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Managing Deadlines in Grad School
August 26, 2012 - 8:39pm

Kaitlin Gallagher is a PhD Candidate specializing in Biomechanics at the Department of Kinesiology at the University of Waterloo in Canada, and a permanent author for GradHacker. You can follow her on twitter at @KtlnG.

A recent essay on InsideHigherEd discussed how academics commonly disregard deadlines. When reflecting on this, I began to think that this habit begins as grad students. Even the most organized person can run into problems along the way. We have some rigid deadlines (scholarship, grant, and teaching); however, these are outnumbered by the soft deadlines we set for ourselves over the course of our degree, such as submitting the first draft of a manuscript to our supervisors, having the revisions for a chapter of our dissertation finished, setting a date to begin our data collections, and so on. These self-imposed deadlines can be easily pushed back by a day, a week, a month (or more) in order to complete tasks that we think are more urgent or because we think we need more time to get them “perfect”. The essay above reminds us that as grad students we must get into the habit of being accountable for the soft deadlines and set realistic deadlines for ourselves in order to curb this habit in our future careers.

Proposed method for setting deadlines

I borrowed this method from a cookbook that provided advice on how to get your dinner served on time. For example, you want to serve a pot roast. To do this, there are many minor steps – defrosting, marinating, searing the outside, cooking, and resting. The method proposes that you work backwards in order to determine when you must begin. If you want to serve a pot roast at 5, then subtract the amount of time the meat will rest, then subtract the cooking, searing, marinating, and defrost time to determine when you need to get the ball rolling.

This can be done for any deadline, self imposed or externally set. Figure out when you want to set your deadline, and subtract how long it will take you to complete the minor tasks to determine when you would realistically need to begin. From here, you can determine if it is unrealistic to complete the task by your set deadline or if you can tighten it up. Here are some tips:

  • Define things that are out of your control. How long must your dissertation sit with your committee before you defend it? How long does the journal you are submitting to typically take from submission to publication? How long will your work realistically sit with your supervisor before they get it back to you? Is your subject pool difficult to recruit?
  • Set deadlines for your minor milestones. When do you want your outline completed? Lit Review? Unrevised chapters done? Your revised chapters?
  • Look at a calendar. I found that I lost all sense of time when I started grad school and this can be a root of missing deadlines. You might be able to complete your task in two weeks, but does the two-week period consist of anything else that needs to be done? Conference abstract deadline? Scholarship deadline? A friend’s birthday (or maybe your own birthday if you totally forgot!). I use Google Calendar for this and print out a few months at once to get a better sense of time.

Words of caution

DON’T GIVE YOURSELF TOO MUCH TIME! This is so important. Sometimes we can be so afraid of missing deadlines or making sure that our work is “perfect” that we give ourselves too much time. More time isn’t always helpful. Amy Rubens wrote a GradHacker post on the myth of more time , stating that “a lack of confidence in one's abilities as a writer, researcher, speaker, etc. is at the root of the myth of more time”.  I also recently read about Parkinson ’s Law, which states, “work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion”. Many of us have experienced this when a conference abstract deadline is extended, we breathe a sigh of relief, and yet we are still frantically trying to get things together by the new deadline. Also if you tighten up your deadlines you will find that your work will progress at a faster pace and you get more done.

Take it easy on yourself. Don’t beat yourself up if you miss a deadline once, but if you continually miss them take a look to see why you think you aren’t achieving the deadlines you are setting.

You will have speed bumps. Equipment will break. Your lab will have 3-4 studies running at once. Things will happen in your personal life. Keep the end goal in mind, realistically re-adjust, and move forward.

Be realistic! Both in the deadlines you set and the tasks you take on. Either say no right away if you can’t make a deadline or try and see early on if the deadline can be altered so that you aren’t leaving someone high and dry when you miss it.

What other tips have you found useful when setting deadlines? Let us know in the comment below.

 

 

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