Managing your time as a graduate student

by Emily Rodrigues

‘New year, new me’ is what a lot of people say to themselves as they embark upon a new year. These resolutions come in many forms like being productive at work, responding to emails on time, eating out less, etc. Another common resolution is to get better at managing time effectively – something that cannot be easily accomplished overnight. Effective time management can allow for increased productivity, avoid burnout, and allow for an improved work-life balance–most of which grad students struggle to achieve. Everyone has their own style of getting work done. Some like to plan in advance and can work efficiently, while others push things off until the last minute. Graduate school can be intimidating due to most of the research being self-motivated, with no hard deadlines being set outside of the courses you are taking. Success can come to both a motivated student, as well as a self-proclaimed procrastinator, just with different strategies.

Identify your work style 

You are now in graduate school, which means most of your habits for completing assignments are hardwired into your brain. Being honest with yourself about your work style can be extremely useful. If you are the one that goes by the motto ‘Due tomorrow, do tomorrow’, then don’t try to fool yourself that you aren’t going to put it off until the last minute. This will only hurt you in the long run and will cause a lot of stress. Once you are self-aware of what kind of worker you are, you will be able to identify little things that can help you when you inevitably put off that report your professor asked for two weeks ago. For example, when you know you have a presentation to give in two weeks, you might want to make sure that two nights leading up to it are free in order to make sure that you have enough time to practice the presentation

Be open about your work style with your supervisor

Being honest with your supervisor always helps to maintain a good communication line open while you are completing your studies. Communicate with them if you know that you struggle to keep up with your own deadlines or if you stress about too many deadlines set by them . For example, if you know you that you cannot work under the pressure of a deadline set by another person, tell them. This will help them to help you, and find an alternative way that can work for both of you.

Set priorities 

Priorities are important to make sure that you know what is essential to get done first. However, this list might look different to your supervisor, so be sure to communicate with them to ensure that you are both on the same page. Nothing is worse after spending a week on a project that you thought was really urgent, but you find out later that another experiment needs immediate attention. You will eventually end up working late hours in the lab which may lead to burnout. 

Get a planner

This can either be a wall calendar, physical notebook, or a Google calendar. These will help in keeping your meetings straight, plan experiments that you need to complete on time and schedule other essential appointments. These will also allow you to prioritize important tasks. Again, planners are only helpful if everything goes into them, or else you will find yourself double-booking your time, which is good for no one.

Take time for yourself

It might seem a bit counter-intuitive to take time off from your work when trying to increase your productivity at work, but maintaining a proper work-life balance is essential to getting most work done in your day. Getting a perfect work-life balance is a hot topic in grad school, and that perfect balance will be different for everyone. For example, if you are a morning person, start your day at 7 am, but try not to still be at the lab at 7 pm every day.

The overarching theme of all these strategies is communication. Communicate with yourself, your supervisor, and your support system. All changes take time to get used to, but if it is something that is important to you, take your time and it will eventually happen. Be supportive of not only yourself but also of others, as grad school can be a tough time for everyone to get through.

About Emily

Emily is pursuing her PhD in Chemistry in Macauley Lab at the University of Alberta. She is also the Symposium Committee Represetative for the 2019-2020 GlycoNet Trainee Association – Executive Committee. 

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