April SPSPotlight: Tips to Help You Stay Productive

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Tips to Help You Stay Productive

By Lameese Eldesouky, SPSP Student Member

From writing publications to teaching to presenting at conferences, it can be challenging to meet the many demands of graduate school (and of academia in general). These demands can sometimes cause us students to feel overwhelmed or burnt out from working nonstop. They can also take away a significant amount of time from other things that are valuable to us, such as hobbies and relationships. Fortunately, there are some habits that you can adopt to prevent these things from happening! Below are some things that I have done to be a productive graduate student, without sacrificing other things that are really important to me.


1. Figure out where you work best and work there as often as you can. For example, if a coffee shop works best for you, then work there. Personally, I go to my office every day of the week regardless of whether or not I need to be on campus (e.g., have class, a meeting). If I work from home or got to a coffee shop I know that work won't get done.

2. Try setting typical "work hours” so you can prevent a nonstop work cycle. For example, set your work hours from 8/9am-5/6pm. During that time slot, give yourself two 15-min breaks to do anything you feel like (e.g., eat, go for a walk) and a 30-min break for lunch. This can keep you productive during the day. It also gives you permission to wind down at home without feeling guilty that you’re not doing work.

3. This point branches off from #2. Make time for things that are important to you without letting work get in the way. Personally, while I probably could be spending every evening or weekend doing work, I typically don't (only when necessary, such as with an approaching deadline). For instance, I usually spend my evenings making art and my weekends doing community service, because those are things I really enjoy. Hobbies outside of research can make you a more holistic person and remind you that there's a world outside of your lab.

4. Publications are crucial to success in academia. Try getting in the habit of setting at least an hour every day to work on something manuscript-related. Depending on how far along you are on a project, work on an outline or a draft for a paper or even conduct analyses relevant to that paper.

5. Make a to-do list for the next day before you end work for the day. That way you won’t waste time feeling overwhelmed and trying to figure out what to do the next day. Plus, checking things off of that to-do list feels great!

6. As graduate students we deal with a lot of deadlines. Constantly updating your calendar and writing down deadlines for things (e.g., fellowships, conferences) in advance (e.g., a year or two) can help you stay on top of things, not miss great opportunities, and know what to prioritize and when.

7. Maintain good communication with your advisor to make sure you're on the same page. Ask about his or her expectations of you, put them in conjunction with what you want to accomplish, and then set a game-plan with him or her for the semester or even year.

8. With a constantly overflowing inbox, emails are really hard to keep track of. Fortunately, I use one mail server (Apple's mail app) so that all of my emails come into one place. As a result, I don't have to constantly login to multiple emails or check them if I haven't received a notification. On another note, while I'm sure you don't need a mail server for this, I've found it really helpful to flag emails I need to respond to. That way I don't have to sift through hundreds of emails, trying to remember or figure out whose email I missed.

9. As we advance through graduate school, we may have several projects going on at once, which can make us feel overwhelmed. To feel less overwhelmed, I recommend taking time to reassess how all of your projects are connected and how they answer the big questions that you’re really interested in. That way, you won’t feel bogged down with answering smaller questions or forget why you did various projects in the first place.

10. Along the lines of #9, I find making diagrams really helpful. I use the boards in my lab all the time to illustrate different concepts and see how they fit together. I feel like it's a more active process than having someone explain something to me or trying to understand what's going on in a frustrating data set.

11. Lastly, I recommend reminding yourself how incredibly fortunate and lucky you probably are to be a graduate student. Graduate school is often paid for, we have access to so many great people and resources, get to carve our own career path, get to play with ideas and be creative, and have the opportunity to study the things we find most fascinating.

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