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The studENT - Staying on track? Time Management Strategies for Ph.D. Students During COVID-19

(posted on behalf of @Ashley Roccapriore, PhD Representative)

Staying on track? Time Management Strategies for Ph.D. Students During COVID-19

I know I can’t be alone when I say COVID-19 has made productivity great some days and extremely difficult on others. With many Ph.D. programs seeking or offering 1-2 year extensions for students to finish their dissertations and find great placements (Flaherty, 2020), it can be difficult to avoid the pitfall of procrastination even more than before. There is so much on your plate at once, between teaching, research projects, dissertation work and even attempting to maintain a social life, making it not only difficult but exhausting to figure out how to stay on top of your work. Not only do Ph.D. students say they struggle with figuring out the best way to manage their time (Longfield et al., 2006), they also struggle with staying focused when balancing so many things at once (Sverdlik et al., 2018). 

While faculty at our university and others offer great advice on how to ensure your teaching evaluations, research pipeline, and publication history are enough to maximize your placement, there are not many resources to help determine how to manage all this work. All this pressure can increase anxiety Ph.D. students feel (Woolston, 2017; 2019), making it even harder to get everything done without hitting a period of burnout. So next time you’re feeling like you need some help on managing your time, keep these tips and tricks in mind. 

Calendar Blocking

You know those people with the crazy calendars that look like they have every second of their day blocked out? Research has shown those with most success in their careers are very strict about their schedules (Rampton, 2019; Carter, 2020). Specifically, they block certain periods of time to ensure that certain work gets done. For example, Elon Musk blocks every 5-10 minutes of his day to ensure certain tasks are being done. For Ph.D. students, this could be blocking an hour every day for writing, blocking every Monday for data analyses, or just creating blocks of time a few days a week specifically for meetings. Having it on your calendar makes it more likely that you’ll get it done (Parkinson, 1955), but also ensure that you’re scheduling your blocks when you know you’ll be productive. For example, if you know you write best in the mornings, make sure that your writing blocks are scheduled in that time frame. If you know you have an afternoon slump where your mind isn’t as creative, perhaps schedule that time for data collection or coding (Pollock, 2021). 

Software Tools

In a COVID world where technology has become the tool that makes it possible to connect with people, there has been an increase in software and programs to help enable you to be more productive. For example, Focusmate is a program that allows you to have a Zoom call with someone else anywhere in the world where you meet, discuss your goals, and work for a certain period of time on your own tasks. After that time is over, you come back together to chat about whether you met those goals or not (Focusmate). As a Ph.D. student, however, paying for software like this can be costly, so this could be something you set up with friends in other programs and then maybe celebrate with a happy hour after. Who doesn’t need some more social time amid COVID? 

Accountability Partners

Ever start a workout program for the New Year and give up within the first month? Over 80 percent of people who have a resolution for the new year wind up giving it up within the first six weeks of the year (Tabaka, 2019). However, for those that have somebody help keep them accountable, they are 65 percent more likely to meet their goals, with this increasing to over 95 percent when they set up ongoing meetings to check in on their progress (Wissman, 2018). Set up bi-weekly or monthly check-ins with someone in a similar stage of their program to you, whether that be at your university, in your department or another one, or at a university in a different city, state, or country, so you can hold each other accountable. Just like with resolutions or your physical health, it can help you stay on track with your professional goals and time management. Not only that but having someone who is in a similar position can help with your mental health and offer social support as well (Cohen, 2004). Win-win! 

Carter, T. 2020, October 11. The secret to effective time management? Smaller time blocks. Entrepreneur.
Cohen, S. 2004. Social relationships and health. American Psychologist, 59(8): 676.
Flaherty, C. 2020, April 7. Graduate students seek time-to-degree and funding extensions during COVID-19.
Focusmate—Get things done, together. n.d. Focusmate., December 16, 2020.
Longfield, A., Romas, J., & Irwin, J. D. 2006. The self-worth, physical and social activities of graduate students: A qualitative study. College Student Journal, 40(2): 282–292.
Parkinson, C. 1955, November 19. Parkinson’s Law. The Economist. London.
Pollock, T. 2021, February 21. How to Use Storytelling in Your Academic Writing.
Rampton, J. 2019, April 16. Time blocking tips top experts and scientists use to increase productivity. Entrepreneur.
Sverdlik, A., C. Hall, N., McAlpine, L., & Hubbard, K. 2018. The PhD experience: A review of the factors influencing doctoral students’ completion, achievement, and well-being. International Journal of Doctoral Studies, 13: 361–388.
Tabaka, M. 2019, January 7. Most People Fail to Achieve Their New Year’s Resolution. For Success, Choose a Word of the Year Instead |
Wissman, B. 2018, March 20. An accountability partner makes you vastly more likely to succeed. Entrepreneur.
Woolston, C. 2017. Graduate survey: A love–hurt relationship. Nature, 550(7677): 549–552.
Woolston, C. 2019. PhDs: The tortuous truth. Nature, 575(7782): 403–406.