Wednesday, November 4, 2009
Grad school's different from pretty much all school before it.
In high school, everything was very structured, with the same classes happening every day. You always knew what homework you had to do because you either had to hand it in the next day, or your teacher reminded you about it.
In university during undergrad, things are a little less structured than in high school, but it was still possible to keep track of everything. You could easily write down your assignments in a paper planner, and in computer science, there weren't usually many large term projects until fourth year. Even then, it was possible to finish in a few days at the end of the term (ahem ... you didn't hear it from me).
Then comes grad school. You can forget everything you used to know about time management, because while it might seem like it's working, it probably won't for long. Courses in grad school are really different from undergrad courses. There are still set assignments, but these assignments are usually more open ended and take longer to complete. Now you also have to read papers, give presentations, and do a big term project. These projects are often more research-oriented, and tend not to be the types you can finish up the night before.
I have always been very good at time management, thanks in part to my organizational skills. Things kind of went ok when I started my Masters, though I think I was thrown off by having fewer courses with more work each. But when it came time to direct my own research project... it got a lot harder. That's when things are really open ended, and it can be easy to lose track of yourself.
I did a lot of things wrong during my Masters, but lo and behold, I've learned from my mistakes. Here's how I've been keeping things straight so far in my PhD adventure (which, mind you, only began September 2009, but seems to be going much better so far).
When I drove myself to school, I often figured I'd go in after rush hour; after all, sitting in traffic for more than twice the normal off-peak commuting time actually really stinks. But if I do that, I may as well not show up to campus until my class actually starts. Then, to avoid the rush home, I may as well leave at 3pm. I could work from home before and after being on campus.
Except I don't.
I have no idea why, but this strategy seemed to lead to sleeping in, finding chores to do, generally being distracted... The amount of actual work I did wasn't what it could have been.
So this year, I started carpooling with my husband, since he works pretty close to campus. Now I have to get up, I have to be on campus all day, and I may as well do something useful while I'm stuck here. Oh, and I don't get to leave until 5:30pm. It's amazing how much my productivity has gone up - I even have weekends free (at least for now)!
(2) Keep a time sheet
This is going to sound more annoying than useful, but trust me. This works.
Tracking all your work hours can be an incredible way to make yourself accountable to... yourself. Oddly enough, even though nobody else will ever see how my time breaks down, I feel that I must push myself to meet my own goals in terms of time spent on certain activities. This can also mean not spending too much time on other things that are much more enjoyable than that annoying bug in the ol' research project (you know, like CU-WISE stuff - much more fun).
When I was trying to write my thesis for my Masters, I used a time sheet that tracked number of pages written rather than hours spent. I even used a formula in the spreadsheet to set a goal and see how many page I had to do that day to reach it. You can modify what you track to suit whatever it is you need to get done.
I currently use a Google Docs spreadsheet for my time sheet. This is the template that I copy every week and fill in. This is a nice easy-access, flexible solution. Give a try, and keep honest!
(3) Keep research organized
This has suddenly become even more important to me than ever. I'm trying to juggle a survey-based psychology class with a data structures class, finishing up a paper for my Masters research, and working on ideas for upcoming projects. If I can't keep it all straight, I'll spend more time trying to remember where I left off than moving forward.
I've written about research tools and organization here and here. My current setup involves Mendeley for reading papers and taking initial notes, a Google Notebook for a list of tools and interesting links (since Notebook is no longer supported, you might also try Delicious, which I'm starting to use now), and Google Docs for jotting down research ideas and keeping a dynamic to-do list.
There are just some of the things I do to manage my time effectively; what are some of your tricks?