What I Wish I’d Known: Managing Time and Having a Life In Graduate School

Before joining ESN as a writer/editor in 2014, Hannah Eagleson wrote her series What I Wish I’d Known About Graduate School just after finishing her PhD in 2011. 

A different perspective on time: the Prague Orloj, a 600-year-old astronomical clock. Astronomical Clock (Astronomical Dial), Prague, Czech Republic by Grufnik, on Flickr.

A different perspective on time: the Prague Orloj, a 600-year-old astronomical clock. Astronomical Clock (Astronomical Dial), Prague, Czech Republic by Grufnik, on Flickr.

Even with good coursework management strategies, semesters can feel overwhelming. Here are some more general tips for managing time and squeezing in a life beyond grad school.

1. Recognize that valuable things can be done regularly yet infrequently

If you don’t have time to meet with your accountability partner once a week, do it once a month. Once a week might be better than once a month, but once a month will probably still be helpful.

If you can’t pick up and see a movie just anytime, schedule one movie viewing a week or a month and stick to it. If you know a break is coming, it will be easier to face the daily grind.

2. Have a list of short tasks that can be squeezed into small chunks of time

Coursework often has a lot of small breaks – an hour between classes, etc. If you make a list of short tasks, like calling the library to renew books or writing a short email to a colleague, you can squeeze them into breaks that might otherwise have gone to waste.

3. Use semester breaks well for both rest and strategizing

In grad school, breaks can too often feel almost as stressful as the semester. All the things that piled up during the end of term crunch can assault and make break seem overwhelming. It’s vital to take a week or two at the beginning of winter and summer break and leave your academic work alone. Watch action movies, bake desserts, go hiking, take a trip, read sci-fi – whatever it is that makes you feel a million miles away from work. I found that when I took a bit of time off, I came back to my academic work able to approach it from new angles.

Once you’ve done that and recovered a bit, breaks can be a great time for strategizing. Break is a great time to lay out what will be read when in the coming semester, to generate some course handouts that will make your fall teaching easier, or to read something that would be too hard to tackle during the semester.

4. Accomplish “life logistics” in designated chunks of time

Some of the most time-consuming tasks involve “life logistics” – getting the oil changed in the car, visiting the dentist, etc. If you can devote a week of break to getting a bunch of these tasks done, it will clear valuable time during the semester. Also, instead of having the looming worry that you’ve missed an oil change, you can remind yourself that you have one scheduled for the third week of break.

5. Pray, even if it’s while climbing the library steps

This is last for emphasis, not because I see it as an afterthought. One thing I really wish I’d done is to invite God more diligently into my everyday tasks. I would worry during the time walking to the library or standing in line at student services. I wish that I’d spent that time praying that the library trip would be fruitful, or that the logistics would go smoothly at student services.

As I wrap up, I’m struck by the range of things I wish I’d known earlier in graduate school. I would love to hear other thoughts, whether you’re just starting graduate school or have had tenure for years. What do you wish you’d known sooner? What are some of the most helpful things you discovered? 

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Hannah Eagleson

Hannah Eagleson is a writer/editor on staff with InterVarsity’s Emerging Scholars Network (ESN). She edits ESN's collaboratively written devotional for academics. Hannah also crafts other community-building events and materials for ESN. She holds a PhD in English literature, and she’s working on a novel about a dragon who gave up fending off knights to become a tea importer in eighteenth-century England.

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