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).

Tips for Choosing a Dissertation Committee

Graduate study culminates with the completion of a lengthy project known as the dissertation. In psychology, the dissertation most often entails conducting and writing up a research study that is a novel contribution to the field. Many master’s degrees require a similar document, a thesis, which is much smaller in scope, but still a challenge. Universities require that dissertations (and often theses) be supervised and judged by a committee of faculty. The student and advisor/mentor usually assemble the dissertation committee. How do you choose the professors who will determine your fate? Carefully, with these tips.

Consult your mentor about local norms.
How are committees assembled? How are they comprised? For example, most dissertation committees must include a specialist in methodology and statistics.

Get folks your advisor likes.
When it comes to which faculty to invite to sit on your committee, seek your mentor's advice because you need someone who you mentor feels he or she can work with. Also, your mentor will have info about the professor’s personality and history as well as how the faculty you select get along. Dissertations are not just about a student completing a degree - they're about politics too. Select a faculty member who doesn't get along with your advisor and you may have a committee member who is difficult and just plain hard to work with -- and who finds fault with your work simply to get under your advisor's skin. It happens and these interactions can slow down your dissertation and keep you in grad school longer than you want or deserve to be.

Learn from other students.
Seek input from other students as to how they secured a committee, what kinds of things they looked for, and their experience with particular faculty. For example, some professors are notoriously flaky. They miss meetings, forget to read your work and run behind. They may be very nice, helpful, and easy to get along with, but they can interfere with your progress.

Trust your instincts.
Make it a point to get to know faculty throughout your grad school years. As you take classes, talk with faculty, and watch faculty interact, keep the dissertation in mind. Trust your gut. If someone seems like a terrible choice, even if he or she is a very successful professional, you should trust your gut and think twice before asking him or her to sit on your committee. This doesn't mean that you should exclude successful, but difficult, people. It simply means that you should go in with your eyes wide open.

Knowing who to choose for your committee really comes down to communication. It’s about getting to know faculty, communicating with your mentor about your needs, his or her needs, and potential candidates, and communicating with other students about their observations, experiences, and history. Also, recognize that some dissent among dissertation committee members is part of the process. Some debate and disagreement can improve your project. The goal, however, is a healthy and constructive debate.

How to Ask Professors to Sit on Your Dissertation Committee

The dissertation is clearly the most challenging part of graduate school as it is the ultimate determinant of whether you earn the doctoral degree. It’s how you show that you’re an independent scholar capable of generating new knowledge. Your mentor is critical to this process, but don’t underestimate the role your dissertation committee plays in your success. The dissertation committee serves a consulting role, serving a checks and balance function that can boost objectivity and ensure that university guidelines are adhered to and that the product is of high quality.

Members of the dissertation committee offer guidance in their areas of expertise and supplement the student and mentor’s competencies. For example, a committee member with expertise in specific research methods or statistics can serve as a sounding board and offer guidance that is beyond the mentor’s expertise.

Who should you choose?
Choosing a helpful dissertation committee isn’t easy. The best committee is composed of faculty who share an interest in the topic, offer diverse and useful areas of expertise, and are collegial. Committee members should be carefully selected based on what they can contribute, but also how well they get along with the student and mentor. It’s a delicate balance because you don’t want to argue over every detail yet you need objective advice and insightful, tough, critiques of your work. You should trust each committee member and feel that he or she has your best interests in mind. Choose committee members whose work you respect, who you respect, and who you like. This is a tall order and finding a handful of faculty who meet these criteria and also have the time to participate on your dissertation committee is a daunting task. It’s likely that not all of your dissertation members will fulfill all of your professional and personal needs but each committee member should serve at least one need.

How do you ask professors to serve on your dissertation committee?

Seek your mentor’s input 

As you select potential members, ask your mentor if he or she thinks the professor is a good match for the project. Use your mentor’s reaction as an indicator of whether to move forward and approach the potential committee member. Professors talk to each other. If you discuss each choice with your mentor, he is she is likely to mention it to the other professor. You may find that the professor is already aware and may have already implicitly agreed.

Make your intentions known
At the same time, don’t assume that each professor knows that you’d like them as a committee member. When it comes time to ask, visit each professor with that as your purpose. Explain that the reason you’ve asked to meet is to ask the professor to serve on your dissertation committee.

