Staying on Schedule

Rewarding Yourself: A Gift from Someone Special

With all the stress in graduate school, it is also important to reward yourself for your accomplishments and jobs well done. Without positive reinforcement, it’s easy to feel burnt out and to become bored with your life as a graduate student. Because you might rarely receive positive reinforcement from others, you must reward yourself to survive stress in graduate school. Before you can reward yourself, you must first realize that you have accomplished something. Pause for a moment, and acknowledge that you have done something great. Let yourself get excited about it; this is the only way to successfully combat stress in graduate school. Think back on your hard work before this point. Have you ever heard the phrase, “The punishment fits the crime”? The opposite is also true: “The reward fits the accomplishment.” If you achieve something small, like studying for an hour or finishing your homework that’s due for the next class, then you should reward yourself by going out with your friends or indulge by watching your guilty pleasure TV show for a while. If you accomplish a larger goal, like passing all your finals or getting an A in all your classes, then you should celebrate with a small vacation or a shopping spree. Make sure to share your good news with your family and friends; you could even choose to make your announcement at a gathering, instead of just tweeting about it. Chances are, someone in your group will be truly impressed about your accomplishment and might even want to celebrate with you to relieve your stress in graduate school. Finally, take time to appreciate the moment of success. Focus on your completed goal before automatically concentrating on the next one. If you don’t do this, then you might turn into a study robot, take all the fun out of your graduate school experience, and succumb to the stress in graduate school.


Setting and Achieving Graduate School Goals

Earning your graduate degree is a long-term goal that will require years of planning on your part, but you will have other goals during those years that will either coincide or conflict with your long-term goal of earning your graduate degree. Besides earning your graduate degree, your goals may include immediate goals (e.g., reading an article, taking out the trash) or short-term goals (e.g., passing a difficult course, spending time with friends). You will probably have other long-term goals in addition to achieving your degree (e.g., career goals, personal goals). It is easy to think briefly about goals that we would like to achieve and then to move on quickly to something else, never giving our goals another thought. Unfortunately, this method of setting goals does nothing to help us achieve them. To actually achieve the goals we set for ourselves, we must actively plan for and work toward our goals. You can use the following information to help you set and achieve immediate, short-term, and long-term goals.

How to Set Graduate School Goals

To set goals for yourself, you should first identify a few broad categories in which you want to achieve something (i.e., family, finances, career, etc.). After you have identified these categories, you should choose a few specific goals for each category. Now you can organize your goals in each category into immediate, short-term, and long-term goals. Once you have organized your goals in this way, then you can determine deadlines by which you would like to accomplish your goals. Finally, you should determine things that you can do to accomplish each goal and prioritize each activity for each goal.

How to Achieve Graduate School Goals

Now that you have identified and given deadlines to your immediate, short-term, and long-term goals and have developed and prioritized activities to achieve those goals, you can begin planning and scheduling your activities. First, you might want to keep a personal journal in which you record how you spend your time during each day over the course of one week. After a week, you should review your time journal to see how you spend your time each day, when you are most productive (morning, afternoon, or evening), and when you have downtime that you could utilize for something productive. Once you have established how you spend your time each day, you can use a schedule for set activities (perhaps a weekly, monthly, or yearly calendar), a planner with separate sections for different projects, and a to-do list. The following are some things you should remember about using a schedule, planner, and to-do list to maximize your use of time and to achieve your goals:

Schedule time for planning. Review your schedule daily, including your daily goals. Evaluate your schedule weekly, and adjust it when necessary. Your schedule will be useless unless you maintain it and keep it as accurate as possible.

Schedule time for unknowns. Set aside time each day, week, month, and even year for unknown circumstances (transportation problems, missed alarms, family emergencies, etc.). You cannot anticipate with certainty what the unknowns will be exactly, but you can anticipate that unknowns will arise. If you set aside time to deal with unknown circumstances before they arise, then you will be more flexible and better able to adjust your schedule without interrupting important activities that are necessary to achieving yourgraduate school goals.

