Jan 1, 2018 at 12:00am ET By Joanna Hughes

What better time to begin planning for the semester ahead than with the flip of the calendar page to an entirely new year? Especially for busy PhD students, planning ahead can mean the difference between success and stagnation. So while it may not be fun, it’s a worthwhile endeavor. Wondering where to start? These four tips can help you get up, running, and ready for whatever comes your way.

1. Make a schedule. 

Teaching, preparing for class, research, writing papers, reading papers, committee work, office hours and so on The list of a graduate student responsibilities goes on and on. While it can seem overwhelming, it is possible to wrangle all of these elements into something more manageable. How? By identifying everything you need to do, how these tasks support your goals, and how much time each one will take. This will allow you to gain a clear picture of your commitments and constraints, and then to build a framework around it. 

2. Have a writing regimen.

More likely than not, writing more is on your list of goals for the semester. In fact, it’s such an issue for many graduate students that it’s earned its own category on this list. Whether you’re at the onset of your graduate school journey or further along, scheduling time to write every day can help you ward off writer’s block, push through plateaus, and discover true productivity. 

Says Graduate Mentor, “The hardest part of writing is getting started. We amateurs procrastinate minutes, hours, and days. (The pros – some of the best and most prolific writers – report procrastinating weeks and even years.) We delay because we’re afraid we won’t have anything to write. We’re afraid that what we write will be terrible. We’re afraid we’re not up to the real pain that good writing requires. For some of us, it’s only when the pain of what we would lose by not writing – fellowships, degree completion, book contracts, jobs – feels more real than the pain of actually writing that we even begin to write.”

By forcing yourself to write every day -- even for just 15 minutes -- you can transform the act from hardship to habit, and the benefits are profound. Continues Graduate Mentor, “Writing everyday contributes to continuity of your thinking and generating the ideas you need to write. Your mind functions differently when you write every day. We all think about our writing every day. But the cognitive processes involved in writing are different from those involved in thinking. Your project moves forward when you write…even when you write a gosh-awful first draft.”

3. Identify your ideal working environment. 

We’ve all heard the expression, “Different strokes for different strokes.” This applies no better than to the life of a PhD student. Do you work better among others or alone? Are you more productive in the early morning or late at night? Assessing your own priorities and preferences can help you optimize your time.

Contends grad student Andy Greenspon in Elsevier, “One of the benefits of working in the context of a PhD is that your hours tend to be very flexible; use this to your advantage, as the chances of having such an opportunity in a permanent job are unlikely….Remember: Strive to work efficiently instead of just working long hours.”  

4. Remember to build “me time” into the plan.

“The intense routine of a working grad student can be a sun-up to sun-down affair, drowning out any hint of a personal life,” says U.S. New & World Report. Adds Dr. Jane Bost, a university associate director of prevention and outreach services, “Graduate school really is more of a lifestyle. It is just all-encompassing.” But this doesn’t mean giving up on having a social life. In fact, doing so can be detrimental to both your personal and professional life as it can lead to isolation, burnout and other concerns. 

Ultimately, enjoying a satisfying life as a graduate student involves much more than just studying. When preparing for the semester ahead, make sure to acknowledge personal fulfillment, as well. Everything from time with family and friends to doctor and dentist appointments to your favorite yoga class can help you stay happy and healthy in the new year. 

Need a nudge in the right direction with your planning process? Check out faculty development and leadership expert Kerry Ann Rockquemore’s ingenious “The Sunday Meeting” in Insider Higher Ed. This simple five-step guide to weekly planning is all coping with “having more tasks than time” and using “creativity to make conscious decisions that are in line with your priorities.” 

Search for PhD programs here.

Joanna worked in higher education administration for many years at a leading research institution before becoming a full-time freelance writer. She lives in the beautiful White Mountains region of New Hampshire with her family.

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