Graduate Students Need to Think Differently About Time

James M. Van Wyck recommends that Ph.D. students make at least three mental shifts about time as they negotiate graduate school.

September 9, 2019
 
 
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I am more and more convinced that the ways the brain shifts during Ph.D. training can shift the world. The competencies that emerge out of this crucible equip Ph.D.s for the 21st century in ways unmatched by any other form of training.

The Ph.D. clearly has a problem with time, however. Doctoral training shouldn't take as long as it does, nor should it be as hard as it is to find a job that values the Ph.D.

Graduate school has other time-related side effects. One unintended consequence of how Ph.D. students spend their time -- laser-focused on clearing successive hurdles -- is how Ph.D. students are conditioned to think about time.

If you're a Ph.D. student reading this article, chances are that it'll take you less than five minutes. Not an outsized outlay of time, but still time you could have spent elsewhere. And if you're like many other Ph.D. students, chances are you may feel that those five minutes should probably have been devoted to your research.

Many Ph.D. students think of time as a zero-sum affair: time spent doing one thing necessarily takes away from time spent doing something else.

That, of course, isn't true. You can gain time in graduate school. In fact, the most successful graduate students I know gain time on a regular basis. The formula is simple: contacts and tactics gain you time in graduate school. You gain time by being intentional about connecting with peers, mentors, and colleagues within and beyond the university, because connections can point to resources, research strategies, or wellness practices that you may have found on your own, but only after a prolonged, time-consuming search.

Some of those connections are formed organically in academic departments -- as when senior graduate students, postdocs and faculty members give first-year graduate students tips about navigating departmental milestones. But the vast majority of time-gaining contacts lie outside the department. And too often, graduate students neglect those contacts, so they don't encounter tactics that have proven effective in worlds beyond their department.

There are proven time management techniques that can help you better steward your time. There are seminars you can attend on your campus, or which you can find online. Prioritize this work. The Ph.D. requires long-term planning, vision and endurance, so don't fall into the cycle of short-term thinking or the trap of valorizing over-work.

Ph.D. students should try to make at least three mental shifts as they negotiate graduate school: 1) thinking of time in terms of months and years instead of days and weeks, 2) knowing -- in ways that inform your habits -- that you can gain time in graduate school and 3) connecting how you think about time to your personal priorities, values and wellness.

Think Month-to-Month and Year-to-Year, Not Day-to-Day or even Week-to-Week

You need to think of time differently than the way the lived experience of graduate school will condition you to do.

As a Ph.D. student, you negotiate a lot on a daily basis: lab responsibilities, mentoring and teaching duties and the long-term grind that is the dissertation. You're not only developing strengths and skills during all of this, but also navigating around potential pitfalls.

One pitfall is the habit of deferring strategic planning. During the last year or so of my Ph.D. program, I remember telling myself nearly every day that I "just have to get through this week." I even started saying this phrase to friends and family, and after a while recognized I was saying it every time I went to see my parents for Sunday lunch. Recognizing that I was living week to week -- and not seeing beyond the list of important short-term items -- was a good first step.

Taking your life a day or a week at a time can get you through a stressful period -- it doesn't necessarily always help to look ahead when you're tackling a pressing deadline. But if you are always thinking of time in this way, you've made the same mistake I did, and you've missed out on the benefits of longer-term thinking. In a previous Carpe Careers piece, I wrote about how graduate students can create a pattern of collaboration over their graduate school career. This kind of work is possible when you shift away from the day-to-day approach to a more long-term view.

Even week-to-week thinking keeps you from plotting dates on a calendar that looks months ahead to a key date -- when a fellowship proposal is due, for example. Planning that spans months and even years allows you to plot small, achievable action items onto specific days, and creates more manageable workloads when larger deadlines loom.

Finally, thinking in terms of months and years should provoke some analysis: how did you spend your time this past month? Did you avail yourself of the resources on the campus -- visiting scholars giving lectures, career-oriented events, counseling and psychological services? Thinking day-to-day means we often defer action without recognizing an overall pattern.

Gain Time in Graduate School

Surviving your schedule is just that. It certainly isn't thriving, as that involves connecting what you do back to what you value.

How many of us have spent more time on a project than we should have because we were simultaneously thinking about the future?

Existential doubt. Fears about employability. A lack of connection to anything beyond graduate school. Such feelings are bad for your mental health and are productivity killers.

We may feel time slipping away, and then because we fall into bad habits to try and fix the problem of time slipping away, see ourselves losing more and more time to despair and day-to-day thinking. If Ph.D. students do not, for example, intentionally and proactively plug into career and professional development networks, they risk missing the very resources that can provide peace of mind and the sense of possibility that can sustain them during the long slog that is the Ph.D.

