Managing Year 1: Some Survival Tips
One of the greatest struggles that new graduate students face is adjusting to the graduate school workload. I remember balking at the amount of reading assigned in my courses when I started my master’s program in 2013. Eleven books for one class? 300 pages in the first week? Of course, these courses are not an exercise in sadistic torture: they are designed to socialize graduate students into our disciplinary domain, and to acclimate them to the rigors of academia. But, the workload for these first semesters of graduate school can appear daunting, whether you’re a student fresh out of undergrad or someone who has been away from the academy for years or even decades.
To meet the expectations placed on you a graduate student and, indeed, as an academic, you have to carefully structure and guard your time, in addition to having some sort of an organizational system that works for you. It’s critical that you’re able to produce quality work, stay current in developments in the field, balance your research/teaching/service, and take time for self care. Here are the systems that I’ve put into place to break my schedule down and work smarter, not harder. Keep in mind that these are my strategies for organizing my graduate student life—your mileage may vary 😉
Divide and Conquer with File Management
Don’t ever lose your class notes or seminar paper drafts again. Spend some time setting up folders on your computer (and in your email client) at the beginning of the semester, and it’ll save you time later.
I have separate folders in the “Documents” folder on my computer for “Classes” (seminars I take), “Teaching,” and “Organizations” I help run or advise, all organized by semester or year. Inside, sub-folders organize the content. This is the folder for a seminar that I took at Purdue last fall. The different course assignments (a conference paper, a seminar paper, weekly position papers responding to the readings, etc.) are all organized into sub-folders, with the files named descriptively according to a consistent management system. For example, class notes are labeled with the course title and the date, for easy search and retrieval:
This goes for drafts of assignments, too. Version control is easy when major projects are descriptively labeled and dated.
Saving a new draft each time you work on an assignment can help you monitor your progress, and keep track of which draft is the most current. Additionally, it can help prevent catastrophes if and when (God forbid) your technology should fail. And on that note…
Back that Thing Up
I’ve had at least four colleagues whose laptops have given up the ghost right at the end of the semester. Technology can and will fail you at the most inopportune moments. Hard drives will crash, viruses will infiltrate your system, and children will spill beverages all over your computer keyboard. And you. Will. Lose. EVERYTHING.
To prevent the catastrophic loss of months’ or years’ worth of work, you should have both a physical and cloud-based backup for your documents and files. It’s important to have multiple backups just in case one fails (your external hard drive gets fried, your internet connection goes down or isn’t reliable enough to download all the stuff you need from the cloud, etc.).
Backups are increasingly cheap too: you can get a 1TB external hard drive from Amazon for $55, and buy 1TB of space on Dropbox for $8.25/month if you pay annually. Some universities have partnerships with Google Drive or Microsoft OneDrive that give you gigabytes or even terabytes of space. Check with your IT division for options.
TL;DR Have backups for your backups. Backup early and backup often. Godspeed, my friends.
I once had a public relations professor who told the class that we should schedule all of our work time in a day down to 15-minute increments: “It’s amazing what that fine-grained detail will do for your productivity,” he told us. “You’ll be able to see exactly where you’re wasting your time, and modify your work accordingly.”
While I still haven’t gotten my schedule down to quarter-hour chunks, I’ve found that carefully planning and guarding my time has helped me to become a better scholar and colleague. How you do this is up to you. Some people like a paper planner or the trendy bullet journal. Some prefer digital options like iCal or Google Calendar. Some use a combination of both.
Not only do I log where I need to be and when, but I also keep track of what type of work I’m supposed to be doing. For grad students, this means budgeting time for reading and writing, and protecting that time. After you fill out your calendar with your seminars, teaching, office hours, service obligations, and meetings, find a couple of empty slots and set aside a few hours a week for structured work time. For example, last fall I worked from home from 9am-11am every Wednesday and Friday on teaching prep and reading for my own courses. I treated this time as I would treat office hours: no meetings or appointments. This helps set up dedicated work time for teaching and scholarly obligations: but how do you ensure that you accomplish your goals?
Gamify Your Productivity (and Your Life)
I was writing a book chapter a year ago, and really struggling to get things done. My usual motivational system of write-Netflix-write-Netflix-write wasn’t working. I just couldn’t get words on the page.
Then, I made an account on Habitica.
Habitica is an app where you create an avatar who goes on quests and gains experience through accomplishing your real-life tasks: think of it as Dungeons and Dragons, but for your productivity. Users gain points and maintain health by maintaining good habits, completing “dailies” (items or tasks that should be completed every day, with bonus points for streaks that last two days or more), and checking items off of their to-do lists. In the style of D&D, you can choose to be a warrior, mage, healer, or rogue, and join with other fellow Habiticians on quests. Here’s my level-64 mage with her party:
You can see that Habitica helps me accomplish not only professional goals (like writing this blog post, heh), but also personal ones (flossing, eating healthy, taking my vitamins, etc.). Through forming healthy work and life habits, I gain points and items that I can use to hatch dragons, fight bosses, etc.
But my favorite component of Habitica is the accountability that’s built in when you use it socially. When you embark on a quest with friends, you’re agreeing to accomplish your daily goals and develop good habits. If you do not check off your daily tasks, or if you engage in a negative habit, your whole party loses health and points. While I was writing last summer, my party was fighting a shadow beast; if I didn’t finish my required 250 words each day, the whole group would be hurt. To defeat the beast (and my book chapter), I engaged in sustained writing practice that helped my mage grow and evolve (while I added a line to my CV).
Now, Dungeons and Dragons style questing might not motivate you to gather data or write an article or read The Rhetorical Tradition. But something will. Whether it’s scheduling your time through the Pomodoro technique using timer apps like 30/30, setting writing goals through communities like 750 Words, or rewarding yourself with adorable pictures on Written? Kitten!, there are lots of ways to gamify your writing and other scholarly tasks. This goes for other systems of organization too. Maybe you prefer taking paper notes, rather than digital ones. Maybe you’re a to-do list writer. As long as it brings you joy and a sense of accomplishment, you should do it. I’m always collecting new ideas to #getafterit in grad school, so leave your own tips and tricks in the comments, or send a tweet to me @argella.
Allegra W. Smith is a PhD student in the Rhetoric and Composition program at Purdue University. She can be reached at email@example.com.