Doing the PhD

a PORT for Modern Languages tutorial

4 Managing your time

4.3 time eaters

Carrying out your tasks is not just a matter of doing the right thing, but also of avoiding the wrong ones. That's easier said than done. Sometimes what at first looks like the right choice, in point of fact can prove to be a waste of time. For example, going on collecting and reading secondary sources or attending every single lecture and seminar your University organizes certainly broadens your knowledge but it takes a lot of time, both directly (e.g. attending these events) and indirectly (e.g. getting to their venues). This is even truer if you want to take part in these events as a speaker, since preparing and reviewing a paper is a long and extremely time-consuming process.

Try therefore to identify your personal time eaters as soon as possible and be aware of them. You can start from this list: probably not all of them are your personal worst enemies, but they are some of the most common.

Your list of time eaters

  • Lack of objectives
    One of the main reason students fail to accomplish their objectives is the vagueness of the objectives themselves. If your objectives are not clear enough, you cannot calculate how long their accomplishment will take and you will not be able to define an effective timetable.
    Keep comparing your work plan and timetable against your achievements. Once you have settled for a chapter outline for your dissertation or thesis, check on a regular basis whether you are in line with the time slots allocated to the different sections or research tasks. 
  • Lack of consistency
    Your study-pathway is not simply composed of different sections/stages, but developed through them. This means that you should not deal with the different components of your pathway as completely distinct tasks. Your MA dissertation cannot be just "one more essay", in the same way that your PhD thesis cannot be just a sum of disconnected pieces of research, but the fruit of a thorough methodological approach, as well as of the materials, you developed and collected throughout your study and research. Don't fall into the trap of reinventing your dissertation (and the argument holding it together) every time you get your hands on a new research aspect. You will waste a lot of time and efforts.
    Managing your time effectively is a matter of proper definition of your objectives. Being focused on individual tasks does not mean that you have to be shortsighted. Go deeply into any questions you know you have to investigate again for other components of your study-pathway. There is no point in leaving it open: it would mean doing the same work twice, instead of achieving two results at one go.
  • Never-ending tasks
    Some tasks seem to increase, instead of decreasing, as you deal with them. Sometimes your estimate was wrong, sometimes tasks take much more time than expected because of unpredictable difficulties in finding materials and in gathering data. In any case they will definitely affect and delay the development of your course/research. Recognize you can't achieve omniscience within the limitations of time set by a PhD. Do what can be done well in 3 years rather than settle for perfection. This is all the more obvious if you are writing a Masters thesis. Any research task is potentially interminable, so it is important to learn how to be realistic and treat research as a time-bound activity. Don't try to produce your 'magnum opus' when writing up your PhD dissertation!
    The first action you can take against never-ending tasks is to 'think small'. Divide major assignments into smaller parts so that you can control them more easily and verify your progress as you go along. Similarly, you are more likely to manage your tasks if you cope with them one at a time. If you start working on a new aspect of your current component or of your research before bringing to a conclusion the previous one, you will probably end up leaving it pending for a long time. And when you finally come back to it, you will not be able to be as effective. 
  • Procrastination
    Moving from the undergraduate time frame (which required the completion of weekly, if not daily, assignments) to a time frame that is based on long-term assignments may mislead you about the amount of time there actually is to perform a given task. Failing to accomplish each individual task within the allotted time necessarily results in all your other tasks being adjourned and some goals ultimately abandoned. Deadlines for the submission of course-essays, as well as for the submission of papers and articles, cannot be postponed. Moreover, even if you miss an intermediate deadline, you will be required to meet the last one. And you are very unlikely to manage to carry out two different tasks in the time allotted for one if you were not even able to complete one in the first place.
    The first move against procrastination has to be made before you start to procrastinate your assignments, that is, when you first set your timetable. Include some extra time which you could take advantage of if your calculations turn out to be too tight. Another action you can take against procrastination is to alternate tedious with more interesting assignments. Boredom is one of the main reason why students tend to defer certain activities. Devoting your study-time to different tasks every day can therefore help with this problem.
  • Lack of self-discipline
    Whilst studying Natural and Social Sciences usually involves teamwork, doing research in the Humanities, most of the time, is solitary work. You therefore have to rely on yourself and on your perseverance in order to accomplish your tasks. No one else can effectively control your commitment on a daily basis. A lack of self-discipline necessarily jeopardizes the success of your project as a whole.
    First of all face up to your responsibilities. Think of your study as a full-time engagement that requires constant commitment, independently of the rate of external control and supervision. If you think you will find it difficult to stick to your timetable without any form of external surveillance, you can
    • fix a very tight agenda of meetings with your supervisor
    • arrange an equivalent agenda with a course-mate or a fellow research student, so that you can support and motivate each other
    • you can find further motivation by rewarding yourself (lavishly!) when you manage to complete, satisfactorily and on time, each single task.

