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Old Habits Die Hard

Adapting during grad school.

June 4, 2013

5097041767_08ed4e8c4e_nKaitlin 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.

This post was originally about the importance of prioritizing your work in order to be a successful grad student. I had a rough time determining what to work on last week, only to notice that for both professional and personal reasons, my typical ways of prioritizing work were beginning to fail me. As I began to write this post though, it evolved into a discussion about how we deal with changing how we work as the demands of grad school change.

I had a system for working throughout undergrad that never failed me. I was able to concentrate on what I needed to do and I was extremely regimented with it. I was able to work that way when I started my Masters degree and through my comprehensive exams, but after I suffered an extreme burnout, I couldn’t bear to work the way that I did before. At first I thought I needed to keep pushing myself to get back to that point were I could work the same way I had in the past. But over time, I just couldn’t get there. It was only after frustration set in that someone asked me if it was something else – was how I worked in the past appropriate for what I was doing now? It was an excellent point, and although I didn’t think I knew how to work any other way, the answer was a definite no. I was no longer doing assignments or studying for tests, so why should the same way of approaching my work be appropriate for writing my proposal or collecting my thesis data?

This highlights an important point for all graduate students as you progress through your degree – the systems for managing your work before may not be appropriate for the work you are doing now. Maybe it was appropriate for managing one project, but would it still be for three projects? Letting go of something that is no longer working anymore can be hard. We push ourselves to work even harder to make it work, sometimes leading to failure or if we succeed, burnout.  I had a hard time letting go of how I used to work since all I wanted to do was feel that sort of structure that I had established early in my academic career.

So what do we do? We adapt, of course. How you do this can vary depending on your degree stage. With my recent struggles with prioritizing, I thought that every task I had to do was of equal importance. I asked my supervisor how a faculty member could go about prioritizing their work and he was able to help me to prioritize the tasks that I thought at first were all of equal importance. From this simple conversation, I learned about new ways of prioritizing tasks, such as the simple task of ethics being completed will release funds from my grant for us to use. Underlying financial implications were something I never considered before when deciding how to organize my work.

The main lesson I realized was that my core principles for how I get work done haven’t changed. My goal has always been to be as efficient and effective as I can with my work by concentrating on important tasks first and leaving the trivial stuff for later.  My definition of “trivial” versus “important” is what has changed over time since my previous definitions were what weren’t working.

I can only imagine that my definitions and methods for prioritizing will change again once I obtain an academic position. But with a little adaptation to how I work, view task completion, and the methods I use to prioritize what I need to do, I hope to make my decisions about approaching my work much more manageable when this time comes.

Grad Students, how have the ways that you used to work changed as you have progressed through your degree? For Faculty, what advice (if any) do you give to your students about how they should adapt to the changes in workload as they enter and progress through their degree? Let us know in the comments below.

[Image by flickr user Anne Froehlich and used under a creative commons license]


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