Productivity,  Research

How to get the most out of your time as a graduate student

4 Minute Read -

Think about it. Your entire childhood consisted of you getting used to some form of structure. From bedtime routines instilled by your caregivers and waking up at a set time every morning for primary school, to the timetable you were handed in secondary school and your seemingly flexible, but jam-packed university timetable.

After having completed a four-year undergraduate degree or an honours degree, many students go on to register for their master’s degree. If you are lucky and you have the money and time, you can register for a coursework master’s which consists of classes and thus have some structure in your degree (at least at the beginning). For the rest, master’s by dissertation and most PhD programmes often do not offer any form of structure. It is no wonder then that students find it difficult to cope with a master’s or PhD by dissertation or the research component of a master’s by coursework degree.

And why wouldn’t they? They have been given clear, structured timetables and deadlines their entire lives! Resultantly, many students take many years to complete a project which they should be able to complete over the course of a few months (assuming no personal tragedies or repeated work crises). What happens, in a nutshell, is that people move from an extremely structured way of doing things to being told that they are on their own and would need to suddenly master very advanced time management skills. Unfortunately, however, not many of us have formal training in managing our time, we are used to other people managing our time for us; such as our timetables and our work schedules.

In addition to the lack of time management skills, many students have an incredible number of factors demanding their time. Many need to work (some full-time) to fund their studies, creating severe pressure on available time in addition to personal demands and obligations from their families and friends.

In my experience, this tends to lead to one of two problems: (1) an (often realistic) underestimation of available time, resulting in their research suffering, or (2) an overestimation of available time. Neither of these contributes positively to the completion of a degree in good time. In this post, I will discuss a few points for students hoping to make good progress in their degrees where they are solely accountable and responsible for their time.

This is a short-term sacrifice

The first point to remember is that this is not a permanent state of affairs. It may feel overwhelming looking at all the work you have to do, but reminding yourself that this is only for a short period of time might make it a bit easier. There was a point while writing my PhD proposal where I used to wake up at a very early hour to read and write before going to work in the morning. Not being a morning person made this an incredibly difficult thing to do, but I reminded myself that I would not be doing this forever and I did not do it every single morning, only a few days a week.

Make a timetable

There is a saying that goes: “people make time for the things that matter”, and there has never been a saying more true than this one. We often put off doing things because we don’t have time. We cannot start an exercise regime or start a book because we simply don’t have time. This is often how people rationalise not prioritising their own rest and mental health because they simply don’t think it’s important!

We spend large proportions of our time on social media these days and other frivolous activities also tend to eat into our available time. Before saying that you do not have time for something or if you do want to find time, make a timetable. Draw up a timetable of a typical week in your life and fill out what you do in each slot. You can download an example of a timetable here. Fill out everything, sleeping time, eating time, the time you spend with friends and family, and time spent travelling to and from work. Do you see gaps in the timetable that are not being used productively? This is the key to finding any time you may have available.

I must stress, however, that doing nothing is incredibly important for your rest and mental health and squeezing every minute out of your week is definitely not a long-term solution. But if you quickly want to finish a proposal or complete a final draft of a chapter or two, then employ this strategy for a set number of weeks, then take a few weeks off to rest.

Do a little bit on most days of the week

If I haven’t worked on a document for a few weeks I find myself having to re-read the bulk of the document to get a sense of where I stopped working and which parts of the document still needs improvement. This would be very different from a document that I looked at a day or two ago. Having to find your bearings in a document each time can be a time-wasting exercise that could take 30 to 45 minutes of your day. If you have limited time available, then this is not a productive way to do things.

So, try and look at your document on most days of the week. I know it is not always possible to work on your research every day, especially when you have a full-time job, however, you can try waking up a bit earlier (or sleeping a bit later) on a Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday and Saturday, for instance. Even if you only spend an hour and a half on it each morning, at least you are making regular contact with the document.

Also, if this is how you will go about doing things, be specific about what you will do in each session. In other words, do not close off your Tuesday session without signposting in your document or writing down somewhere what you will do in Wednesday’s session. See Tip 4 in this post for more on being specific in planning each session.

Plan your time off from work

Many people are entitled to study or research leave. However, they tend to take this valuable time off at the wrong part of the research process. You have to be strategic with this leave if you are going to make it count.

Make sure that you will have complete control over your time when your leave starts. For instance, if you submitted your ethics application last week, don’t start your research leave next week Monday, because you will likely only be able to read a bit more literature, given that you cannot yet start data collection. So, be clever about this and speak to your supervisor about the best time to use such a privilege.

In summary, make sure you make every minute count because you will have limited time. It’ll be hard work, but the payoff will be worth it!


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