Learn how to prioritize. Label items on your to-do list as low, medium, or high priority, and address those items accordingly. Keep your to-do list handy at all times. This will allow you to take care of tasks when you have appropriate–and perhaps unexpected–time for those types of tasks. For example, if you have your to-do list handy while you’re waiting at the bus stop, you can see what simple, low-priority task you can use that time for (e.g., returning your mother’s phone calls).

Divide, delegate, and finish tasks. Divide major projects into smaller steps so that you don’t have to do everything at once (e.g., instead of trying to create a 25-slide PowerPoint presentation in one night, you could divide the project across 5 nights, creating 5 slides per night). When possible, delegate whatever tasks you can to other people (e.g., ask your roommate or partner to take out the trash so that you can read your scheduled assignments). Finish one task in its entirety before moving on to the next task.

Schedule time for yourself. Overscheduling and exhausting yourself will get you nowhere. You need personal time to renew your energy and to accomplish your graduate school goals. You must schedule time for your own physical, mental, emotional, social, and spiritual needs. Set aside some time each day and maybe even one whole day each week or month to focus solely on yourself. .


Writing Your Dissertation: Setting a Daily Dissertation Schedule

Do not underestimate how much time it will take to write your dissertation. Many graduate students spend much of their valuable time researching and collecting data and put off the arduous task of writing about what they’ve done until the last minute. These students inevitably scramble to synthesize thoughts and ideas on paper, making (what is to most) the already stressful process of writing even more difficult than it has to be because of time constraints. You can avoid the last-minute pressures of writing your dissertation if you set realistic daily, weekly, monthly, and yearly deadlines for yourself in the form of a dissertation schedule. However, you will be the most prepared when it comes time to submit your dissertation to your committee if you commit to keep your dissertation plan in mind every day. The following are things to consider when setting a daily dissertation schedule:

Designate a dissertation buddy to whom you can report your progress every day. There are dissertation boot camps, write-ins, and various other writing gatherings to support graduate students during the writing process. However, most of these groups meet for infrequent periods of time (i.e., once a week or only for a limited time); if you only worked on your dissertation at these groups, even at multiple groups at a time, you may never finish your dissertation. Make yourself more accountable for you dissertation writing on a daily basis by selecting a single individual, perhaps a fellow graduate student, to whom you can quickly report your writing progress every day.

Set a regular daily dissertation schedule for yourself, accounting for class time and personal time (i.e., going to dinner with friends, taking a nap, doing yoga, and relaxing in front of the TV), and stick to it. It may seem extreme to be so rigid with time, but every minute of the day counts when you are in graduate school and when you have so many responsibilities to balance. Amid all your responsibilities, choose a specific block of time for each day that you will dedicate specifically to writing your dissertation. When choosing your daily dissertation schedule, consider what time of day you are most productive (i.e., morning or evening). Also, remember to schedule occasional days off; this will help you recharge your writing battery and be better able to review what you have already written.

Choose a productive writing space. If you know that you cannot productively write from home because pets, children, other household members, or TV shows will distract you, then don’t work from home. Go anywhere—a coffee shop, a library, your dissertation buddy’s house—where you can find an electrical outlet, good internet connection, and anything else you deem is necessary to facilitate your daily writing. However, before you can definitively select a productive daily writing space, you must also consider how you like to write: Are you more productive when you sit and write for long continuous periods of time, or do you prefer to write a little and then move around and ponder? Do you like to work with background noise, or is absolute silence what you need to write your best? The ultimate goal is to select a location where you can consistently go to feel absolutely comfortable writing during your daily dissertation schedule.

Your New Job: Taking Your Thesis or Dissertation Seriously

You’ve finally finished several of your upper-level graduate courses and are beginning to put together your dissertation plan. You might be thinking that writing this paper will be a breeze and that you will complete the project easily. However, writing your thesis or dissertation is a process that will consume much more of your time and concentration than will any of your other class or term papers. The most successful graduate students treat their theses or dissertations as if writing their papers is a new position at a major company that they have always wanted. You should do the same because writing your thesis or dissertation will necessitate a comprehensive dissertation plan, constant consideration, and diligent honest work.


