49

I am a first year PhD student, and it's the fourth week of school. I am taking two classes, doing one grad class TA and doing a lab rotation. I am in Electrical Engineering (Controls and DSP).

I start my day thinking- "I'll go to class from 10 am to 12 pm, solve 5 homework problems from 1 pm- 3 pm, do some TA work from 4 pm to 6 pm, and read a bunch of papers from 7 pm to 9 pm, then cook and sleep. How optimistic.

In reality, when I start the homework problems at 1 pm, I end up having to read a bunch of textbooks to understand stuff in it (I'm doing Convex Analysis), and by the time 3 pm rolls around, I have finished only one problem. Feeling discouraged, I keep at this homework, vowing to stop only when I'm done with my quota of 5. My efficiency starts to drop severely after a few hours, but since I'm in school with my laptop and stuff, I can't go anywhere to 'relax', so I just keep sitting and start redditing or something. And then my concentration further drops when I try to resume real work. This goes on, I miss dinner, I sleep late, and the efficiency just plummets through the week.

My past couple of weeks have been so inefficient, I want to do something about it before it's too late.

In short, my question is, when your work is way too difficult to achieve your goal of the day in your allotted time, do you switch work, or do you keep going? I have always believed that output is more important than input, that is, putting in two hours for each task without achieving much in anything is not as good as putting in, say, eight hours for just one and finishing something in it nicely. However, this strategy of mine is failing me for the first time in my life, because even if I put in eight hours, I am not able to finish anything. The work is so difficult. I'm not complaining, just really need guidance.

  • 2
    one thing's for sure - reddit is dangerous in your situation. However, a little reddit in moderation... granted as a reward upon completion of some decent work, might actually be a useful carrot to use. I played with the idea of letting myself "reddit" (really, news/facebook,YT, etc) for around 5 minutes a day upon completion of target objectives. Up to you in any case, gl – Adel Oct 27 '15 at 15:39
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    I like to go back to a simple analogy. Imagine that you have a big empty glass pickle jar. Every day you have 24 hours. You need to sleep, eat, and tend your hygiene. Those are pebbles in jar. Then. You have 3 main priorities - these are tennis ball. And of course, some reddit and Miley Cyrus news - these are rice grains. This jar is limited space, and if you fill it with rice first, then there won't be enough space for the balls... – Adel Oct 27 '15 at 15:47
  • I'm with you OP (same field, even). I'm not a TA - somehow managed to get a full RA position my first semester - but I'm struggling in just the same way and have been asking my profs the same questions. +1 for reading my mind! – tonysdg Oct 27 '15 at 17:50
  • Hey OP, this is unrelated to this question but I have no other way of messaging you. I saw your question last night (the one about how to handle criticism of your work), and started answering it because I've had similar experiences/issues being a woman in STEM grad school. I've worked past the issue and was happy to give you some tips; however, the question was deleted as off-topic before I finished posting. If you're still interested in chatting about it feel free to email me at jj0808080808@gmail.com. – jj080808 Nov 4 '15 at 17:32
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    add a spouse and children into the mix, and the complexity will go up exponentially. :) – dev_nut Oct 4 '16 at 2:00
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When your work is way too difficult to achieve your goal of the day in your allotted time

... get used to it. If you are an interesting person doing interesting things, there is never going to be enough time for all the things you want to do. And as soon as the work you're doing now starts to get easier for you, you'll get new, more challenging responsibilities :)

You won't be able to manage your time more effectively until you get a little better at estimating how long things will take, so start there. It's pretty common to underestimate how long things will take - try quadrupling your initial estimate, and see where that gets you.

When you can judge more accurately how long things will take, you will be in a better position to manage your commitments. Once you realize that your homework takes you 8 hours, not 2, you will be able to plan your week accordingly, without feeling guilty when you invariably have to drop something else in order to do your homework properly.

In the meantime,

Keep forgiving yourself and keep working

That's from this answer by Piotr Migdal, which I highly recommend you read.

