Time Management Tips for Students

Learn how to effectively manage your time and you'll be one step closer to being a successful academic and professional. New graduate students are often surprised at how much is on their plate -- even students who worked and juggled classes in college. As a graduate student, you'll spend time in class, conducting your own research, working on faculty research, in study groups, in meetings with professors, reading, writing, and attempting a social life.  Many students believe that it will get better after they graduate, but, unfortunately, most people report being even busier as new professors, researchers, and professionals. Start developing good time management habits now to avoid feeling rushed and every day.

The first and most important time management habit to develop is to keep track of your time: how you plan to spend and how you actually spend it. Record your goals, plan how to spend your day, and record the daily progress you make toward your goals.

Maintain a Calendar System
By now, you probably use a calendar to keep track of weekly appointments and meetings. Grad school and a career in academia require taking a long-term perspective on time. Use a yearly, monthly, and weekly calendar.

Year Scale. It's difficult to keep track of today and remember what needs to be done in 6 months. Long term deadlines for financial aid, conference submission, and grant proposals creep up quickly. Don't find yourself surprised to realize that your comprehensive exams are in a few weeks. Plan at least 2 years ahead with a yearly calendar, divided into months. Add all long term deadlines on this calendar.

Month Scale. Your monthly calendar should include all paper deadlines, test dates, and appointments so that you can plan ahead. Add self-imposed deadlines for completing long-term projects like papers. At the beginning of the semester, lay out the semester-long deadlines for the coming months.

Week Scale.  Your weekly calendar includes your day-to-day appointments and deadlines. Have a study group on Thursday afternoon? Record it here. Carry your weekly calendar everywhere.

Create and use a to-do list
Create a long-term to-do list of stuff that needs to happen over the semester. Then organize it by month and week - and topic. The most important trick to keeping a to-do list is to actually use it --update it, add to it, and work from it. Take 10 minutes every night and make a to-do list for the next day. Look at your calendar for the next couple of weeks to remember tasks that need to be planned in advance: searching for literature for that term paper,  buying and sending birthday cards, and preparing submissions to conferences and grants. Your to-do list is your friend; never leave home without it. Your to-do list will keep you moving towards your goals daily.

Prioritize your to-do list. Rank each item by importance and attack your list accordingly so that you don't waste time on non-essential tasks.

Schedule time to work on classes and research each day, even if it is just a few 20-minute blocks. Think you can't get much done in 20 minutes? You'd be surprised. What's more important is when you work in frequent short blocks is that the material will stay fresh in your mind, enabling you to reflect on it at unexpected times (like on your ride to school or walk to the library) and have eureka moments of insight.

Be flexible. Allow time for interruptions and distractions. Aim to plan just 50 percent or less of your time so that you'll have the flexibility to handle unexpected events.

Stick with it.  Contrary to my "be flexible" advice above, try not to be easily distracted. When you're distracted by a new task or something that you need to remember, write it down and get back to work. Don't let a flight of ideas keep you from completing the task at hand. When you're interrupted by others or seemingly urgent tasks, ask yourself, "What is the most important thing I can do right now? What's most urgent?" Use your answer to plan your time and get back on track.

These habits are simple but effective. That said, they're not always easy to implement. It takes practice and patience. Moreover, you may find yourself revisiting and relearning these over the years.

Read the SQ3R Way

The most efficient students read with purpose and set goals. The SQ3R method can help you read faster and retain more information than reading cover-to-cover or start-to-end.

SQ3R stands for the steps in reading: survey, question, read, recite, review. It might seem like it takes more time to use the SQ3R method, but you'll find that you remember more and have to reread less often. Let's take a look at the steps:

Before reading, survey the material. Glance through the topic headings and try to get an overview of the reading. Skim the sections and read the final summary paragraph to get an idea of where the chapter is going. Survey - don't read. Survey with purpose, to get a background knowledge, an initial orientation that will help you to organize the material as you read it. The surveying step eases you into the reading assignment

Next, look at the first heading in the chapter. Turn it into a question. Create a series of questions to be answered in your reading. This step requires conscious effort but is worth it as it leads to active reading, the best way to retain written material.

