For our long time readers, some of you may remember the ever clever Atif, who blogged as part of the Gradifying team for several years and is now a real life, working member of the big bad world. Go Atif go! This week, I am updating a post that Atif wrote on March 9th, 2014 about planning for the summer. Note that when I say updated, what I really mean is annotated because Atif’s post remains entirely relevant. I’m simply just dusting it off and giving it some life again!
This post may sounds a little premature to some of you. After all, it’s only March, we *just* changed the clocks and there’s still snow on the ground. However, before you know it summer will be on us and things will be happening! Things! Exciting things! But in order to ensure you get said “things” done, you need to take a critical look at your life and prepare. Now this may seem a tad late to those of you reading this May 24th of 2016. There is certainly no snow on the ground given the mid-20’s, sunny long weekend we all just enjoyed. However, for those who may be a little overwhelmed right now, or those that aren’t getting all these “things” done… no matter how late, it may be useful to do as Atif says and take a critical look at your life and your time and plan.
“It does not do to leave a live dragon out of your calculations, if you live near him.”
― J.R.R. Tolkien, The Hobbit ***this quote sums up my life as a field biologist
To start, get a calendar. I’m a big fan of Google Calendar because I use multiple devices – my phone, desktop(s), a laptop and an iPad, and this automagically sync’s everything between them. As a result no matter what I’m using, I can check my schedule. However, I know others prefer a planner or agenda made of dead trees. To each their own. I find the latter too easy to lose. I’m assuming most of you have some sort of time management system, but if not, there’s no time like the present to start. Let me tell you something, Atif (and everyone else). I am a tree-hugger, a conservationist, and lover of the natural world, and yet, I love and rely on my nice bound pile of dead trees more than anything. My beloved agenda book comes all places with me and without it, I wouldn’t have known I was supposed to write this post today, or perhaps even that I was supposed to get out of bed. I also add everything to the Calendar in Outlook as a backup in case I forget my agenda, or some other disaster ensues. There are also lots of really neat time management apps. I don’t use any myself, but I have colleagues that rave about them. For instance, RescueTime is an app that makes you aware of how you spend your daily time and helps you learn where you could better manage your time.
After this, start planning out your summer. Think of conferences you’re going to, events you know you have to attend (weddings, parties, concerts, whatever), and write all of those down. If there was one thing that changed between undergrad and graduate school for me, it’s that everyone got married and started having kids. Suddenly, hanging out with people became scheduled between naptime and bathtime. Granted, that sounds a lot like first year, but let’s stay on track here. It’s true, as I get older I feel like everyone is doing the marriage and kids thing now, so of course, add all those important events into your summer plans. Another great idea is to choose one weekend out of each month to just not book anything, and then as the dates get closer you can make decisions about how to use that free time. Could be going camping, or home to visit family but whatever it is, take it as time away for yourself to rejuvenate.
Now the tricky part. Start thinking about how long everything will take to prepare. Say you’ve got a conference starting Monday May 26th where you’re presenting a poster? Great. First off, you want to make sure your poster is printed by the Friday beforehand – May 23rd. In order to ensure this happens, you want to give the print shop at least 3 days, to account for any unforseen delays on their end. This brings you back to May 20th. Now, you want to make sure your supervisors have approved the poster. Lets assume it’ll take them a week to do that – May 13th. Great. So you need a (close to) final copy of your poster sent to your supervisors by May 13th. But you have to do some analysis before then, and then create the poster. That can take another 2 weeks or so, which means you have to start this process on April 29th, in order to be able to present on May 26th. Truer words have never been spoken. You need to consider so many things when planning out any of your summer projects.
So that example is an “ideal” case, where you have lots of time to prepare, and things go off without a hitch. Many of you might be reading this and thinking that there’s no way you’d spend that much time on a poster. But very rarely will things occur in isolation – while you’re working on that poster, you’ll also be writing up manuscripts, collecting data and possibly teaching or supervising summer students. In that case, you want to make sure that you know what is due when, and that you don’t miss important milestones to avoid last minute panic. Nothing ever goes as planned, and if it does then you are one of the chosen ones. And I don’t necessarily mean this in a negative way. Sometimes things go a lot easier than you had planned and sometimes they unfortunately present quite the challenge. I feel that this is one of the most valuable transferable skills you gain as a graduate student- the ability to go with flow and work with problems as they arise. Planning certainly helps reduce the number of variables that could create chaos but importantly, you should plan time into any project for troubleshooting along the way.
But what if it’s not a poster? What if it is your thesis defence? If your supervisor is away for the entire month of August, then you either defend in July, or September. You need to plan for that. This becomes exponentially more difficult if you have multiple supervisors (especially if they travel a lot in the summer), and at the PhD level is a nightmare because you are at the mercy of your supervisor, your secondary supervisor, your examining committee and anyone else who has to be there. As a result, you have to start planning this well in advance if you hope to defend by a certain date. Ask your Graduate Assistant for advice on planning your defense. They have lots of experience with these situations and can likely offer you strategies if you are struggling to coordinate everything.
The advantages of planning your summer now are numerous. For one, you can start looking into flights, transportation and accommodation for any conferences you’re going to. In addition, it can give you a concrete idea of what you need to do, and when you need to do it. As a result, you set a series of “microgoals” that you can use to gauge your progress through your project(s), which has the dual benefit of keeping you on track and keeping you motivated through small victories. There ain’t no victory like a small victory. And numerous small victories usually add up to the feeling of a big victory. And what does a big victory feel like?
In addition, being on top of tasks will mean you can deal with things as they come up both good and bad. If the weather is nice and people want to go to Sandbanks for the day? Sure! Go for it! You know you have time. Having that flexibility is really a great feeling. I never experienced that in my first couple years of grad school because I devoted all my time to my project and scheduled more and more stuff in to my life. Work hard, so you can play hard and plan ahead so you can fit that spontaneity into your life. It’s worth it, I promise.