Managing Time Without Classes

By Emily Elia: Imposing structure onto your schedule is one way to bring more organization back into your life.

A university classroom

For most graduate students, the start of graduate school requires a lot of time dedicated to classes. For non-STEM fields especially, like the social sciences and humanities, it is very common for graduate students to be in classes for two to three years, and it’s not until their later years that research and their dissertation become their sole focus. While finishing classes comes with a lot more freedom for your schedule, especially for research, it can be daunting to suddenly have little to no commitments on your calendar after three years of having classes multiple times a week. The openness can feel especially daunting when tasked with writing an entire dissertation. How do you stay on track with all this flexible time? 

Create Structure

Classes provided some structure in your schedule during the first years of graduate school. Not only did class time itself block off parts of your calendar, but the time needed to work on the class—readings, papers, problem sets—also needed to be prioritized. In many programs, students are expected to conduct their own research alongside their classes, which means that, at the end of the day, you only have so much time to work on your research projects. When you complete classes, you suddenly have so much more time to work on your research, and while this new freedom feels awesome, it can also be overwhelming. You used to only have, say, Monday and Wednesday mornings to work on your research, but now you suddenly have all day, every day, especially if you are in a field of study that does not require scheduled time working in a physical lab. Sometimes this openness of your schedule can feel paralyzing. 

Imposing structure onto your schedule is one way to bring more organization back into your life. The right kind of structure will depend a lot on how you like to work. You can assign different days to different types of work. For example, Mondays and Wednesdays are writing days, Tuesday and Thursdays are data analysis days, and Fridays are reading days. 

Alternatively, you could focus on one project (or one dissertation chapter) each day; Monday through Wednesday you work on Project A, Thursday and Friday you work on Project B. You can also take a more specific approach and split up parts of each day to focus on different tasks rather than committing an entire day to one focus. Monday mornings you may collect data and then switch to writing on Monday afternoons. By dividing your time across tasks and/or projects and creating a schedule from that division, you can create structure to plan your weeks.

Creating structure from things unrelated to research can also be helpful, especially if you are someone who struggles to step away from work. Set aside time to go to the gym, to invest in your hobbies, to relax, and to socialize, and create a non-work schedule for yourself to stick to. If you know that you spend your Tuesday and Thursday evenings at the gym, your Wednesday mornings baking for fun, and your Friday nights out to dinner with friends, then your work will have to get done around those commitments. Maintaining a good work-life balance is always important in graduate school, but it can be especially important when your schedule is so open that you find yourself overworking simply because you have the time to. Rest and fun are necessary!

Find the Right Work Style for You

Now that you have no classes standing in your way, you can decide when you work. Finding the right work style can take time, but it can greatly help your productivity and organization. Some students like maintaining a typical 9-to-5 schedule, and cutting themselves off from work in the evenings helps them stay productive during the days. Other students may find that they work much better later on in the day, and they may opt to sleep in, start work later, and finish later each day. One of the perks of academia is that scheduling your work day can be largely up to you, so you do not have to force yourself to follow a 9-to-5 schedule if you know you don’t really get good work done before 11:00 in the morning. 

Finding the right work style for you also means figuring out how long you prefer to work on one thing. When you impose structure on your own schedule, you may find that you can’t work on one project or one task all day. You may prefer to do a few hours on one thing in the morning and then switch gears to another task. In contrast, you may find that a few hours on one task is never enough for you, and it is the long stretches of work on one thing that make you use your time best. 

Finding the right way to divide your time will probably take some trial and error, and that’s okay! Similarly, you may find that you need to switch things up a bit. Personally, how I divide my time changes a little bit each week depending on the tasks I need to get through and how I am feeling. Being flexible with the schedule you set for yourself is sometimes a necessity, though it may sound paradoxical given that you make your own plans. But sometimes your goals for the week get interrupted or sidetracked, or a big deadline may come up, and it is okay to change your mind and make a new schedule.

Schedule Smartly 

Related to finding the right work style for you, figuring out when to schedule different kinds of tasks can help you stay on track. Though classes may be done, you will likely still have lots of meetings and other departmental events to work around, and these things can fill up your schedule fast. A common piece of advice from academics is to schedule things like meetings when you are least productive. For example, if you know you work best in the mornings, try to schedule your meetings in the afternoons whenever you can. Similarly, if Mondays (or any particular day) are always a little sluggish for you, then try to use Mondays as your “administrative day” to have meetings, catch up on emails, etc. Scheduling commitments in this way will help keep your most productive times free so you can make progress on your research.

Keep in mind that “free time” is not always “available time!” Just because you could meet at a certain time does not mean that you have to. Of course, we can’t always plan things with only ourselves in mind, and things will rarely line up with your preferred schedule all the time. But if your Wednesday mornings are when you always get your writing done then your Wednesday mornings are not available just because you do not have a “concrete” commitment scheduled on your calendar. It can be easy to say you are free any time when you finish classes, but remember that it is necessary to prioritize and protect the time you have to work on your dissertation. 

About the author: Originally from Massachusetts, Emily Elia is a Ph.D. student in political science. She graduated from the University of Alabama in 2018 and currently studies comparative politics with a focus on Latin America.