practical phd

a transparent source for all things PhD

As the fall semester was getting going, #AcademicTwitter was full of people sharing about organizing and planning for the semester.  It was really helpful for me to see the different ways that folks organize their planning from lists on a white board to to dos on a calendar to detailed spreadsheets.  I got new ideas for tracking and visualizing my to dos from seeing these examples (one of which I’ll share once the materials I need to implement it arrive).  Seeing how others planned out their semesters made me realize that while I generally enjoy planning, I have a strong aversion to planning out each week of the semester in advance.  So when I eagerly read Dr. Whitney Pirtle’s description of her semester planning process, I found myself breaking out in a cold sweat at the idea of following a similar approach.  Dr. Pirtle generously shares her template in the post linked above, which she uses to organize her work and get shit done.  (And she is getting shit done!) But I still felt a sort of dread looking at her template as I thought about all the replanning that comes when inevitably a task takes longer than originally planned.  Mind you, many incredibly productive academics, like Dr. Pirtle, swear by this approach. It’s just an approach that doesn’t work for me. There’s more than one way to be successful in this PhD life, so below I share an overview of these two effective approaches to planning and managing your time during the semester.  

Planning by Week

The strategy of planning each week out in advance starts with a list of broader goals, which is the foundation for both planning approaches discussed here.  What do you want to accomplish this semester? What do you have to do? I’m going to focus on research, teaching, and service here, but I highly recommend integrating this list with your personal life as well, since you can’t put life on pause for work.  

Based on what I do and what I’ve seen others compile, folks generally include the following in their goals:

  • Data work (collection, cleaning, analysis) they want or need to complete,
  • Papers/chapters they want or need to work on,
  • R&Rs they have deadlines for,
  • Peer reviews they promised to complete, 
  • Conferences they plan to submit to,
  • Talks they are scheduled to give,
  • Courses they are teaching,
  • Departmental committees they are on,
  • Workshops or writing groups they organize, 
  • Students they are supporting as committee members, and 
  • Friends they are supporting through writing groups and giving feedback on papers.

This gives you a list of things like: Submit to the American Sociological Association conference, complete data analysis for the deracialization of gentrification paper, and teach two sections of race and ethnicity.  The next step is to identify every step you need to complete to get to the final goal. For example, if my goal is to submit a paper to the American Sociological Association in January (yes, they ask for a full paper), then I would list out steps such as review the list of sessions, identify a paper topic and appropriate session, conduct data cleaning, analyze data, create any figures/tables, outline paper, read relevant literature, draft paper sections, and finally submit the paper.  

While these goal setting procedures are the basis for any planning approach you choose, the planning by week approach takes this list of specific tasks and assigns each to a week (or several weeks) in the upcoming semester.  This means estimating how long each task will take to complete and taking into account hard deadlines, such as conference submission deadlines and grading, to come up with a week-by-week plan for the semester.  

This approach is particularly effective for gauging what you actually have time to complete in the semester.  Seeing how much you have to cram in to get done the ambitious list of goals you set before you get started is incredibly helpful and can lead to either updating your goals or going into the semester knowing you’ll probably come up short.  (Quick side note: One thing I do to deal with that my to do list is always way longer than what I have time to complete is to have a list of goals I will prioritize and do first and the list of secondary and tertiary goals that I will get to in the long shot that I finish my list of top priorities.)  This approach also means that you’ve done your planning for the semester in advance, instead of doing it each week. Yes, you will have to adjust your timeline as you realize there are really 3 more steps to get from data collection to data analysis or the step you thought would take 1 days really takes 4 weeks.  But your weekly to do list essentially comes directly from the plan.

Weekly Planning

What I use is what I’ll call here the weekly planning approach.  I start with the same process as the planning by week including writing out a list of goals for the semester and breaking out a list of specific steps.  The only real difference between the planning by week and the weekly planning approaches are what happens next. Instead of assigning each task to a week in the upcoming semester, I leave the tasks as a list in my goals, which I refer to when I’m making a plan for the upcoming week.  

Every Monday, I plan for the week and allocate tasks for each day in the coming week.  In my planning document, I start by pushing forward the tasks that didn’t get finished in the prior week and adjust when I work on them depending on deadlines I have that particular week, such as grading a reading response for my classes.  As I realize there are more steps to getting a task done, I add them to the weekly to do list and move them around until they get crossed off. Probably about once a month, I refer back to my list of goals to add something new to my to do list from those semester goals.  

Why do I do it this way?  Well first because the idea of planning out every week for a 14 week period is too much for me.  I have done it before because it was a required assignment, but it was stressful enough that I would do it and then never look at what I had put on paper again.  (And yes, I will be requiring that my graduate students do the same exercise as a feasibility exercise to ensure that the empirical paper they hope to write for the final in my class can actually be finished in 14 weeks.)  I’ve done enough research to know everything takes longer than it should and part of the reason that I don’t put my to do list as appointments on my calendar or plan out the whole semester in advance is because of that. Weekly planning lets me move things around as they don’t get done without having to readjust my plan for the whole semester, which I personally find a little demoralizing.  So while I still have a specific list of everything I’d like to accomplish in a semester, I don’t have a constant reminder of what sometimes feels like oversights and failures when I’m inevitably “behind.”

What’s the downside?  I don’t get to see how realistic my goals are for the semester.  At this point in my career, I have a pretty good sense of what I can realistically accomplish in a semester (especially thanks to doing some teaching during my postdoc), so my goals are usually fairly reasonable.  However, if I had less experience balancing research and teaching under my belt, I would want to go through the motions of the exercise of planning by week to see how much work I would need to accomplish to keep up with what I hoped to complete even if I never returned to that detailed plan again.  

So Which Approach Should You Use?

As always, I highly recommend trying different approaches to figure out what works best for you.  In fact, I’m sure there are even more approaches than the two I outline here, so you should try whatever you think will work for you.  Given that both approaches I’ve outlined above are based on setting goals and identifying specific tasks, you should have a list of goals for each semester and a to do list of specific tasks for each goal.  What you do with them after that depends on what you’re trying or what works best for you!  

Finally, as you try new approaches to time management, remember two things.  First, time management experts say it takes about 30 days to form a habit, so try out an approach for at least 30 days before you decide it’s not working.  Second, take time to step back and assess. The only way I came up with my weekly to do list was by trying one thing, analyzing how it was going to figure out what wasn’t working for me, and then making tweaks to come up with an approach that worked.  There’s more than one way to be successful in this PhD life, so take the time to find the approach that works for you.  

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