PhD students have a lot to do. The demands of a PhD sometimes seem never ending. There is research to conduct, results to find, papers to write, meetings, teaching, and administrative obligations. The full list can at times seem incredibly daunting (for more on what PhDs do every day check out this post). So how do you get through it all? How can you efficiently schedule your extensive To Do List to get everything done?
How you schedule your individual days will depend on your own preferences and your stage in your PhD, but below I have provided some overall scheduling tips to organize yourself to meet your long-term goals. As a PhD candidate you will be juggling several long-term projects and commitments, which may be a change form how you worked before. Both Bachelor’s degrees and master’s degrees have very short-term goals and immediate needs, but PhDs require more strategic and long term planning. In this post I will discuss some of these larger planning and scheduling issues and how to tackle them.
This post was written by a recent PhD graduate (it is anonymous to keep the discussion frank) on behalf of Dave Maslach. This is part of the R3ciprocity project (Check out the YouTube Channel or the writing feedback software. R3ciprocity helps students, faculty, and research folk by providing a real and authentic look into doing research. It provides solutions and hope to researchers around the world. For more on this topic and to see what Dave has to say about scheduling, check out this video:
A lot of people struggle with scheduling, particularly scheduling for long term projects and goals. It can sometimes be hard to visualize the outcome of a project 3-5 years from now. As a PhD you need to get in the habit of thinking in the long-term and learning to schedule your time and resources to meet the needs of a lengthy project and other commitments. Here are some things to keep in mind as you move through your PhD.
Your PhD program will likely have a proscribed number of years which it will take to complete. While it is important to remember that the guidelines around the timeline are just that, guidelines, you do need to still schedule effectively and keep moving forward in order to complete your PhD (see this post about timelines and milestones). In order to meet your goals and eventually finish your PhD you need to think and plan long term. While yes, you will have to make daily plans and accomplish daily tasks, you should get in the mindset of thinking about your project as a whole and make a general plan for the next few years.
You will not see the results of your research immediately, and the whole process of a PhD is lengthy, as will other projects be during your academic career. It is important to make and keep long term goals in mind, and work towards them little by little.
Plan in Months Not Days
In relation to that, you should start planning and thinking in terms of months rather than days. Research, writing, teaching, etc. are all on-going processes. Each core component or step in your PhD will take more than a few days or weeks to complete. While each component will have smaller internal tasks, the larger goal will still take months to accomplish (for tips on daily scheduling see this post). For example, during the data collection phase of your PhD you will have daily tasks you need to complete for your lab experiments, but to get the actual results of the experiment and the data you need may take months. The experiment itself may take a while to conduct and then on top of that it likely will need to be conducted quite a few times to yield usable results. It will take several months to collect all of the relevant data you need to start writing or applying results.
Most major components of PhDs are like this. You will not be able to conduct all the background reading you need to do in the course of a few weeks. A dissertation will not be written in a few weeks. All of these things are several months’ worth of work and you should plan accordingly and get in the habit of not expecting results immediately.
Things Will Take Longer Than You Think
Once you get into the habit of thinking-long term, you also need to remember that things are going to take more time than you think. A PhD is a completely new experience. You will have the background skills and knowledge from your previous degrees, but during a PhD you will really be breaking out on your own. While your advisor is there to guide and help you, you are taking the lead on this project, and therefore will face a bit of a learning curve. You will have to figure out what works best for you in terms of daily working habits, methodology, and balancing your other commitments. All of these things take time to figure out, so likely your PhD will take more time than your originally anticipated as you learn to manage your own research.
Furthermore, research and writing are processes in which you will have breakthroughs, but you will also hit roadblocks and setbacks. Your research plan may not pan out. Maybe your experiment fails, or you don’t find what you were expecting in an archive and you have to go back and rethink what you are trying to do and how else you can approach it. Failure and setbacks are a normal part of the process, but they do make things take more time. Plan for these delays.
Plan For Extra Time and Resources
In order to counteract these setbacks, plan for extra time for each task in your overall plan. If you think that entering data in your database is going to take 3 weeks, schedule for 4 just in case you hit an IT problem, or you find some anomaly in your records. This way if everything does go well then great you are ahead of schedule and can move on to the next thing, but if you do end up needing that extra week or two you have planned accordingly and it will not be behind on your next task or thrown into a panic mode. Always leave extra time for your tasks, things go wrong often in research (again that’s normal), so make sure you are not backing yourself into a tight corner with deadlines and making this already difficult process even harder for yourself.
