After failing the first year of the PhD program at a top university, I know that my poor performance resulted from dealing with a tremendously debilitating psychological condition, but it all was exacerbated by a serious lack of time management skills and poor organization. This academic year, I constantly underestimated the time it would takes me to complete every assignment. Consequently, I found myself asking for extensions and even then, I was incapable of making the extension. I can't use the excuse that I simply am unfamiliar with the subject matter, as I have earned a master degree in this field with honors from another prestigious university and worked for several years prior to starting the program. I also can't blame my failure on procrastination, as I generally start weekly assignments 3-5 days prior to the deadline, and work on term projects for at least a month prior to their deadline. To say the least, my professors are irritated with me. Their frustration in part comes from their knowledge of my abilities. Every single one has set me aside and provided candid feedback and in their words...once I manage to complete an assignment and submit it on time, "the content and quality is pretty good". Now that my health has improved, their feedback confirms my self-assessment and I am 1,000% certain that my failure to thrive is due to serious time management and organization shortcomings.

For those of you out there that have encountered a similar situation and been able to overcome it, what did you do? What strategies did you use for completing assignments on time (specifically writing assignments or a critical and technical nature)? Can you recommend any resources that have helped you tackle these problems?


3 Answers 3


In my time as a PhD student over the past few years, I have really benefited from the simple old-fashioned technique of just making lists on a small notepad. Whether in lab or at home, if I feel disorganized or anxious, I just write down the things I know I need to do. As well, I can check the list of things I have already written down earlier in the day. Putting things on paper by hand is really a simple and effective way to get things "out" so to speak. Has worked great for me in my first 3 years of my PhD. If I am on the go and can't write something down Siri (on my IPhone) is awesome for reminders. Don't stress too much either. Work hard, stay organized, but make sure you still have time for sleep, hobbies, friends, and family. Otherwise you will drive yourself crazy. I ensure this for myself by not working on Saturday's or Sunday's. Believe me, in the long-term, a rested and clear-minded scientist working Monday-Friday will outcompete a mentally exhausted scientist working 7 days a week. I learned these things while an undergraduate student from one of my favorite professors. Not only was he an awesome teacher, scientist, and Department Chair, he was a Army Colonel working in military intelligence several weeks out out the year. I figured this guy must know a thing or two about life. I put it into practice and come to find, he was right!

Best of luck to you!

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    Thanks @ScienceGuy59, I agree with nearly all what you've said. The question I now have (that is rhetorical) is, what about the 80-hour week? This has been drilled into us since the first day of our program. Commented Jun 25, 2015 at 2:08
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    It's not about how long you work, it's what you accomplish during the time you work. Don't worry so much about what professors tell you you need to do in terms of working hours. Just do your best! Commented Jun 25, 2015 at 4:33
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    @Octavia The 80 hour week is a myth. If it existed, it would be utterly counterproductive, at least in the long run. Commented Jun 25, 2015 at 8:36

For me, time management comes down to putting in the time in an organized manner. What I have learned most about being a graduate student is to track how much time I'm putting in by using a spreadsheet. I track the task, time-in, time-out, details, and also keep a ToDo list. This helps me make certain I am putting in enough time and managing my tasks. I set a goal for how many hours this is going to take and meet or exceed that.

As an example, I failed one of my comprehensive exams and had to retake it. I outlined all the material, set a weekly schedule where I worked 30 hours per week for a month straight, which was when the next test was, and stuck to it. I specified each day/week the tasks that needed to be complete and knew that if I put in the hours I would be able to complete the task on time.

There are fancy apps to do this with, but I haven't had much luck with them. I find a simple spreadsheet as I outlined above is perfect, and lets me see my progress as I go. I've usually been pretty good with being on time for projects, but noticed in grad school the task list piles up quite a bit and unexpectedly.


Adding to ScienceGuy59's answer (the advise he got was given almost verbatim to me by a revered mentor in my undergraduate days), keep up with your classes. Set aside a half hour or so for each class to go over the material covered, soon after (ideally after class, at least the same day). Make sure you understand the material, if not, go over other texts (there are tons of excellent lecture notes on the 'net), discuss it with classmates, or the assistant or lecturer. Graduate courses cover lots of material, very fast. Get lost, and it is next to impossible to get back on track.

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