Dec 8, 2022

Time management- an essential element to thriving in graduate school (and life)

Overview:  As a graduate student, you probably are not given a to-do list each day and have the autonomy to determine when you will come to and leave campus. You also undoubtedly have many concurrent projects running, including course work, research or teaching-related tasks. Chances are you are also finding that your time is as limited as money in your bank accounts.  As a graduate student, I started to see telltale signs of limited time too.  I experienced late nights scrambling to complete assignments and struggled to identify which activity I could complete in small pockets of time. When I felt that I had to miss the wedding of dear friends in Vegas to get lab work done for a conference a few weeks later, I realized I was not managing my time (or self regulating) at all. 

Photo by Malvestida on Unsplash

Figuring out my priorities and exploring some time management techniques substantially relieved my stress.  As a graduate student, I am confident that you will be able to make relatively more thoughtful progress on your research work, get high marks in your courses, and complete the requirements for graduation by using time management techniques that work best for you.  For this blog post, I enlisted Dr. Fadi Abdeljawad as my coauthor. When we were restricted to online teaching due to COVID-19, I asked him to give a virtual talk to students about time management as part of a professional development seminar series.  The students raved about it in their exit surveys.  I hope that this post helps you reflect on your own time management while you apply and thrive in graduate school.

Post Contributor(s): Drs. Marian Kennedy and Fadi Abdeljawad, the Bob and Kay Stanzione Assistant Professor in the Department of Mechanical Engineering at Clemson. More about Dr. Abdeljawad can be found at the end of this post.  




Post:  We have both felt like we didn’t enough time to meet all our commitments and goals.  That feeling has left us frustrated in the past.  However, we found that we had the power to allocate our time each week so that could make progress on our goals and spend time on our priorities.  You have the power to manage your time too.   


Since we love numbers, let’s do a little math.  If you sleep 56 hours a week (8 hours per night), you still would have 112 hours to meet work on your priorities for graduate school, socialize, eat, exercise, etc. (credit Laura Vanderkam for this insight). Those 112 hours are enough time to actually have two 40/hr per week jobs if you could put your other priorities are put on the back burner. While we are not suggesting that you only allocate time to work or take on two full time jobs, we do want you to take a moment to let that observation sink in.  You have time to rest, complete those clerical tasks associated with adulting (e.g., finding doctors and paying taxes), and work.  By managing your time thoughtfully (and removing tasks that have little value to you), you can make some large strides towards your goals.  Here are some of our suggestions on how to manage your time. 


(1)   Use a calendar

 When you transition successfully into a full-time job, you will most likely need to use a electronic calendar.  So, we suggest that you use one now to keep track of your appointments, meetings, etc. There are many online web-based calendar tools (Google, Outlook, etc.) that you can use. Including personal and work activities on a single calendar is a way to avoid double booking. If you are sharing your calendar with others, such as an advisor, mark personal activities (such as taking my kids to school in the morning) as private.   Dr. Kennedy also prints her week on paper every week, because she finds the calendar app on the iPhone a little small. 


(2)   Determine your priorities and goals

To manage your time, you first need to know what your priorities and goals, short- and long-term, are.  These will help you make the tough decisions of what to allocate or time for and what activities you should not spend time on.  When you are enrolled in a research-based graduate program, we would anticipate that your priorities would include conducting research, disseminating your research, networking, and participating in seminars and courses. Many graduate programs in the country require students to serve as graders, teaching assistants, so there also might be a teaching component to your workload.


To start synthesizing your priorities and goals into a manageable form, we suggest grabbing a notebook and a cup of coffee.  Then find a quiet spot to work.  On a blank page, we suggest that you write the   definitions for these terms first.  


Then start writing the things that start popping into your head without editing.  Your priorities might be creating a strong foundation for your career or your friends.  Your goals might include the things in your life that you want to achieve such as graduating with a specific degree.  Make sure to include personal goals like visiting one new destination a year, running a 5k, or getting together with friends on a regular basis. 


(3)   Make a list of all your active projects or commitments

Tracking activities and projects itself can be a large mental load.  This has become such as problem that companies have arisen to help us like Organize365® and Getting Things Done®. These companies offer digital management software where you can park your projects and commitments instead of your brain. This will stop you from becoming overwhelmed and not knowing where to start. As you are doing this, we would suggest that you also determine what any project looks like when you would consider it done. For example, “done” for a research project might be publishing a paper. 