I miss dinner, I sleep late, and the efficiency just plummets through the week.

You don't need me to tell you the answer to this one. Take care of yourself. For more details, see How to prevent physical/psychological health side effects of workaholism in academia and research?.

do you switch work, or do you keep going?

It helps to have tasks you can work on when you are low on intellectual energy, but that are still more productive than staring at reddit. Here's a list of ways to procrastinate productively.

Ultimately, though, if you need to take a break to recharge, just do it - then you'll get back to work and be much more effective.

  • Yep indeed - sometimes a little walk of 10 minutes can do wonders ! – Adel Oct 27 '15 at 15:48
23

In addition to the suggestions of the other answers, I'm going to suggest a more vicious piece of triage. If your TA is a full 20-hours per week commitment, then you probably can't reasonably both do significant research and perform strongly in classes. Instead, you're going to have to pick something to triage.

You don't say what country you are in, but if it's the US, then the first year or two of graduate school is typically expected to be essentially full-time coursework. Rather than think of this as a distraction from your research ambitions, think of it as a foundation for those ambitions: you are doing (early) work on your research by studying well in class. Try calculating how much time you'd need to spend reading the literature to obtain the same knowledge that you are gaining in class. Then give yourself some slack on the research front: don't do nothing, but let it be the thing that you do last, after your fulfilled your other responsibilities, and don't have high expectations for what you can achieve in research while working full-time on TAing and coursework.

Obviously, this only applies if the class is at least somewhat related to your research interests. If it's not, consider slacking on your coursework. Not so much that you get a grad-school-threatening grade, but since you're in a Ph.D. program, it's likely that you're the sort of personal who habitually works to a very high standard in all your classes. Now, however, you need to learn how to relax into a B when appropriate.

Finally, if your TAing is not a strong 20-hours per week commitment, you need to consider whether you are being too committed a teacher. Teaching is wonderful and important and can be very rewarding. It's also not your primary responsibility as a Ph.D. student. There were certainly times, in my graduate career, when I worked very hard on teaching because going above and beyond my responsibilities there was easier than facing my other, less well-defined research tasks.

In short: you don't have time to be excellent in all three at once. Pick two, and just make sure you don't fail notably at the third.

  • 1
    I second the triage notion. Early on I told a few classmates who were struggling with their course work that if they were getting all "A"s in PhD classes, they were probably spending too much time on their classes. I don't know if this applies to the OP, but regardless you need to recognize that you simply can't accomplish everything to the highest level at the start of grad school and not burn yourself out in the mean time. You probably have to prioritize and leave some things less than perfect, and that's just fine. – Jeff Oct 4 '16 at 14:09
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If it's not against the rules of your program or classes (which I doubt), you need to start doing your problem sets with other students. You then can still work on all questions if you feel like it, but getting pointers when stuck from someone else, then finishing in a 1-2 hour meeting with your group or fellow student, should help you tremendously. If you're lucky, you even find friends like this, and have a beer after your meeting which might be good for your psyche too.

In my experience, those planning to work alone through the coursework of a STEM grad school soon notice what you just did: it's a bad idea.

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    Excellent idea in principle, but for this to be effective, you need to find people at around your level. If the other persons are much better or worse than you, working with them will not be so useful. And in a small cohort, finding people at about your level may not be so easy. – Faheem Mitha Oct 27 '15 at 19:01
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    I agree with this answer! I too am finding my way around in my coursework, and a professor encouraged me to discuss with peers when working on assignments- he said the assignments were deliberately tough, and the point of having them so is to show that research is seldom done by the lone wolf, and mainly done collaboratively, involving you talking to others at a board, saying something stupid at times, but also building up on each other's ideas to arrive at an understanding greater than the sum of the parts of the individuals involved. – Abhinav Oct 27 '15 at 22:11
3

Honestly, I'm just going to pass the piece of advice my adviser gave to me when I took up a 6 courses per quarter year: only consider the time that you're writing as work. The rest of it is interesting, but as a graduate student you're only judged on what you write, so only consider that time as actual "working time". And to add to that: only consider what you write as work if it's pushing some research.

