Tuesday, September 24, 2019

Planning Your Way to a PhD

Last year, I stepped into my graduate department’s building with both excitement and trepidation at the prospect of starting my PhD. The amount of requirements, professionalization opportunities, and various paths I could pursue while in graduate school were incredibly daunting. After seeking advice from faculty and advanced graduate students and listening to my gut about what works for me, I’ve found various techniques to help me organize the work I need to do in both the short and long term to help me keep on track and plan out my tasks.

  1. Create an Overview of Your Graduate School Career
The big picture of your graduate career is made up of many small puzzle pieces. Some of these pieces can get lost if you don’t have a place to store it. To help me craft my big picture, I created a “Grad Career Tracker” in Excel to organize my departmental requirements, professional goals, grant application deadlines, and teaching responsibilities. In another sheet within the same document, I created a check-list of all my assignment deadlines, exams, writing goals, and application deadlines for a particular semester. This way, I can easily switch focus between my entire five-year plan and also the things I need to accomplish in the present.

With the example that is linked, you can customize the rows and columns to meet your specific needs. This is also a great tool to help guide your conversations about your career and professionalization with your faculty mentors.  The most important thing to remember as you make your own tracker, is to remember that it is YOUR tracker. Everyone’s path will be slightly different. This tracker is also a good way for you to start conversations about your goals with your advisor.

  1. Manage Specific Tasks
Now that you have a tool to help you manage the big picture, it’s time to look at those individual puzzle pieces. Throughout your graduate school career (especially as you are taking classes, TAing, or RAing), you will have smaller assignments due in-between longer-term projects. One of the first things I did was add my class schedule and all of my deadlines to my iCalendar. I initially saw all of the unscheduled white space as opportunities to work. However, that was not the case. To help you manage these smaller tasks, you still need to put that work time on your calendar. This will help you protect your time and keep track of the things you have going on week to week. You should also take into account the time you spend on email, in-transit, or the other pre-tasks that you need to complete before starting your main work. Don’t be alarmed if for the first few weeks of the semester you find that it’s taking you longer to complete an assignment than the time you initially allotted on your calendar. Lastly, give yourself a realistic set of goals for each day. Not only will it feel nice to visually see your accomplishments, but you will get better at knowing what’s doable in a day.

  1. Active versus Passive Brain Time
Active versus passive brain time refers to the idea that some of your tasks will require different amounts of attentiveness and engagement for completion. Tasks such as writing, researching, and teaching are more active brain activities. Tasks like reading for class or checking email require less deep engagement.

Your active versus passive brain time will vary depending on when you feel most productive. If you’re someone who has a lot more energy in the mornings, then you should schedule your most intensive work for those hours. You don’t want to spend your most alert hours on tasks that don’t do the most to advance your research agenda. For example, I always hit an afternoon slump so I dedicate that time to tasks like reading or checking my email.

  1. Self-Care and Pacing Yourself
First and foremost, remember that the process of obtaining your PhD is a marathon and not a sprint. You need to take care of yourself in the short-term to facilitate your success in the long-term. This means regularly scheduling self-care into your routine (self-care does not equal getting enough sleep or food; those things are the foundations upon which other activities are built!).

Also, remember to be flexible. Each semester will bring about unexpected setbacks and opportunities. While most of this blog post is about planning ahead, you should also remember that things will happen that are beyond your control. Be gentle with yourself and know that in the long-run, things will work out. Remember, that your needs and goals may change over time.

Related to flexibility, know that each stage of your PhD will create different demands of your time. As you are completing coursework or teaching, you will have classes to help structure your time. When you are in the dissertation-writing phase, your time may feel more unstructured. In that case, remember the earlier tips on active versus passive brain time. Don’t forget that there are many tasks associated with dissertation writing that don’t include the actual process of putting words to a page. Breaking down your work plan to include those tasks will also help give you structure.

5.     Finally, celebrate your successes, whether they are big or small!

Shaquilla Harrigan is a second-year sociology PhD student at the University of Pennsylvania. Her research focuses on international development and governance in East Africa.

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