Planning For Success: Strategies for Early Career Graduate Students

8 Minute Read -

Does it feel like you fluctuate between the two extremes of the students you saw sitting on the lawn reading an economics textbook or casually hunched over a microscope in a white coat in your university prospectus and the meme of the lady in a business suit frantically working against time while pulling out her hair? If your answer is yes, don’t worry, you’re not alone. Oh, and…welcome to graduate school!

But, do not fear, you do not need to feel like you are constantly in a hamster wheel, but you do need to be aware that as a graduate student, the bulk of your time will be unstructured. This means that you will require discipline in relation to your time to ensure that you reach your goals. Being a 4th year PhD student, I also had my days feeling like I am in a race against time, wondering if it’ll all be worth it. Every now and then, deadlines still catch up with me, forcing me to rethink whether I’ve been disciplined enough with my time or simply overcommitted myself.

Getting a handle on this was incredibly challenging, specifically because I was making a transition from a place where the bulk of my day was filled with timetabled classes and deadlines for assignments and exams. Sometimes I would miss important deadlines, or even the deadlines for my personal milestones. This would be very discouraging and would require reminding myself why I started in the first place to make sure I have enough motivation to keep going.

In this post, I share what I have learnt through trial and error as a graduate student. The points I share below are useful if you have a planning system, and there are many out there, so I will not try to convince you about which will work best, but will simply advise you on what to look out for as you embark on your planning journey.

Tip 1: Have a Research Plan

A research plan is an overview of your longer-term goals in the next 3 to 5 years (check out the previous post by Lindy Ledohowski on finishing your dissertation and publishing at the same time).  Having an overarching plan is useful as it helps you avoid being haphazard in your short-term planning, and gives you a bigger goal to work towards. For the typical graduate student, finishing their Master’s or PhD will be the end goal in such a plan, but this also allows you to work your goals concurrently. We get so caught up in trying to fit a single piece in a puzzle that we forget about the other pieces waiting for us. If you would like to take up a job in academia or a postdoc position upon completing your degree, it’s useful to check what the requirements for these jobs are and make sure that by the time you finish your degree you meet all the requirements for the job. For instance, as a lecturer you would require some teaching experience or perhaps even a published journal article in addition to your degree. Having a longer-term view of your goals can ensure that you’ve scheduled all these into your 3 to 5 year plan.

Tip 2: Use Productivity Tools

There are many productivity tools out there, but all of them are based on the same principle – getting something out of your head and putting it elsewhere. Having too many tasks in your head can cause anxiety and this makes us unproductive. Productivity tools help us avoid having to remember everything off hand, and more importantly they help us not forget important deadlines. These tools also give us an overview of our time. If you can see your events spread out over a calendar or something similar, it’s easier to work your way back and say ‘no’ to certain tasks which can take up important time slots. Some people use Evernote, others use Google Keep, Google Calendar, bullet journals, OneNote, Agenda, simple to-do lists, you name it. Using more than one is also useful, as different tools do different things. You will likely have to try a few of these out to find what works for you.

I personally make use of Google Keep to post links to Calls (conferences, special issues, grants etc.), but also ensure that I diarize these deadlines in my Google Calendar (Google Keep is not a good tool for adding a time dimension to your notes). It is also a good app for taking short notes. For instance, if I come across a journal I may want to consider publishing in, in the future, I make a note of it in Google Keep. I also use Google Calendar, where I block out my days with tasks. This is particularly useful if you only teach for a limited period of time during the year. Lastly, I use a bullet journal to make lists. I have monthly, weekly, and daily lists. I do this, as I do not like Google Calendar’s to-do list feature. My bullet journal gives me an overview of tasks which need to be done, but I can also pick up if a task is being repeated too many times, or if I’m scheduling too many ‘large’ tasks in a day. But this really only works when I use it in conjunction with my Google Calendar, which shows me the hours in my day. This allows me to reconcile the amount of work I have to do with the amount of time I have to do it, allowing me to be more realistic about my planning. I thus check my bullet journal and Google Calendar on a daily basis, whereas my Google Keep is not where I store high priority items. But I do have the Google Keep bar on the right-hand side of my Google Calendar each day.

Tip 3: Don’t Overcommit

Overcommitting can cause discouragement when you fail to meet your goals and can also cause fatigue if too much is done in one day (usually the beginning of the week). It is also important to schedule breaks as working to the point of exhaustion can also result in discouragement. Schedule these breaks specifically around holidays and long weekends, if you wish to spend time with family and friends. You can still meet your goals if you account for these, provided that your goals are realistic.