So outside of lecture, just write. Write down homework answers, spending more time on things closer to your research (maybe answering things in more depth and addressing side questions when it's related to your research, and just kind of meh if it's not). Don't just read publications: actively take notes, get ready a seminar presentation on the paper, make your own "little HW" filling out some detail on one of their proof sketches to see if it can lead somewhere new, etc. One page a day towards a publication gets one out in about a month, so just keep writing! Undergrad is for reading, grad is for writing.

Since adopting this strategy, I have been much more productive. 16 hour days of writing produces a lot of material, and you'll learn things in much more depth too if you're drafting and re-drafting your ideas.

2

As a person with the same responsibilities this semester, let me tell you that the reality will be efficient time planning and figuring out the shortest path to get the work done.

  1. For your course you have to find the way to solve the HW as fast as possible. Talk to the TAs and the Professors for hints. It would be great to read all the textbooks and get all the knowledge required for the answer. But, in reality you will only have time to read/look up what you need and figure out the answer as fast as possible.

  2. For your TA responsibilities - Grade or evaluate, a x number of students, every one or two days. Don't let the work accumulate. Make sure you're there for your office hours. But, try to keep other time outside of office hours for yourself. Don't accommodate requests from students to discuss problem 1-on-1 outside of office hours unless it's rare occasion. TA'ing can be great reward when you get to re-learn the basics to teach someone else. Also, it helps at those internship interviews ;)

  3. Research - Reality is that your research will suffer. This is why fellowships or RAs are such a great thing. A funding source like that gives you so much more time for your actual research. Coming back to the matter at hand, the time you have left, after doing (1) and (2) will go for research. This means sacrificed weekends, and semester breaks.

  4. Health - Lots of people ignore their health. I always take 30 mins a day for exercise. If you do it like drinking coffee/tea in the morning, it gets done. Don't ignore it.

This is the life of a grad student. It can be awesome or disappointing depending on how you approach it.

1

To begin with a note of encouragement, you're just starting out and some things will get a little easier over time. Reading papers is a skill, so is teaching, and so is doing research. At the beginning, it's going to take a lot more time than anticipated to do some of these things and you'll get more efficient at them as you practice.

Next, one strategy to try is to break your tasks into much smaller chunks. For example, instead of saying, "I'm going to solve 5 homework problems from 1-3pm," you might try an approach of making a list of the things you're trying to complete that day. List each problem as a separate task. If they require a considerable amount of backreading, list the backreading as a separate task as well.

This will do a few things. First, it'll start giving you a much more accurate idea of how to make time estimates. Second, it will allow you to give yourself permission to switch contexts/tasks. And last but not least, it'll help to keep from feeling like you're not getting anywhere.

By making smaller tasks, it also gives you more natural break points where you can try other strategies, like changing locations or going for a quick walk to keep your brain from turning to mush. There were times in grad school where I felt like changing contexts (e.g., I finished writing the related work section at the office, now I'm going to go to the gym and read a paper while walking, then I'm going to go to the lab to grade a quarter of these papers) kept me from losing it. There were also times where I'd try to chunk out work that was too much and then I'd end the day feeling like I hadn't accomplished anything because I had only gotten one thing done. If that happens, break it into smaller tasks.

The task list will also help you to prioritize. For example, if you've finished four out of five of your problems and you haven't done any of your TA work, maybe you up the priority on getting one of those tasks done next. Hang in there and good luck! :)

1

I am in a similar siutation (Second year PhD student in EE) and I think it is simply a problem of having too much on your plate. Problem solving takes a long time because of how it is. It is meant to take that long. At this point, I would drop the TAing. You simply do not have time to do it. Focus on your courses and research.

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