Again, you should equate your dissertation plan to a new job that you have always wanted and desperately want to keep. Just like your boss might give you deadlines for presentations and sales goals, you should give yourself hard deadlines to complete specific writing goals. After you establish deadlines for your research, analysis, rough draft, and final draft for your paper, you should write your deadlines in a planner or program them into your online calendar. In addition to hard deadlines, you should make short-term goals for writing your dissertation or thesis, such as dates by which you want to finish each subheading of your paper. Once you have set this dissertation schedule for yourself, stick to them as if you were getting paid to do so. Actually, the more quickly you finish your thesis or dissertation, the more quickly you will be able to devote more time to your actual professional position.


You must always keep your thesis or dissertation plan in mind when you are considering making major life changes while you are still writing your paper, just as people seriously consider their jobs before moving, getting pets, or starting families. When your friends go out and invite you to come along, consider how doing so will affect the writing goals and deadlines that you have set for yourself. Likewise, do not agree to any major time commitment, such as a vacation or a new work project, without first seriously and practically thinking about whether this new commitment will negatively affect your thesis or dissertation goals. Finally, do not do anything with your dissertation plan that you would not do at a new job. For example, never procrastinate on something that you will need a lot of time to finish, and don’t waste too much time distracting yourself during time when you need to be working. Remember, in a roundabout way, you are getting paid for the time you are working on your research paper. The more work you complete, whether in the professional or academic sphere, the more valuable you are.

Accountability Partners: Creating a Writing Support Group

Perhaps the most important part of writing is keeping your sanity throughout the writing process. A few ways to do this are screaming your problems into your pillow, making prank calls to that professor you hate, and openly crying in your graduate class. However, making a writing group with your colleagues to assist each other in writing is much more appropriate and constructive than is any of the previously mentioned ways to keep your sanity during the writing process. Asking your grad school friends for help is a good idea and is necessary not only to survive your thesis or dissertation but also to survive the challenge of graduate school. The fact is that when you are working toward a goal that involves so much preparation and time, you can use and often need the advice of others.

How to Create a Group

Unlike many other how-to articles you might find on this website, this article will not contain any rules for creating a writing support group. Your writing group can be whatever you want it to be. Start with the people to whom you naturally gravitate in class. This could include students who sit near you in class, students with whom you might have already done a project, or students whom you know from previous classes and who are also working toward their own dissertations or theses. Even if you might consider these people boring or annoying, you should keep in mind that they could be invaluable in terms of helping you. Besides the fellow students in your classes, you could also consider forming a writing group with other peers, teaching or lab assistants, or even professors. You probably have already talked with many of your friends and colleagues about your research, so you could talk again with those who seemed genuinely interested in your work to see if they would like to help you in your journey. Also, reach out to those whom you know are also working on their dissertations or theses. Chances are they are also having problems and would love to form a writing group. Most importantly, bribe these people! When asking someone to help you, offer to meet at Starbuck’s or their favorite restaurants, and pay for them. Never underestimate the value of a free lunch for your friends.

What to Do With Your Group

Now that you have collected a group of peers with whom you can work, you might have trouble actually focusing on work. Make sure that the environment where you are meeting is conducive to studying and concentrating. You know how you like to operate and do your most efficient work. Good places to meet might include your favorite local coffee spot, a campus library, or either yours or your group mates’ houses. You might even be able to secure an empty classroom for the same hour(s) every week if you have the right connections with professors and other graduate administrators. Present your peers with rough drafts you’ve created lately for small sections of your dissertation or thesis. Obviously, don’t forget to help your group members as well. The more help and advice that you give to the other members of your writing support group, the more help and advice that you are likely to receive in return. Brainstorm with each other to hatch good ideas about methodology and literature reviews. Find out everything about how your partners work. There could be several resources your friends know about that could be invaluable for you while you are writing your thesis or dissertation.

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