For each week, we have a list of activities that need to get done and these go on a centralized to-do list. We just flip through all our projects, look at deadlines, and then make a list of the things that need to get done to make the deadlines.  If we note that we have too many items to complete, we simply reach out to renegotiate the deadline with a collaborator or look at our goals/priorities to determine which to-do items are most critical. Sometimes, we just need to let an activity go. For example, while I (Dr. Kennedy) enjoy watching movies with my kids, these are some of the first activities to go. This is because my other activities (taking my kids to the playground after school, riding my Peloton, and working on a research proposal) are more aligned with my personal and work goals.  

It can be helpful to compartmentalize your commitments and projects into categories to make sure that your life is balanced. That is, you are allocating time to work, selfcare, etc. For a professor, that might be research, teaching, service, home management, and time with friends and family. 


(4)   Limit your transition time and minimize multi-tasking

It takes time to switch between activities. Thus it’s good to focus. Doing more than one task at a time, especially more than one complex task, takes a toll on productivity. Try to resist checking email, checking Canvas, etc. while trying to finish a homework assignment or read a research article.


One way to help you focus on a single activity is to use the Pomodoro technique (link is to a great summary by Luis P. Prieto on his blog ‘A Happy PhD).  You focus on a single activity for 25 minutes using a timer to track the time.  Once done, you get a short break and then transition to the next activity. 


(5)   Make time for deep work by limiting the impact of email, social media, and other electronic distractions

Today’s graduate students have more distractions than we did.  Social media was less prevalent and there was a lower magnitude of email, which made it easier to concentrate on our research work.  Today, we both are mindful about the impact of social medial, email, and electronic devices on our day-to-day lives.  While each of these are beneficial (even critical) in our lives, overuse can decrease our ability to think deeply. 


Some tips for managing interruptions:

  • Check email just three times a day (at the beginning, middle, and end of your day). (Credit to Dr. Scott Sonenshein in his coauthored book Joy at Work for this suggestion.)
  • Unsubscribe from listservs that do not align with your priorities.
  • Declare “No Email Fridays.”  Every Friday do not check email at all and put up an out of office message.  Use these days to hunker down in the a quiet space (such as a library) and do deep thinking. 
  • Leave your phone in your bag when you are working. Studies at the University of Wurzburg and at Nottingham Trent University showed a 26% difference in productivity when the smartphone was removed from the room instead of sitting face up on the desk. (Presentation by Jesse Hercules, Extracon Science LLC.)
  • Put your phone on Do not Disturb during the workday.  Research at Michigan State University looked at the impact of a 3-second interruption, like a smartphone alert that results in a quick glance at the screen.  Participants who were interrupted made twice as many mistakes as those who worked without interruption. (Presentation by Jesse Hercules, Extracon Science LLC.)


(6)   Review your time use

Laura Vanderkam suggests tracking your time for one week to see how it goes. After one week, go back and identify what you classify as “good” investments of your time and “time wasters.”  You can use a tool like Toggl (credit to our colleague Dr. Joshua Alper for this suggestion). You can also use a spreadsheet.

Once you have that data, you can figure out adjustments to make. Dr. Kennedy realized that picking up coffee on her way to campus meant waiting in a drive through line that was always more than 15 minutes and that she would rather use that time on something she valued more.  


(7)   Simplify your environment and life.  Figure out which decisions are important to you and simplify the others.

Bob Pozen, a senior lecturer at MIT's Sloan School of Management, pointed out that making decisions requires a lot of mental energy, and that people generally make 10,000 of them a day or more. He suggests saving your energy for the important decisions by making other decisions automatic. People do this by eating the same breakfast during the work week or developing a set of work clothes so that they do not have to think about what to wear in the morning. 


These are some helpful books about time management and focusing:

About our guest contributor Dr. Fadi Abdeljawad:  His research work lies at the intersection of materials science, engineering, and applied mathematics.  You can read more about his work and research group here. Prior to becoming a faculty member at Clemson University in 2018, he was a Senior Member of Technical Staff in the Computational Materials and Data Science Department at Sandia National Laboratories.

Acknowledgements: This blog post was edited by Kate Epstein of EpsteinWords. She specializes in editing and coaching for academics, and she can be reached at kate at

Dr. Fadi Abdeljawads contribution to this article was supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant Nos. 2114832 and 2033327.