Asking questions focuses your concentration on what you need to learn or get out of your reading - it provides a sense of purpose.

Read with purpose. Use the questions as a guide. Read the first section of your reading assignment to answer your question. Actively search for the answers. If you finish the section and have not found an answer to the question, reread it.

Read reflectively. Consider what the author is trying to say, and think about how you can use that information.

Once you have read a section, look away and try to recite the answer to your question, using your own words and examples. If you can do this, it means that you understand the material. If you cannot, glance over the section again. Once you have the answers to your questions, write them down.

After reading the entire assignment, test your memory by reviewing your list of questions. Ask each one and review your notes. You've created a set of notes that provide an overview the chapter.  You likely will not have to reread the chapter again. If you've taken good notes, you can use them to study for exams.

As you review your notes, consider how the material fits with what you know from the course, experience, and other classes. What is the information's significance? What are the implications or applications of this material? What questions are you left with? Thinking about these bigger questions help to place what you've read within the context of the course and your education—and is likely to lead to better retention.

The extra steps of the SQ3R method may seem time-consuming, but they lead to a better understanding of the material so you'll get more out of the reading with fewer passes.  How many of the steps you follow is up to you. As you become more efficient you may find that you can read more - and retain more - with less effort. Regardless, if an assignment is important,

What to Look for in a Grad School or Dissertation Mentor

Every graduate student hopes for a mentor who will offer guidance throughout graduate school and beyond. The ideal advisor becomes a mentor. He or she supervises your research, provides insightful feedback and direction, helps you assemble a fantastic dissertation committee, gets you funding, gets you involved in research at a level that earns publications and conference publications, shows you how to review articles and publish, invites you to dinner, becomes a friend, helps you get a job, and mentors you throughout your career. This is a very tall order.

I have a friend from graduate school who is still in contact with her mentor (about two decades later) and they see each other at conferences. Her mentor still offers advice and helps her with career decisions and job searches, if asked. This is pretty close to the ideal, at least my ideal. And yes – I’m super jealous. I don’t know many students with close relationships like this - who became friends with their advisors. The ideal is something to strive for, but most advising relationships fall somewhat short of this ideal.

So, what do you look for in a mentor? Someone who
  • provides support and encouragement
  • helps you to learn from your mistakes
  • offers opportunities for collaboration, joint presentations, and departmental talks
  • helps you to learn about writing and submitting manuscripts for publication
  • is interested in your career area
  • is able to provide support and training in your area
  • models a successful academic career and training in your area
  • is committed to help mentees make the next move in their career development
  • demonstrates personal integrity
  • introduces you to colleagues
  • helps you to identify and work with your strengths and weaknesses
  • provides opportunities for you to develop autonomy
Not every mentor ticks all of these boxes. Look for someone who hits enough of the points that you deem important.

One of the important things to remember about mentoring relationships is that they develop over time. During your first year of grad school you may have an inkling, a gut feeling of who will be a good mentor, but the relationship develops over time and by way of your interactions. Open honest communication is key. Meeting deadlines and thereby supporting your advisor’s research is also important. We often think of mentoring as a one-way street in the sense that the mentor provides benefits to the student, but mentors also get something out of the deal. Mentors get competent help, the satisfaction of having a hand in a student’s success, and leaving a legacy, or more simply, being able to brag about a mentee’s success – even many years later.

Finally, no one person will fulfill all of your mentoring needs. In grad school you may find that your primary mentor, your dissertation advisor, may not be the best person to turn to with questions about teaching or an internship, for example. Seek relationships with multiple faculty who can provide you with advice on various areas of academia. Most of us have several mentors over the course of our careers: mentors for different areas (e.g., teaching and research) and at different times in our professional development (e.g., grad student, post-doc, junior faculty).