Time Management Tips for Graduate Students

​The Challenges of Time Management

By Nellie Perret, PhD, previously of the Academic Success Centre

"I don’t get it,” a participant in a recent Time Management for Graduate Students workshop confided, with a measure of mystification, a dash of shame, and a dollop of relief at finally sharing her ‘secret’.  “I feel that I should be able to manage my time: I’m not a kid any more. But somehow my days, weeks, and, well, even years seem to be spent doing the things that don’t actually matter very much, and I never get around to the things that are really important—like getting my thesis proposal written.”

As she spoke, I looked around at the other participants.  It was clear, from their nodding heads and ruefully sympathetic smiles, that each of them understood all too well precisely what she was talking about. 

It is often difficult for graduate students to prioritize, to choose between the competing demands that seem to have slipped through the mail slot with the letter of acceptance from graduate school: course work, research or teaching assistantships, lab supervision, conference presentations, thesis proposals, ethics reviews, and comprehensive exams all vie with the stuff of life—maintaining relationships, raising children, shopping for groceries, doing laundry, mopping the floors, cleaning the toilet, getting a few hours of sleep, eating an occasional meal and even, once in a while, going for a bike ride, meeting a friend for a coffee, seeing a movie or (most delicious of all!) just doing nothing.  

Although there’s no simple, straightforward method to help you choose to engage in one activity rather than another, most graduate students can become more intentional and strategic in deciding how to manage their time. The following are a few practical suggestions:

  • Track how you spend your time. Keeping a ‘time log’ for a week or two will help you identify the times of day best suited to demanding intellectual (‘mind-intensive’) activities and those best suited to drudgery (‘time-intensive’ activities). Often, we waste what ought to be our most productive times of day engaged in activities that are not really very challenging: organizing notes, skimming articles. or cleaning the gunk from under the refrigerator. Once you’ve identified your ‘best’ times of day, use them for only the work that you find most challenging. If your identified ‘best’ time of day is spent picking up a child from daycare, then use your second-best time for getting the intellectually demanding work done.
  • Learn to say ‘NO’. It would be naïve to think that there are never consequences attached to refusing to do something. There are times, as a graduate student, when you will have to take on a teaching or research assistantship or to pet-sit your supervisor’s Lhasa Apso, although you’d much rather be concentrating on your own work. However, there are also times when your wisest strategy is to decline an invitation to be on a committee or to organize a student conference: politely thank the person who invited you to participate, let them know that you’d be interested should a future opportunity present itself, but make it clear that right now your first priority is completing your course work, analyzing your data, or writing your dissertation.
  • Figure out how much you are really worth. Graduate students who are receiving funding often feel obliged to work 36 hours a day, 9 days a week. It can be a useful exercise to pull out your calculator and do some basic math: how much are you in fact being paid per hour when you divide the number of hours you work each day/week into the amount of money you are being paid? You’ll probably discover that you are getting something in the area of five dollars an hour! Adjust your work schedule accordingly to reflect a more equitable rate of pay. 
  • Divide big tasks into manageable chunks. Tackling the large projects that are the stuff of graduate school can at times feel overwhelming. That’s why we too often tend to just put off doing them. Make time to determine the component parts of larger projects: What are the stages involved in writing a literature review, in reading a book or a chapter? It’s much easier to envision yourself sitting down to read two pages of an article in an otherwise ‘wasted’ half hour than it is to imagine yourself starting to work on chapter two of your dissertation.
  • Make time for the things you enjoy. It sounds counterintuitive, but you’ll find that you will waste less time if you reintroduce the things that give you pleasure into your schedule​: taking a yoga class, reading a novel or Skyping with friends and family overseas. When you don’t intentionally make time in your day for things that you value, you tend to waste time doing other things (downloading movies, reading updates on Facebook, and playing ‘Angry Birds’) that are neither important—remember that unwritten thesis proposal?—nor enjoyable.