An MA course will occupy at least one year of your life, a PhD at least three of them. In such a relatively long period it is quite likely that you might face an unforeseen crisis. Small crises are quite common and do not represent a big problem, since they can be easily absorbed by the free time you should have anticipated in your plan. But a big crisis can seriously disturb your schedule, forcing you to review and modify your whole timetable, or even the composition of your course and the structure of your research themselves.
Unforeseen crises are unforeseen by definition, but if you can spot their first glimmerings, try to stop your crisis coming ahead by having a break and relieving yourself of the pressure. In the case of a real crisis forcing you to take time out, it is very important that you keep people informed - your supervisor especially and also your grant-awarding bodies.

  • Inability to say 'No'
    Working in an academic environment means having the opportunity to be involved with a lot of projects and activities. Too many projects and activities, usually. You are likely to be invited, for example,
    • to attend lectures and conferences
    • to give papers yourself in postgraduate conferences
    • to do translation work
    • to do some editorial work (such as proof-reading, indexing, preparing bibliographies, etc.)
    • to teach language and hold tutorials and seminars
    • to assist your supervisor and his/her colleagues in correcting essays and tests.
    All these occupations are stimulating and useful for your future career, but they must not be allowed to get the upper hand over your study and current assignment. Do not stop prioritizing your tasks. Moreover, if you have a tendency to be easily distracted by telephone calls, or tend to drift off into long conversations with your flat mates during working hours, be firm and say no.
    You can say no. You have to, sometimes. When you are offered a task or an opportunity that is unlikely to benefit your research (or your training in general as a future researcher) decline it. You can simply explain
    • that your next deadline is too close to take on any other engagement
    • that you do not feel prepared for such a commitment
    It is useful to discuss any potential teaching or conference commitments with your supervisor to find out whether there is a way of negotiating them with your general PhD workload. Your supervisor can also advise on attendance at research seminars and lectures. Here some students can define their role too narrowly. It is important to be a 'good citizen' within your department, and to play an active part in the research community. Attending a work-in-progress paper may only take 2 hours of an evening, and may prove more beneficial than you realize even if the topic is not directly relevant to your PhD. It is also good to support your colleagues.
  • Displacement activities and socialization
    Socializing is an important part of life. It has to be. Doing a postgraduate degree does not mean that you are not allowed to have a social life. But it does not mean either that you can use it as an excuse for putting your assignments off. You have the right to devote part of your week to social life, but you also have the duty to take responsibility for your postgraduate degree. It is not a matter of priority - there should not be any conflict between these two aspects of your life. If they come into conflict, it means that you are not handling them properly. Also, if you find that whenever you sit down to write you have an urge to spring-clean, then housework is becoming a displacement activity. Beware of 'virtuous' displacement activities.
    Treat your study as a full-time job. There is no reason to devote every single moment of your day to it, but it is supposed to occupy at least 8 hours of any working day, and sometimes more - also some of the weekend. If you do not work 9-5 in any given day you must assume that you will make up the time in the evenings. An adequate personal timetable should include some time for relaxing - for sport, sleep, socializing or watching TV, but don't be tempted to let leisure or housework activities have the upper hand over your study time, despite the flexi-time working hours you enjoy during a PhD.