Schedule for life as well. All of us have personal life tasks that need to get done and ignoring this fact can create anxiety around the amount of time you have to fit personal and work commitments into your calendar. There is a perception that graduate (particularly PhD) students should always be working, even on the weekends. But the truth is, your degree is not your life and it is important that you find time for family and/or friends, as well as the dreaded tasks which you would have ideally delegated to your (non-existent) personal assistant. If you cannot schedule time to do groceries, service your car, and get to the hairdresser, you will not be satisfied with your personal life and you will be unproductive in your work life. If you have a flexible schedule, use this to your advantage. If you can do groceries on a Wednesday morning when the shops and lines are a bit shorter, swap the research you would have done on that morning and put it into the Saturday morning (grocery) slot instead. That way you spend less time on life tasks, but importantly still get it done, in addition to the work you needed to do in that time.

I make time for my running, which is very important to me, and I’ve listed my running goals (like the marathons I want to finish this year) alongside my PhD goals. I do this, as one is not necessarily more important than the other for me, and though the PhD is going to give me a greater longer-term reward, I will not be able to enjoy the fruits of my labour if I am unhealthy or struggle with mental illness as a result of not coping with my PhD stress. On that note, running also helps me with my creativity, as it lets me take a break from my writing and clear my head. So, these two activities are mutually beneficial. There are instances though where I have to compromise on these goals, for instance, when there is a family emergency or when I have to travel unexpectedly. When this happens, it helps if I do not schedule myself into a bind and I allow myself some breathing space, so that I can recover if there is a break in my scheduling. I do this by not overcommitting!

Tip 4: Be Specific in Your Planning

Sometimes when we have too much to do, it can paralyze us and we end up doing nothing. At this point it’s critical to be specific in your planning. Set a goal and work your way back. For example, if you set aside time to work on your literature review on Monday from 2pm to 4pm, know exactly which part you’ll do then. Or alternatively know that you’ll read x or y article during that time.

Following from the previous point, set aside time for reading. Often, we are so set on getting something onto paper or having a certain amount of words we need to write each day that we do not plan our reading. Writing is thinking and reading is part of what helps us shape our thoughts. Set aside time for reading and understanding the literature and do not feel guilty if your session does not always culminate in the 500 daily word goal you have set for yourself.

Reward yourself. Our brains like it when we get rewarded and we are less likely to discourage ourselves from doing something if there is an immediate reward at the end. Yes, meeting your big goals are a reward in themselves, but rewarding smaller milestones along the way is equally important.

I try, not always successfully, to give myself weekly rewards. This can be something as simple as going out for ice-cream or indulging in a bit of binge watching. If you’re a breastfeeding mom like myself, it could mean scheduling in a glass of wine at the end of the week. Sometimes finding time for the weekly goals is just too much, and I opt for a bigger monthly goal instead, such as buying a book I’ve been eyeing for a while. But only if I have managed to meet my goals.

Tip 5: Find Your Accountability Partner

 It helps having someone other than yourself hold you accountable. That way you are more likely to do stuff as failure to do so means you will not only be disappointing yourself, but also have to suffer the humiliation of having to tell your accountability partner that you did not meet your goal. Share your goals for the week/month with them and possibly ask them to reward you for meeting your goals.

I use different accountability partners for different tasks. If I am doing a stand-alone project, I ask my husband to be my partner, and he checks in with me along the way on how my project is progressing. In such a case, instead of treating myself to ice-cream, I would ask him to take me out for one instead. If I am working with someone else, say a co-published article, meeting the agreed upon deadlines is often enough, as my co-author automatically becomes an accountability partner (because they are waiting for my contribution to the manuscript). I also use my mentor, who is a senior professor (not my supervisor) I meet with once a month. Sometimes simply knowing that I will be able to tell her about my progress is a reward in itself. That way, I also secretly use our meeting as a monthly target. While other tasks amp me up and motivate me enough to not need an accountability partner, these are usually tasks which are new and exciting, meaning that they will not require much effort when doing.

These things are often easier said than done, and they do take practice if they are going to become habits. Having to check my bullet journal at the end of each day, and scheduling tasks into my Google Calendar can be tedious, but waking up in the morning knowing exactly what I’ll be doing, when I’ll be doing it, and why I’ll be doing it, certainly makes it much easier to do and often provides the motivation necessary to do it.