The solutions are mostly about taking many small steps. Don't answer, "How are you?" with "I'm so busy." Instead, take such moments to let as many people know what you are looking for. Activate your networks at key times by making sure people know of your specific professional and career needs: tell them if you're looking for informational interview connections, for example, or if you'd like to shadow humanities Ph.D.s working at nonprofits. Use a kind of hive-mind approach that uses your connections to solve problems: how can people help you, after all, if they don't know what kind of help you need?

You gain time by connecting with others. If you had to choose one way to gain time, the way to do so efficiently -- and with the most widely-radiating benefits -- would be to connect with other human beings. This is true of every phase of graduate school, as it will be for the rest of your career.

Be sure to connect with a varied group of people, and compile a list of suggestions from all corners of your institution, and from contacts beyond academe. Being strategic about your time is not something to which you necessarily have to devote much brainpower. In almost every case you encounter, some wheel has been invented by others, and you can ask them about it. You'll then not spend time constructing a new wheel, but customizing what already exists to your precise needs.

Take practical steps: sign up for listservs, bulletins, updates and the like, and then schedule a few moments (while on the bus, for example) for skimming emails from campus partners. Commit to attending events that look like they'll gain you time over the long run.

And avail yourself of resources like Twitter and Facebook to connect broadly. If you use it well, #AcademicTwitter can gain you weeks and even months of time during the course of your graduate training.

Recently, I was struck by a tweet from Chris Tokita, a Ph.D. student at Princeton University who, as his website puts it, explores "why social systems are organized the way they are and how individual-level behavior can influence the group-level properties of social systems." In the tweet, he wrote, "On my side, I also found that I got more productive with my research. Often in research, we hit mental blocks but we continue to try to work to no avail. Having to shift gears and step away for a bit to think about policy allowed me to return to my work refreshed!"

Chris shared with me via email that when he offers advice to incoming graduate students, he frames it "in a somewhat counterintuitive way," telling them that "by doing things that are not grad school, you can actually gain way more time."

Chris cited Parkinson's Law -- "work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion," -- and noted that by taking on an internship that went beyond his graduate work, he was able to increase productivity while spending less time actually "working" on his research.

Rather than take away from his research projects, the interplay between this internship experience and his research "refresh[ed]" his thinking and helped him make connections he had not considered before. Even better, he found that he had more free time.

Connect How You Think About Time to Your Priorities, Values and Wellness

Academe is a cautious, slow-changing place. Turning any aspect of the enterprise in a new direction takes time. But it may only take five to seven years to turn you.

Think big-picture from the beginning: take time at the outset of your graduate training to map your strengths -- using CliftonStrengths assessment, for example -- and capture a list of your preferences and goals, and then periodically review all three of these categories. At regular intervals, check to see if how you're actually spending your time aligns with your strengths, preferences and goals.

Forego this work, and you'll likely end up -- via a kind of osmosis -- incorporating the values and preferences of others. That will shape how you spend your time, which will further take up mental space and take away from your goals and visions for the future.

In The Social Profit Handbook, David Grant asks: "[H]ow do people we know actually accomplish important, non-urgent activities on a regular basis? They schedule time for them, and that time is inviolate." When we move from thinking about time only in terms of loss -- how can I take time away from research to reflect on my strengths and goals? -- we forget that self-care and mission time is where we can "achieve thoughtful clarity about who we are, what we are going to do and not going to do, what we do best, and how we will go about it. We can ask how the world is changing around us and reflect on how we will know whether we are being successful in it."

Scheduling mission time -- time to think about your overarching purposes, plans and goals -- is another way to save time in graduate school. That's because, as Grant writes, "mission time calms you down and save you other time in the long run."

The time you gain need not be put back into research or other uses that are judged to be productive by others. As Dian D. Squire and Z Nicolazzo remind us, thinking about self-care as a way to gain time that can then be reinvested in becoming even more productive, and thus in need of more self-care, is a kind of trap. In this cycle, "self-care rhetoric [is] used to squeeze more work" out of graduate students in ways that absolve those who monitor structures which disregard graduate student well-being. Undoing this cycle will take intensive, systematic effort.

Gaining time by building and strengthening your support networks is vital in graduate school. So is thinking and making time for your health and well-being. When should you start this necessary work? There's no time like the present.

Bio

James M. Van Wyck is the professional development program specialist in the Office of the Dean of the Graduate School at Princeton University. He is a member of the Graduate Career Consortium -- an organization providing a national voice for graduate-level career and professional development leaders.

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