Nine tips for managing time in grad school

Chloe Kirk
Aug. 17, 2022

Graduate school, and academia to a larger extent, is perhaps one of the most unorganized jobs there is. I received no list of expectations, no rubric for what to get done each day or any real grading to gauge my progress. I knew I needed to, at some point, publish papers and defend my thesis.

Coming directly from my undergraduate life organized by classes, exams and regular assignments, I found this lack of organization to be both a blessing and a curse. The freedom was exhilarating; I was in charge of my day and of what I got to read and study. But with that freedom came incessant worrying that I was behind on everything, because there was always something else I could be doing.

Coming into grad school, I was overwhelmed by how much undirected time I had. Then I learned about time management, and the world started to make sense again. Here I share with you some of the most important skills for mastering time management in graduate school. I hope they help you as much as they have helped me.

1. Establish a schedule

Perhaps the best advice I received from an older graduate student in the lab is to work consistent eight-hour days as much as possible: 8 a.m.-4 p.m., 9 a.m.-5 p.m. And even more importantly, establish this schedule and boundaries with your lab and principal investigator.

This might seem like a tough one. Some days you might need to pull a 12-hour shift to get an experiment done. And sure, you can decide to come in at 9 a.m. one day and then start the next workday at 2 p.m. But in my experience, this left me feeling like I wasn’t being productive enough or burned out from working long days. Setting a consistent eight-hour schedule keeps your body in a rhythm and lets you feel confident you’ve gotten work done.

2. Use a planner

Physically writing out what you need to get done for the day immediately puts you into a productive mindset. I’m also a big fan of using the free web browser and app ToDoist, which allows me to break down tasks by topic and schedule tasks for a later date. This way I can have multiple to-do lists (a work one and a home one) and move tasks to a later date if I have too much planned.

3. Break down bigger tasks

The biggest no-no of using a planner, however, is only writing down ginormous tasks such as “write my paper” or “literature search.” These sorts of tasks will be so overwhelming to look at that you’ll never want to even start them. Instead, I break them down into smaller, more reasonable tasks for each day. For example, instead of “write my paper,” I’ll put down “write my abstract” for one day and then “proofread abstract” for another day.

4. Set priorities

Don’t tell yourself you have 20 top items you need to get done today. If you do, it’s more likely than not you’ll get none of them done. Have two or three big task items for the day and be OK with the fact that everything else on your list could be pushed. In my planner, there’s a break on the paper between the top three tasks and everything else. Prioritizing just a few things, again, makes me feel less overwhelmed looking at that to-do list.

5. Time block your calendar

When I first started doing this, I felt silly having a huge chunk of time that just said “emails” or “staining cells.” But blocking out time on my calendar for each task in the day further prioritizes what I need to get done and gives me the grace to push an overly ambitious task to the next day without letting it consume an entire day. Seeing what time I have also stops me from planning too much.

6. Experiments take twice as long as you expect

I wish this were written at the start of every lab notebook. When I started grad school, I planned experiments so close together that there wasn’t even a 30-minute overlap between imaging a first batch of cells to staining another batch. Be realistic with yourself. So many unforeseeable events arise during the day — mistakes in experiments or needing to make additional buffers — that I always estimate any experiment will take twice as long as I think it should on paper. And nine times out of 10, I end up taking almost that whole time.

7. Plan your week in advance

I dread Mondays as I come into the week with lots of experiments looming ahead. I like to prepare by planning out my week the Friday before so I can have everything set up and ready to get started on Monday.

8. Focus one day a week on desk work

This is one I’m still working on, but it makes a huge difference. It’s so easy to do back-to-back experiments when I’m getting good data, but I also need to write up results, analyze data before I forget what I did and read to keep up with what’s going on in my field. Try to plan one day of the week to focus just on desk work. Some labs even have a lab writing day once a week and book a conference room to focus on nonbench work.

9. Take breaks

Last but not least, I want to remind you to take breaks during your work and use your days off. Take holiday time. Take your weekends. Take that five-minute walk outside. All these other time management skills will get you nowhere if you’re burned out.

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Chloe Kirk

Chloe Kirk is working toward her Ph.D. in biochemistry and molecular biology at the University of Miami. Her interests are science research, communication and outreach.

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