Doing a PhD on the Side: The Importance of Time Management |
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Doing a PhD on the Side: The Importance of Time Management

It’s Saturday morning 8.30am, so the alarm clock reveals loudly. While many others press snooze, that’s not an option for you. You’ve committed to a part-time PhD and know this week’s progress so far is non-existent.

What part of your research to-do list do you prioritise? Literature review, data analysis or write-ups? Try to indulge in all of them, and you can forget about getting any rest.

This time management dilemma is an important skill for all PhD students, but it’s even more important for part-time researchers. In fact, it’s the number 1 area I support part-time research students with. Master time management, and you’re halfway on your journey to doctoral achievement.

This is easier said than done. As a part-time student time is a scarce resource. So how do you manage it most effectively? Here are my tips.

Splitting up your research

My first advice is often simple: deploy your cookie cutter. Split that one major, intractable objective (i.e. getting a doctorate) into small, digestible chunks. This starts with research design. When I was pursuing my own part-time PhD, my supervisors and I intentionally divvied the thesis up into three smaller, self-contained chapters. This gave us a range of clear and achievable milestones.

Then start splitting up each research chapter. Consider the subsections, such as literature review, hypothesis development, data analysis and so on. The progress on these subsections can often be readily measured, for instance by number of paragraphs written, number of regressions conducted, etc. Or, quite often, it may be number of paragraphs re-written, number of regressions re-run. A PhD is not a linear, steady journey. Expect a waltz, moving forwards and backwards.

Think energy level

And to dance well, you will want to tailor your study objectives to your level of energy. Post-hangover econometric regressions are often poor regressions. If you are more tired, perhaps go through several relevant journal articles. Feeling pumped up? Then engage in work that requires heightened focus, such as writing up your data analysis section.

Commitment devices & rewards

Whether you’re buzzing or not, always discipline yourself with commitment devices. How can you actually put your to-do plan into action? Trial and error has led me to several preferred methods for myself. For instance I often diarise study time, which helps designate it an ‘important appointment with myself’. A meeting I should be on time for and prepared for.

Or I would send promissory e-mails to my supervisors: “By the end of the month I will have a draft of this chapter ready.” This helps bind you to that deadline. Your supervisor is your manager – and you don’t want to disappoint the boss. Particularly as he or she holds the key to you becoming a Dr.!

Small post-research rewards can also help. What treats can incentivise you to put in an extra hour of PhD time? "I’ll finish writing up my Literature Review, and then I’ll allow myself to watch an episode of Game of Thrones."

The right surroundings

No reward however can make up for the right surrounding. What do you consider your research office? If you don’t have one, create one. Set aside a dedicated space within your home for your studies. Somewhere where your notes, books and other PhD essentials are within arm’s reach. And ensure you have sufficient folders to quickly turn this into a mobile office. So you can take your PhD with you when you travel.

Because as a PhD student, wherever you go, your PhD will inevitably be on your mind. Carefully apportion your time however and you will feel less guilty and more successful.

Arthur Krebbers completed his PhD in 2016 before going on to found the website to advise and assist other students.

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Last Updated: 09 August 2018