A lot of PhDs are this ill-defined role where the expectations are not always made explicitly clear. This coupled with often poor supervisor management can really start to bring a lot of negativity to your daily life. This can really take hold during your second year as a PhD student as you can no longer hide behind the ‘I’m only in my first year’ excuse and haven’t quite got to the stage where you can turn down requests because ‘you’re working on your thesis’. Time management is not only essential during your PhD, it’s a vital life skill which will be important in any career, particularly industry.
To have better time management it’s important to have a good understanding of what good time management actually looks like. Good time management for me is essentially being able to complete the majority (if not all) of your work within your allocated work/PhD hours. As mentioned previously, PhDs don’t necessarily have allocated work hours. However, this is something you can speak to your supervisor about, or it will be defined within your ‘contract of employment’ or ‘PhD acceptance’ documents.
Alternatively, it can be something you decide based on quality of life and what works for your mental health. For me, a healthy working week shouldn’t exceed 40 hours per week. This translates to 8-hour days, five days a week – just like a normal job. If you can complete all your necessary PhD tasks in less hours than this, great, it probably means you have good time management skills already! If you find that 40 hours is too much, then it’s likely that there might be something else taking too much of your time away from your PhD (and thus, better time management elsewhere is needed) or maybe switching to a part-time PhD could work for you. However, I think the vast majority of PhD students find themselves doing way more than 40-hour work weeks. Occasionally, doing a bit of overtime or working on the weekend is required – but this should not be the norm. If you find yourself doing this regularly something probably isn’t working well with your current routine. It’s time to switch it up.
One of the biggest contributors to poor time management is spreading yourself too thinly across different responsibilities. You might be doing your own PhD research, writing a paper, peer-reviewing other people’s papers, teaching, and supervising other people’s projects. These things can pile up fast and if you’re not careful, it can be hard to stop taking on additional commitments. It’s really important to think about this with two simple approaches.
Approach 1: Is what I’m doing required for me to complete my PhD?
If the answer is no then it’s probably extra work that you could otherwise go without. This applies to literally anything that isn’t your own PhD research. Teaching, peer-reviewing other people’s papers, and supervising other projects are all great examples of extra work that will eat into your time. If you’re doing too many of these things then you have no choice but to stay late, work on weekends, and do more than 40-hour work weeks because you don’t have time in the day to do your own PhD research. Before you know it, you have poor time management.
Approach 2: Is what I’m doing giving me new skills?
A PhD is an extensive training programme to teach you how-to do-good research in real time. As part of this programme, you’re having to learn a vast amount of transferable skills which is why doing a PhD is so valuable. However, if you’ve already peer-reviewed 5 papers, taught 15 seminars, delivered 10 lectures, or supervised 3 projects you’re likely to be at the point of diminishing returns. Put simply, you’ve already gained the necessary skills required so continuing to do it is unlikely to give you any real value except from contribute to poor time management. These become laborious tasks which actually take your time and attention away from your actually PhD. Once again, if you’ve taken on too many things for no real benefit you can find yourself staying late and working long hours.
By considering these two approaches it should allow you re-evaluate your current time allocation in your PhD and you can start to drop/stop doing some of these things. When thinking about the ‘what new skills am I gaining’ approach, remember that you do not have to learn all the new skills at once. It might be worth staggering these. Teach for 5 months, then stop. Peer-review papers for 3 months, then stop. Supervise another project, then stop. Do these tasks, take these opportunities with both hands, but just don’t take these opportunities all at once. You can allocate a few hours per week to ‘skills-based opportunities’. This will ensure that your actual PhD (approach 1) will remain the focal point of your time management. This can also help you to say no to other people’s requests. You’re not saying you won’t ever do it; you’re just saying you can’t do it right now.
Another thing that I see a lot of people fall into is feeling guilty for ‘not doing work’. It’s easy to create this false expectation that you have to do a certain amount of productive work a day, or thinking they have to write X amount of words per day. This can be helpful in making you productive, but ultimately when things pile on, or when things come out of nowhere (which always happens), it can leave you feel guilty and encourage you to stay late or work overtime. Before you know it, this is happening every week.
Of course, if you have few commitments, as I’ve mentioned already, it can help reduce this guilt, but often the false expectations we create do us more harm than good. Some of these expectations and guilty feelings also stem from imposter syndrome. We think all the other PhD students are wizards doing ten million words a day. It’s really important to make sense of imposter syndrome early on and tackle it. To summarise the post about impost syndrome, it’s about not comparing yourself to others, understanding you can’t do everything, and realising that everyone goes through lulls where they hate there PhD and aren’t that productive. Just be compassionate with yourself and understand that you don’t need to know/do everything all at once. You can do it tomorrow, no big deal.
Similarly, paying more attention to quality over quantity can really help with time management, or time management guilt. This happened to me a lot in the beginning of my PhD. I would feel great if I went to the office, sat at my desk, and watched videos all day and didn’t do anything productive. But if I was at home and finished writing 1,000 words in 4 hours, I would feel guilty or if I ‘hadn’t done enough’. Understanding that you can do good quality work in a short amount of time really helps take the edge off. Rather than trying to write a paper in a day, try to write a really great abstract in a day instead. Have smaller, more manageable milestones, and make sure the work you’re doing is good work. Focusing too much on quantity can sometimes encourage you to cut corners and then later on you have to re-do everything you did in the first place! If you cut corners to save time, at some point sooner or later you have to pay the interest on that time. It might take longer in the beginning to produce a good quality piece of work, but overall it will save you time in the long run and allow you to have better and consistent time management.
Lastly, please remember that a PhD is an intellectually stimulating journey. This can leave you emotionally exhausted because you have to work through some really complex problems and find creative solutions all the time. Simply just thinking about problems and solutions is good quality time well spent – you might not have anything tangible down on paper, but it’s still an extremely important part of the process. The same is true for setbacks during your PhD. Trying things out and exploring alternative solutions that inevitably don’t lead anywhere is part of the learning process, you might not be moving forward, but you do have to sometimes take a step backwards to know how to proceed. Again, this doesn’t feel productive or like you’ve achieved much, but this is part of the process and is an important stage for any PhD. When this happens, try not to feel the need to ‘compensate’ by staying late or doing extra hours to just ‘feel productive’. Remember, quality over quantity.
Thinking like this can really help manage your whole PhD experience and get your time management back in check. Winning some time back from your day to day routine allows you to have a better quality of life outside of the PhD. Having a better quality of life outside of the PhD will only help keep you motivated and push through the rough patches when they arise in your PhD. It all comes full circle.
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