Be prepared to explain your project
No prof will agree to participate in a dissertation committee without knowing something about the project. What are your research questions? How will you study them? Discuss your methods. How does this fit with prior work? How does it extend prior work? What will your study contribute to the literature? Pay attention to the professor’s demeanor. How much does he or she want to know? Sometimes a professor might want to know less – pay attention and consider what this might mean for his or her participation.

Explain their role
In addition to discussing your project, be prepared to explain why you are approaching the professor. What drew you to them? How do you think they will fit? For example, does the professor offer expertise in statistics? What guidance do you seek? Why do you think that the professor is the best choice? What are your expectations? Busy faculty will want to determine whether your needs outstrip their time and energy.

Don’t take rejection personally

If a professor declines your invitation to sit on your dissertation committee, don’t take it personally. Easier said than done but there are many reasons people decide to sit on committees. Try to take the professor’s perspective. Sometimes it’s really a matter of being too busy. Participating on a dissertation committee is a lot of work. Sometimes it’s simply too much work given other responsibilities. Other times they may not be interested in the project or may have issues with other committee members. It’s not always about you. If they are not able to meet your expectations be grateful that they’re honest. A successful dissertation is the result of a great deal of work on your part but also the support of a helpful committee that has your interests in mind. Be sure that the dissertation committee you build can meet these needs by asking the right questions from the start.

Pausing Intentionally vs Procrastination

Got a paper to write, a stack of papers to grade, or class to plan? Scrolling through Instagram, Twitter, and random sites? Procrastination at its best. Nearly every article on time management includes a warning to avoid procrastination. Sure, waiting until the last minute to start a task is a bad idea, but postponing tasks is not always procrastination. But is it really all that bad? Sure procrastination can stall your progress, but sometimes what looks like procrastination is really a productive pause.

An Active Pause
Intentionally delaying work on a task while keeping it in mind is sometimes referred to active procrastination, intentional delay, or a mindful, productive pause. Whatever you call it, pausing can lead to productivity. When faced with a problem, decision, or a paper assignment, we sometimes act too quickly, impulsively, and make mistakes. An intentional delay is incubation time, an opportunity to be mindful of the task and consider approaches. For example, I’m working on a presentation on a topic that is a bit of a stretch from my other work. So far I’ve taken some notes but I’ve delayed work on the talk. I’ve been thinking about it, reflecting on approaches while I go about other tasks. I’ve considered the topic for a while and feel like I have a handle on it and know what I’d like to do. I’m ready. I consider this a mindful, productive, delay – not procrastination.

Productive pause – is that simple word play? Maybe, but keeping a task in mind while fooling around on other activities is sometimes helpful. It’s incubation time, a chance to reflect on the paper, talk, or whatever, to be mindful. I don’t think we’re usually aware of this. We often procrastinate on stuff that we’re not quite sure how to begin. My writing flows – once I finally begin. I think this pause is helpful if it doesn’t last too long.

Intentionally pausing, waiting to begin, can be useful. 
Many students jump straight to work when given an assignment. We usually praise this, but it’s possible to act too quickly. For example, a student may learn of an unexpected/forgotten exam. Panicked, he or she might immediately begin making flash cards. Intentionally pausing, even for a few hours, can prevent impulsive and potentially wasteful activity. If the student pauses to think about the content of the exam he or she might realize that flash cards aren’t the way to go (as is often the case).  During a reflective pause a student might consider the semester as a whole and the items that compose a final course grade, feel less panicked about the new assignment and conclude that work for other classes is more important. Often what seems important changes over time, sometimes even over the course of a day. Waiting is not always such a bad idea.

But be careful.
I'm a big fan of pausing before beginning a project and taking the time to let ideas ferment. It gives me a moment to breathe and think. Of course, there’s a dangerous flip side. Sometimes we pause in ways that feel productive because we are getting things done. The problem is that we may be getting the wrong things done. Ever get obsessed with your to-do list? I find that playing with my to-do list – trying out new apps, reorganizing, and such, can eat up a ton of time. I’m drawn to fiddling with my list when I’m overwhelmed and stressed – those times when I really need to act rather than pause. How do you know if your pause is productive or simply procrastination? I don’t really have the answer other than to be mindful. Periodically stop and quiz yourself: What are you getting out of the pause?

Sometimes procrastination is a sign. Putting off something might mean that it isn't right for you. If you find yourself having extreme difficulty working on a task, consider why. Are you truly invested in it? How can you use this knowledge in the future?