Q&A: Where and When to Work

By Nina Cook: Are you managing time or is time managing you?


It’s 6 AM, and I hear a quiet scratching at my bedroom door. My kitten, Minnie Monet, is making sure that I have survived the night and informing me – in no uncertain terms – that she is ready for me to reenter conscious society. I am so thankful for my morning wake up call, so much more enjoyable than the *beep, beep, beep* of an alarm clock. This is how I start my day – then I do some reading, complete my French lesson on Duolingo, and it’s off to the races.

I have found that I work best when I treat dissertation writing like a fulltime job. Many graduate students entered academia to escape the grind of the 9 AM – 5 PM workday. I find, however, that it is when I get to campus by 9 AM that I am the most productive.

But everyone is different.

In this blog, I will take you through how I have learned to optimize my workflow and increase my productivity, while maintaining a healthy work/life balance, and I will recommend you ask yourself some core questions to figure out how you can make this PhD schedule work for you.

I recommend that every new Humanities graduate student ask themselves two questions: “Where do I work best?” and “When do I work best?” Unlike graduate students in STEM, who have a built-in schedule with their required hours in a lab, coursework, and research, many new students in the Humanities will be left with time. Lots of, relatively unstructured, time. The typical Humanities PhD program requires the student to take three courses per semester. So that’s three courses, each two-and-a-half to three-hours long – but that’s just 9 hours out of a 45-hour work week.

 So, what do you do with the rest of that time?

Granted there’s much to do!

You must read, write, and complete all the assignments for your courses. You may also (depending on your program’s requirements) have service responsibilities such as serving as a Research Assistant for a faculty member or working as a copyeditor for the department journal. You may take on another role such as working at the writing center as a consultant.

Other than that, though, your time is your own. Yes, there’s lots to do – but when and where you do these things is up to you!

So, where do you work best?

Answering this question early on will save you a lot of wasted time. Many students work best at home. Snug in a safe and quiet environment, they can read and write to their heart’s content. Some students work best at coffee shops. Others work best outside in nature (I’m always impressed by those who can work outside in the humid Houston heat!).

I discovered very early on that I work best on campus, in places that are not too quiet. I did most of my reading, writing, and research the first year at the “puzzle table” in Fondren Library, a square table right in front of the circulation desk on the first floor. Post-COVID – though there are no longer puzzles – it’s still a quiet, bustling study space with comfy chairs and cool a/c.

Sometimes it’s difficult to answer the question of where you will be at your most productive. I thought I would work best in a study carrel, up on the second floor near all the nineteenth-century texts I study in the quiet and calm of the stacks.

But I didn’t.

My mind would race, my body got antsy. I need movement, a bit of noise, and people, people, people. I need to feel like part of a vibrant community – and Rice is certainly that! – even when that community is going quietly about their own business.

It took me a while to discover where I work best, but now that I know the parameters of my study space (quiet, but not too quiet; people passing by; a drink in hand; and easy access to charging cables), I can optimize my work hours. I recommend asking yourself this question early: “Where do I work best?” Try out different places and spaces and keep track of your productivity. How does your workspace make you feel? What puts you in the right frame of mind to get that work done? I find that I often migrate between two or three little nooks on campus: I read at the puzzle table, I write in my office, I grade on the back porch of Herring Hall. Being able to move between spaces allows me to avoid stasis and stave off the monotony which can develop between the hours of 9 AM – 5 PM as I get my day’s work done.

Which brings me to the question of time. As the old proverb goes, “Timing is Everything.”

So, what time do you work best?

This is another question that (if you answer it early) will help you get your dissertation written in a timely manner. And again, this question calls for experimentation, because when you think it is best for you to work may not actually be when you’re at your most productive. I write best in the mornings; I read best in the afternoons. I found this out through trial and error. I used to think that I wrote best at night – I am a night owl, after all – but then I wrote my first dissertation chapter between the hours of 8-10 AM, and I learned that it’s early in the morning (rather than late at night) that my brain is sharpest for writing. In the afternoons, I am happy to sit with a cup of tea and read other people’s thoughts, as my brain feels sleepy after lunch and doesn’t want to work hard, coming up with my own ideas.

Again, ask yourself: “When do I work best?”

Try out some different blocks of time. You might think that writing in the evenings is best – try writing in the morning. How does it feel? Do you produce more? What about if you switch it around and read secondary scholarship in the mornings and write in the afternoons? Is that better? Remember, timing is everything, and knowing when to work and when to play can be the difference between finishing your dissertation or stalling out.

I hope that these two questions will be useful as you plan your life as a Humanities PhD student. Whether you choose to be on campus from 9 AM – 5 PM or to work “virtually” from home, this job that we’ve undertaken can be one of the most fulfilling and exciting things you’ve ever done.

Good luck finding the places, spaces, and times that work best for you!