I just started being a TA in mathematics at a university in continental Europe. My big problem is my time management: I feel like I don't have time for my own research. During a working time of 40h per week, I usually have the following duties (other than my research):

  • Teaching duties 3h
  • Attending two lectures (total of 3h) plus their exercise sessions (total of 2h)
  • Attending a seminar of 2h
  • Solve exercise sheets of the two lectures I attend
  • Think about good exercises for the course I'm a TA of
  • Write solutions to the current exercise sheet

If I include the last three points with a total of - say - 7h (which is probably too little time), my duties in the week take around 17h. Well, this does not sound too much. I do not have to attend these lectures and the exercise sessions, but my advisor strongly recommends attending, as their topics are very important in my field, although they are not at all related to my current work.

But, of course, there are some other things which prevent me from working on my stuff:

  • The two lectures I'm attending are right one after another. Between these two lectures, I have a break of 30 minutes. But in this short period of time, I cannot be productive. When I finally got started working on my research, I already have to attend the next lecture. This problem occurs a lot for me: during my teaching duties and another duty, I have only one hour to do something. But in this one hour, I mostly have to prepare for the next lecture/seminar/... - Basically, my whole Mondays and Tuesdays are blocked by problems like that (I cannot be productive in just one hour - it's just too little time to get started).

  • Prepare seminar talks for the seminar mentioned above. This is not a regular work to do, but nevertheless takes a lot of time.

  • As my two lectures are on the same day and there is only a 30min break between them, I usually feel very tired after the second lecture. This decreases my working efficiency by a lot. I do take some lunch break after the lectures, but I usually feel even more tired after the break.

  • Attend seminar talks which take place on a irregular basis.

  • The only day on which I don't have any duty is Friday. But on Friday, I'm usually really tired as a consequence of the stressful week. Therefore, I cannot be as productive as I should be, even on Fridays.

  • As I just started being a TA, there are many "small" things which have to be done. Set up a new computer, find out how to use SSH on this one, ... - those small things add up and end up costing a lot of precious time.

I also considered working on weekends, but this would be too much for me; there have to be some days spared for regeneration. Sometimes I think about the exercise sheets of the two lectures on weekends, but nothing else.

About the two lectures and the seminar: I really want to attend those to broaden my view of my field and learn new things which are (currently) not important for my work. One could think about not solving the exercise sheets of the two lectures, but then I won't learn a lot by attending these lectures.

So my question is the following:

How do I maximize my productivity as a TA (in mathematics)?

(Closely related: How can I stay being concentrated after two lectures/on Fridays/...? How do I maximize my productivity-to-time ratio?)

  • 2
    The way I see this you are dealing more with a "can I do research while taking 2 classes, including homework?" I'd think it's understood that this will prevent you from making much progress in your own research, but should pay off in the long run. Have you asked your adviser what they think? That said, never working on weekends, I admit, is a foreign thought to me - yes, it's good to keep a balance, still. Commented Nov 12, 2015 at 16:55
  • 5
    I am not clear which activities are TA duties and which are classes the OP is taking. Commented Nov 12, 2015 at 17:05
  • Have you tried taking an afternoon nap? I am currently trying that and it helps a lot in solving the "tiredness" part. Doing math is tough on the brain, you need a rest
    – yoyostein
    Commented Nov 13, 2015 at 0:26
  • As far as energy goes, have you tried going into auto pilot during your teaching? You sound like you want a research career so maybe you should learn to "mail it in" and still put out a correct but not deep or fascinating product. Commented Sep 11, 2016 at 0:36

3 Answers 3

  1. I would like to point out that life as a graduate student is tough, especially if you indeed want to achieve something. 40h/week working time is much less than one should normally invest in. (At least from my personal experience and my personal observation)

  2. Things are just bumpy in the beginning. It's normal. Just keep moving.

  3. You are not superman. Everyone has limited energy and time, you just can't do everything in the same time. You may want to give up one of the lectures that you are attending if it's not closely related to your topic.

  4. Plan your own research, set milestones and keep progressing.

  5. Try to do one thing in a day. If you work on your own research during the weekends, do not think about your TA duties or lectures at all in the same time. Make a bigger chunk of time to work on one thing instead of fragmented pieces of time is a good idea for improving productivity

  • 5
    Also use the odd half hours for grunt work related to research. For example, keep notes of the citations of papers you need tor read. During an odd half hour download and print as many as you can. Commented Nov 12, 2015 at 17:03
  • Thank you for your answer. I added in my question that my working time is officially 40h/week. In practice, it is a lot more. Anyway, your answer was really useful!
    – KKL
    Commented Nov 13, 2015 at 13:49

My big problem is my time management: I feel like I don't have time for my own research

This is the very one problem that most PhD students have, and it is indeed so, in particular in fields like mathematics where the core productivity comes from concentration. Your schedule seems nevertheless to be pretty standard, as having one teaching class to support per semester (with related exercise corrections) and seminars to attend, which reduce the free time to bring on individual research.

I have undergone the same (PhD in theoretical physics) and adapted the following approach:

  • hopefully you will not have to teach every single term, just during some semesters. When such, it is a matter of fact that your time will be reduced due to the exercises charges; accept it as part of your PhD programme and try to focus your intensity on those semesters when no teaching is involved (it is anyway the same for post-docs and professors: they rarely publish revolutionising results when teaching classes).

  • although many classes in mathematics are appealing and interesting, only focus on those ones that are important for your final thesis. Unfortunately, your committee will judge you based on the results of your thesis and not by how much passion you have put into your studies (it is sad but true).

  • same holds for literature and papers: only read those articles that significantly help your research; have a selection of little but important material that you can easily go through.

  • understand that you cannot master all the areas of mathematics just being led by the passion of solving exercises and attending lectures. I spent a lot of time widening my interests but at some point I had to narrow it down for the sake of completing the thesis without running out of funds.

Do not work on weekends: have in mind that the valid reason to enroll in a PhD programme is that you have to enjoy it, included your valuable spare time. Do not make it run over yourself as this will most likely lead to unsatisfaction, which will make the entire point of an Academic career worthless.


Hmm. On Fridays you feel wiped out, on Saturday you are being a human being the whole day and evening, and Sunday too.

I'm not surprised to hear you are feeling frustrated about the short amount of time you are able to spend on your research!

Something has to give. If you still want to do as good a job with your TA role as you have been doing, AND you want to spend a reasonable amount of time on your research, then I think you're going to have to forgo the three days off in a row. How about taking Friday for groceries, laundry, and cleaning up a little; and work half of Saturday and half of Sunday? That would still give you time for a movie or concert Saturday evening (or whatever you like to do in your spare time), and a hike or religious observance (or whatever) on Sunday morning. (Those are just examples. It will vary from person to person.)

I think that once you get revved up a bit, you will find yourself really looking forward to that special time at your desk, where you get to really concentrate on your project.

By the way, there is a trick to not feeling more tired after your dinner break: low carb. Fill yourself up with protein and vegetables, and skip the carbs. It really helps prevent that feeling of tiredness after a meal.

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