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Hourglass with red sand

 by Ania Gruszczynska
, posted on 13 Jul '16

Taking Control of Your PhD: Time Management


Ania Gruszczynska holds a PhD in Sociology from Aston University and currently works in both project management and personal coaching. She knows what it takes to complete a PhD and is actively involved in supporting others to do so. In this series she’ll be explaining how new students can take control of their PhD projects.


So you may be considering a PhD. Or maybe you were recently successful in getting a place. Perhaps you’re now a couple of weeks or months in and trying to make sense of the experience, feeling both excited and overwhelmed.

This series of posts will look at ways in which you can ensure that you do get the best experience possible as a PhD student: taking immediate control of areas of key importance such as time management, supervision, your career and overall wellbeing.

We’ll kick off by looking at time management.

I must admit this was something really important for me, both during my time as a PhD student almost a decade ago, and when I started working with PhD students as a coach. In fact, time management is probably one of the key reasons why people decide to contact me, either to fix or improve their skills in that area.

So, in this post I’m going to outline six tools and techniques that you can apply and put into practice immediately to help you thrive rather than merely survive through the daily PhD grind.

Time management as a PhD student - typical problems

First of all, let’s think about the typical time management problems a PhD student might face.

You may have already experienced those really long days – or weeks! - where it seems you are incredibly busy, but don’t seem to have much to show for it. If you were to be completely honest, a lot of that work probably involves what we might call ‘PhD-lite’ tasks: some admin, some web-based research, somehow failing to make any progress on that piece of writing that you need to submit to your supervisor.

Cue another long day and some frantic last-minute catching up, until, very late in the evening, the writing gets done. You look at it and have to admit this might not be your finest work - and more time could yet be required for redrafting. Most importantly, it feels like the PhD is taking over your life and there is never enough time to get everything done.

Or maybe you haven’t started yet but find yourself wondering how on earth you’re going to juggle your PhD, part-time work and any family or caring responsibilities you may have?

Where do you start?

Obviously, it depends on your situation and your unique needs: whether your PhD is full or part-time; whether you have family or work obligations that weigh heavily on your time.

However, regardless of your situation you’ll face the same problems as every other PhD student: you have a finite amount of time available and you need to ‘budget it’ accordingly.

The following steps aim to address some key principles for good time management which you can then adapt to your situation.

Before you start, it is worth remembering that the key principle of time management isn’t to fill your day to the brim with PhD-related activities.

Think of it more as creating space and focus for the tasks you need to prioritise. That way you can devote quality time to your thesis and your research but maintain a good balance between that work and the rest of your life.

Step 1: assess your current situation and audit your working week

How are you spending your time at the moment?

You may be convinced that you spend 12 hours every day working, but, if you were to really track what happens in the course of those twelve hours, what would you find?

You might discover a number of distractions: social media, chatting to your fellow PhD students and so on - you know what your vices are!

Undertaking an audit of your working week can feel like a painful exercise- a bit like looking at your spending at the end of the week, pulling all those receipts together in one place and discovering that you are bleeding money on things that you don’t need or don’t even really enjoy that much.

But this doesn’t have to be the case – particularly if you go about things in the right way and it will be a really worthwhile use of your time.

I would really encourage you to spend at least 2-3 days tracking what you do. It doesn’t really matter whether you use a pen and paper template or an app, the aim of the exercise is to become aware of where your time goes and how much you devote to your key priorities.

Personally, I really like Hilary Rettig’s approach to time management but do find what works for you!

Step 2: identify your priorities and map your way to them

Speaking of priorities, what are yours? What should you be focusing on?

Should the focus now be on producing your PhD applications to make sure you get a place by say January next year? Do you need to produce a draft of your literature review by the end of your first six months?

Time management is all about focus and investing your time where it matters.

An exercise I find really useful with my coachees, regardless of where they are in their PhD journey, is to get them to produce a long-term plan and plot out the entire three years (or six years for part-time students) of their PhD.

In the process they identify key milestones and work back from them. This plan will obviously need to be adapted later, but time management that starts without a plan is destined to fail.

Step 3: budget your time

Once you know what your current patterns and priorities are, now is the time to design a time budget that is realistic and takes into account your personal working preferences.

It may be worth revisiting what worked for you during previous degrees, but don’t be afraid to change things up. A PhD is a different challenge to a Bachelors degree – or even a Masters – and your own circumstances may well have changed.

Your goal is to identify the time you have available to work and to ensure that this is sufficient to meet your goals.

Step 4: identify distractions – and avoid them!

Remember, the key point is not to squeeze in as much as possible into your day, it is to ring-fence the time for the activities that matter and perhaps drop ones that stop you from achieving your goals (Facebook, looking right at you!).

Protect your uninterrupted time for focused work - research suggests that many people are unlikely to engage in highly complex, intellectual tasks (such as academic writing) for more than four hours per day, so make that time count.

Constant interruptions in the form of email notifications, social media etc. are also detrimental to your focus. Try to ring-fence your time for work related to your key priorities and do it in blocks of uninterrupted time of at least 60 to 90 minutes.

Once you completed your block of focused work for the day, you may now want to switch to tasks which are less demanding but still need doing, such as PhD-related admin and this is where it’s best to batch tasks rather than respond to them in an ad-hoc manner.

Step 5: be reflective and reward your own success

Remember the end-game, but don’t forget to reward yourself frequently and acknowledge the progress you are making.

If you do find yourself drifting off the schedule you created at the beginning of the week and succumbing to disruptions, gently bring yourself back on track and reflect on what may be stopping you from sticking to that schedule.

Are there things going on in your personal life that leave you overwhelmed? Do you need to start paying more attention to your health and wellbeing? Knowing that you do have a plan and are steadily working towards accomplishing your goals will help you regain momentum and will also help to silence that inner critic shouting that you must spend all your awake time working.

Step 6: know when you’re going to take a break

Make sure you build in the time for non-PhD related activities that will help re-energise you and give you a bit of time away from the screen.

Ideally, these should provide a chance for your body to move around, whether that involves yoga, running or just a walk in nature. Your brain and body will thank you for it and you may find yourself even more productive and able to do the work when you’re supposed to.

After all, a PhD is a marathon, not a sprint and anything the will help you maintain a healthy mind and body in the long run will pay off by allowing you to recharge your batteries and operate at your best.

Got questions about time management as a PhD student? You can keep up with Ania Gruszczynska on twitter. See our advice section for more information on an average PhD week and the typical stages of a doctorate.


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