Time is not the only commodity you should plan extra for. You should also make liberal estimates with your other resources as well. The most obvious resource here is money. Money is often tight for grad students, and so budgeting is of the upmost importance. When making a budget for a conference or for research materials, always overestimate (see this post for more on attending conferences). If you think some books you need are going to cost $1000, plan for them to cost $1300-1500 just to be safe. Setting a budget for conferences and research travel is also very important. Both of these things are expensive. Remember to take all aspects of these trips into consideration such as conference fees, food, accommodation, transportation, and plan for emergency expenses (illness, delayed flights, etc.). Ever since I came down with a serious illness during a conference and had to seek medical attention 2,000 miles from home do, I make sure I have a couple hundred dollars set aside for emergencies while traveling.
Coordinating With Other People
While you are taking the lead on your own project during your PhD, you will likely be involved in other projects as well. Both your PhD and most other commitments will require at least occasional meetings. For your PhD work you will need to meet with your supervisor(s) periodically just so everyone remains on the same page and up to date on the latest progress. If you only have one supervisor setting up a meeting will likely be very easy, however if you have two supervisors things start to become a bit trickier. Trying to schedule a meeting with three or more people gets exponentially more difficult. Just like you the people you are trying to meet with have any extraordinary number of commitments. The more people the more difficult it is to find a time when everyone can meet. I have yet to attend a department meeting in which every faculty and staff member can attend. It is just impossible to find a time when that many people can meet.
Because of this it is important to remember that when working with other people you should schedule much more time for a project than when you are working by yourself. Whether than is meeting with your committee, working on an edited collection, or additional experiment, you both or all need to be able to work the commitment into your schedule and that is going to take time. I found, particularly at the end of my PhD, that I was often waiting on other people for things like chapter edits, or feedback on conference papers. In order to account for the sometimes long amount of time it took for other people to get back to me, I would get my work in by the deadline and then work on and get ahead on other projects while I waited on other people. During the last year of my PhD while waiting for feedback on my draft, which took 3-4 weeks I would get ahead on lecture writing and working on conference papers so that when I did get feedback, I could work on it right away.
Be Wary of the Advice of Others
During your PhD you will get no shortage of advice on everything from what you should research to how you should research to what journals you should publish in. As always you should be wary of the advice of others, but in terms of scheduling you should be extra critical of the advice from people (for more on this topic, see this post). The most common pitfall of uncritically taking advice from people on scheduling is that they will tell you that some task or another will not take as long as you think. Well Professor Z may be able to zoom through experiment set-ups or database design because they have done it a hundred times before and have worked out all the kinks and found a methodology that works for them. However, this is your first go at all of these things on your own, so it is going to take a while. The first few years of a PhD are a lot of trial and error and figuring out what works best for you. So, if you have set aside extra time for a task and someone swoops in and tells you it’ll be easy, just remember to keep that extra time until you are comfortable with what you are doing.
On the flip side of this, if someone tells you something is very time consuming and you should budget extra time, believe them. Budget the extra time, there is no downside to finishing something before you plan. I ran into this during my teaching practicum. All of the more senior PhDs told that teaching my first class was going to eat up all of my time, and I shouldn’t plan to make any major progress on my dissertation that semester. I, like so many others, brushed this off. I was only teaching one class, what’s the big deal? Well I was so so so so so very wrong. Fully teaching your own class is incredibly time consuming. Lecture writing is hard and takes a lot of time. Plus, there is the actual time spent teaching, holding office hours, marking papers, and answering student emails. It took up most of my time that semester (In case you are wondering, teaching does get less time consuming as you go on, but the first time teaching a class is a time-consuming experience).
When people offer you advice be self-aware, be critical, and always budget over rather than under. Go for the wiggle room to avoid putting yourself in an awkward position.
Remember to Schedule Sleep!
While you are scheduling and thinking long term about your project and other commitments, don’t forget to take care of yourself as well and schedule time to rest and recharge. Most importantly this means days off and sleep (for more on days off see this post). Sleep is hugely important to your overall health, wellness, and productivity. If you are not getting enough sleep it doesn’t matter how well, you schedule because you are going to fall behind due to fatigue and illness. Grad students have so many demands on their time, that they often neglect self-care and in particular sacrifice sleep. This will not help you in the long run. Not getting enough sleep leads to many problems and at some point, it will catch up to you. For up to date studies on the importance of sleep check out this website https://www.sleepfoundation.org/ .
I conducted a poll on the R3ciprocity YouTube community in March, 2021, and we found out that the average PhD, researcher, and professor sleeps about 6.9 hours of sleep per night. However, most of these individuals sleep less than 6 hours per night:
How Much Should I Sleep?
This again is going to depend some on your personal preferences. Some people like my partner are night owls and work very well at night. I tend to be more alert late morning into the afternoon and do my best work in that range. When you should sleep really depends on you, just make sure you are getting enough sleep. There were periods during my PhD where I was not sleeping enough or particularly well and felt more terrible.
Don’t be a permanently exhausted pigeon. Schedule down time for yourself and get enough sleep so you can meet your wider long-term goals, stick to your schedule, and finish your PhD.
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