Thursday, October 29, 2009

Time management for grad students and researchers

As researchers, we all have incredible demands on our time. These demands can quickly snowball, leaving us feeling like things are out of control. This lack of control over your priorities and responsibilities can lead to anxiety and depression and perhaps to dropping out of graduate school. Getting control and developing good time management skills can go a long way towards preserving your sanity and making grad school and a career in academic research enjoyable. All it really takes is planning, and knowing the things to plan for. The critical priorities that every student and/or researcher must plan, includes:
  • Writing/outlining research questions
  • Taking courses
  • Teaching
  • Appointments with supervisor and committee
  • Design/set-up experiments/studies
  • Data collection
  • Analyzing data
  • Writing papers/chapters/articles
  • Rewriting papers/chapters/articles
  • Meetings/presentations
  • Finding a publisher/lay out/submitting manuscripts
  • Administrative duties
  • Holidays
  • The unexpected!
All these things tugging at you all at once can make it difficult to start any single thing -because you feel the anxiety about not starting other things. Here are seven strategies for controlling your time and priorities, and helping you to cope with time stress.

1 - Live by the calendar, die by the calendar. Basically, schedule everything. With freely available calendars like Google's or Sunbird there is no reason to not adopt a calendar. Web-based calendars, mean you can be anywhere, on any computer and still have access. Be sure to share the calendar with lab mates and professors, so they know when you are booked. Schedule everything from meetings, to large slots of time dedicated to time-intensive things like reviewing a manuscript or data analyses.

2- Gimme a break! Working for four straight hours without a break will cause you to be less productive, than four hours with a 5 minute break every 40-60 minutes. Don't be afraid to get up from your desk in between tasks to reset your brain. You could also call or chat with someone, make a coffee, watch a Daily Show clip, update your Facebook status, etc. Don't feel guilty about the 5 minute solitaire game (only about the 2 hour ones).

3- Leave. Have a secret work spot. It could the back corner of a library, a coffee shop, home, or some special place. The point is to have a productive site where you are not tempted to do nonproductive things when you need to be focusing on a task. Leave your e-mail behind if possible and do not let colleagues know where you are. Make it your time.

4- Delegate. You do not need to do everything yourself. If you are collaborating, don't be afraid to ask collaborators to do something. If you are at a big university, search for undergrad volunteers to help out. If you are really swamped, ask a friend to help out with an experiment.

5- Write it down or lose it. I write down everything, and I do it for two reasons. First, I will forget it if it is not written down in front of me (which saves me anxiety about forgetting things). Secondly, these notes become defacto to-do lists which saves me time from having to think about what to do next. If I have ten minutes before a meeting and my list has me e-mailing someone, then I get the reward of ticking something off the list.

6- Enough is enough. Remember, it will never be perfect. Likely, the 13th draft of paper is not appreciably better than the 12th. Plus, reviewers will ALWAYS recommend revisions and you will never win a literary award for it. So if you pour your soul into a manuscript and take 2 years to write it, likely you'll be devastated when you are asked for major revisions. The important thing is getting it submitted and learning when enough is enough can go a long way toward freeing up valuable time.

7- Have fun. Likely, you got into research because you love science. If your work is tedious and boring, find some fun research to offset it. If you have to choose between two projects, and one seems like it will be personally more enjoyable, go for that one. Don't be afraid to shelve a unrewarding project for one that is fun and exciting. Most importantly, reward your self! When you submit a paper, take the rest of the afternoon off. When you finish an intense summer of field work, go to the beach for four days. Tell your close colleagues when you get a paper accepted or an award -you are not bragging, and they will always say 'congrats' or 'awesome', which feels nice. Whatever works as a reward, use it.

Remember, at the end of the day what matters is getting papers out and being a good collaborator/student/mentor/human being. Control of priorities and successful time management will make it a lot easier to get those papers out and be a relaxed, good person to be around.


Anonymous said...

Good advice Marc. Actively managing your time and your work keeps becoming more important the further up the academic ladder I climb. Another great resource for ideas about how to deal with these kinds of challenges is Getting Things Done in Academia, Mike Kaspari's blog. It's basically out of commission now (at least he hasn't posted much in the last year), but there are a lot of great posts that folks interested in thinking about managing time and effort as an academic should find useful.

Rachel Shulman said...

Take an afternoon off? Take four days off? Be a good human being? Are you trying to tell me that I shouldn't go back to the lab the day after my first child is born?

Marc Cadotte said...

Thanks guys. Time management is an important aspect of the research business. I guess the most important thing is to figure out what works. And Rachel, you'd be my hero if you can stand the day after giving birth! (or so my wife tells me)

Ted C. MacRae said...

Marc, this was a really great post. Thought written for the academician, it applies equally well to those of us in private sector research. I think I'll post the "7 steps" on my pinboard to remind myself every now and then.

Marc Cadotte said...

Thanks Ted, yeah I'm sure these strategies carry over to the private sector as well. I had thought about a more general title and context, but I do not have a good sense of the demands on government and private sector folks.

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Leslie Welts said...

I've always wondered how you manage to get so much accomplished. I used to chalk it up to your needing less sleep than the rest of us but now I know there is a "method to the madness". Although I am a law student and not a Ph.D. candidate in Biology, I think I can benefit greatly from applying the advice offered in this post. Thanks Marc!

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Unknown said...

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