pressure on themselves, that they feel like they don’t “deserve” a break.
While it is inspiring to look up to role models in your field, just keep in mind that their success did not happen overnight.
It takes months (or, more typically years) to gather enough data to put together a publication, and then it takes several more months for each publication to go through the review and editing process.
So, go a little easy on yourself and take regular breaks so you can stay focused.
Remember having recess time at school? Recess is just as important to learning as classroom time.
On the days when we didn’t have outside recess at my school (due to bad weather), the kids were restless and weren’t able to focus for the second part of the day.
Adults also need recess.
If you want to be productive, you need breaks during the day and get your body moving whether you are 5 or 105 or any age in between.
Now you know that you need to put structure into your days, make your thesis your #1 priority, and take regular breaks.
But, how do you know whether you are on track with your thesis so you can actually enjoy your breaks and not feel guilty about not being at work?
In other words, you need to set long-term (1 year), mid-term (3-6 months) and short-term milestones (next month).
The best way to develop these milestones is to start with the big picture:
What are the main goals of your thesis? (do your best to answer this question if you are still early in your program)
Where do you need to be 1 year from now to be on track with these goals?
What do you need to achieve in the next 1 month, 3 months, or 6 months to make progress?
Make sure that you and your supervisor are on the same page regarding these timelines and milestones.
Also, keep in mind that research is unpredictable (as is life) so you will need to modify these timelines as you make progress.
When you have a system where you can set goals and track your progress towards a finished thesis, you will feel more confident and it will be easier to manage your time during the day and take breaks when you need them.
The number one advice from PhDs to current graduate students is to “join a support and accountability group.”
Even if you have your goals written down and your day planned out, it is very tough to stay motivated on your own.
Writing a thesis can be isolating and frustrating, and without an accountability system many students put off writing indefinitely or just quit graduate school.
Don’t let this happen to you.
You have already invested so much of your time, energy, and soul into graduate school that you deserve to have all the resources you need to finish.
Make sure that you have the academic and emotional support to keep you on track and motivated while you write your thesis.
In college there were support groups in the form of study groups, office hours, and the residential community.
In graduate school many student do not have any type of support – you have to be proactive and find your own accountability system.
Simply knowing that you need to report your progress to someone else by a specified time will give you a burst of motivation to follow through on your plans.
Managing your time in graduate school can be challenge if you are not proactive, but, if you put these strategies into place you will notice an incredible boost in your productivity and confidence.
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