The First-Year Ph.D. Experience: Time Management

Introduction: This post marks the second of a series with perspectives on the first year of pursuing grad studies at the doctoral level. The first looked at language requirements, with my spring German reading exam serving as an example (which was–in fact–passed!). As promised prior, this next piece engages with the crucial issue of time management. It’ll be followed by a final blog in the series on theory and methods.

Broadly, something that I struggled with as a master’s student, and admittedly still struggle with at the Ph.D.-level (hence making myself write this during a particularly strong summer lull in productivity), is how to manage my time so as to consistently produce successful and (just as important) tangible results. For me, as I’m sure the case is for most, my time always seems impossibly short and the tasks before me infinitely many. As a solution, at the start of last fall, I committed myself to mapping out long- and short-term goals in concrete ways using material means that made them constantly visible to me on a day-to-day basis. In what follows, I outline these methods. Namely, there’s two technologies of time management at play: the dry erase board and my pocket notebook. When I did my best work this year, looking back, I relied on these things without exception.

Dry erase boards & the Moleskine Notebook: Keys to my first year: While my master’s program went well enough, essentially I had one central goal in mind: to be accepted to a Ph.D. program. Then, it was somewhat easy to conceptualize how I went about my work according to the priorities of finishing a fifty page thesis, completing application materials, and working on NGSC blog posts in between preparing a couple conference presentations. However, once I began gearing up for the demands of a five-year doctoral program in the summer, I quickly recognized matters would be considerably more difficult when the hurdles are both more complex and spaced out. In order to meet the new challenges that were ahead I decided early before the term started to attempt to change how I pursue my work, looking to take a much more organized, disciplined, and thoughtful approach than I had before. I found the basis for this in Donald Hall’s really great book The Academic Self: An Owner’s Manual, which stresses the importance of careful, but flexible, planning. Consequently, when I got to Evanston and it was time to hit the bookstore, I purchased two large dry erase boards and one dry erase calendar. I put them up around my apartment in places where I would see them constantly. I also picked up my first Moleskine notebook (on one Kurtis Hessel’s good advice, which became one of many over the course of the year). The first board would have the long-term goals for a five year plan, on the second the year’s objectives in monthly columns, and on the calendar and notebook (which I always tried to have with me, for constant accountability) how these goals would take shape on a week-by-week/day-by-day basis.

Long-Term Ambitions, Short-Term Goals, & Task Lists: On one of the large boards I took care to mark down all of the major milestones of my academic program: language exams, the second-year qualifying paper, third-year comps, and dissertation prospectus to follow. I also added a handful of other ambitions I’d like to fulfill, having to do with objectives like publications and fellowships for which I’d like to apply. Like most incoming graduate students, I felt initially intimidated by the list. But, breaking the larger objectives into tasks on a five-year timeline (while knowing the diss. phase may take longer) made things seem more manageable. For the first-year, beyond coursework, I decided to focus on completing both language requirements, have my qualifying paper selected from my seminar papers written in my first three terms, and (later) to apply for a museum curatorial fellowship. At the start of every month I would transpose the Year-Based Goals onto the calendar and at the end of each day I would write down what I wanted to complete on the day following in my Moleskine. I realized, for instance, that I needed to complete about a chapter per day (or 5/week) from my German For Reading Knowledge textbook in order to utilize German reading language resources for my winter/spring term research to feel prepared to take the exam in May. Yet, as the year progressed, I realized I needed to be much more adaptable on the second shorter-term tier of things, since contingencies came up that in many cases delayed (and in some even thwarted) what I wanted to get done when. The key, however, was that crossing off tasks on multiple lists made my development and progress more gratifying and tangible in ways I hadn’t felt before.

Conclusion: At the end of this year I’m convinced that I owe a great deal of my growth, which I felt came at a quicker pace than before, to thinking about–and managing–my time more conscientiously. This is not to say I followed my own system perfectly. In the winter term, for instance, it became more difficult to sustain the necessary effort and I became less committed to noting the next day’s tasks. As a result, things slipped significantly and I worked into deadlines more than I would have wanted. Moreover, I should have realized to a greater extent than I did initially that, even with great planning, flexibility is key and keeping a “negatively capable” eye towards productive uncertanties and new possibilities one can’t plan for is important. I hope to improve upon all of this in subsequent years. Ultimately though, I felt that ideas gleaned from my first-year in this regard multiplied the number of moments in each day  “Satan couldn’t find” and where I could be most productive. Of course, though, while I’ve been pleased with my own experiments this year, I’m of the mindset that a dialogue on how we think about time and structure our lives and work is better. So, I’d very much like for this piece to be a cause for conversation where other ideas on time management might be circulated.


One thought on “The First-Year Ph.D. Experience: Time Management”

  1. Great post, Jacob! I feel like time management is constantly a struggle, even in the third year of he PhD, and I’m always looking for new tips! I like the white board idea!

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