Graduate school brings its own set of challenges to which graduate students have to adapt. Poor time management for graduate students can lead to chronic procrastination, feelings of incompetence, a sense of isolation, as well as the feeling that there is no end in sight.

Some common challenges grad students deal with include unpredictability and interruptions, large and open-ended tasks, balancing work and home/personal life, and motivational barriers. Despite these challenges, you can make the seemingly unmanageable graduate student lifestyle into something far less stressful.

Creating Structure

Planning for unexpected changes and distractions from the outset and setting expectations and boundaries in your relationships can help you deal with the unpredictability of graduate life. What are some ways that you can incorporate structure to reduce chaos in your day-to-day life? For example, if you find that your plan changes on a daily basis, you could plan to set a daily schedule at the very beginning of every day and deal with any sudden changes to your longer-term plans.

Setting boundaries can also serve as a form of structure. Are there any people in your work life that you could stand to be clearer with regarding your time management plans? You can reduce distraction of emails and texts by setting a time that you will respond to emails/calls/texts every few hours, setting regular office hours for your students, and letting students know they can expect responses from you during your scheduled times.

Set up a plan of communication in which your adviser and your family know how to get a hold of you for extremely urgent matters. For example, you can ignore all phone calls, but encourage people to send a text to let you know if it’s a very urgent or serious concern that cannot wait until your call/text/email checking time. Similarly, you can schedule times throughout the week where you will study away from home or in a home office uninterrupted and let your family know. In what other ways can you turn unpredictability into structure for yourself?

Open-ended Tasks

Another major challenge is that the tasks are often large and open-ended, which can leave you wondering where to even start. Are there ways you can use time management to keep yourself motivated with potentially overwhelming work? Perhaps you could break the task down into smaller, more manageable tasks so it becomes less stressful for you. The SMART Goals method can be very useful in this area: you can set task goals that are specific, measurable, attainable, realistic, and timely. 

Manageable tasks can then be organized using monthly planners, weekly schedules, and daily task lists. Think about a current project you’re working on: on a scale of 1-10 how stressful is it and why? How can you break it down into smaller steps to allay some of that stress? Additionally, you can avoid losing time on a project by leveraging professional relationships to help you get closer to your goal. If you’re stuck during a project, you can raise questions to get input from your adviser to move you forward. What kinds of questions could you ask a faculty member that would elicit helpful feedback?

Work-life Balance

Balancing your work life and personal life is a part of time management that can make being a graduate student more rewarding and enjoyable. How satisfied are you with your life outside of schoolwork, jobs, and projects? What would a week with an ideal balance look like if you had to describe it to someone else? How often would you laugh out-loud?

Balancing your work and personal lives can help ensure you are taking time to de-stress, help avoid stress-induced illnesses, and help maintain any supportive relationships as you progress through your program. In the face of high-stress situations like qualifying and comprehensive exams, theses, and dissertations, you can greatly benefit by taking seriously both work and fun.


Finally, effectively addressing motivational issues can also improve your time management during graduate school by reducing procrastination. Try listing what things motivate and de-motivate you when it comes to your school work. In what ways can you increase your reliance on motivators that are within your control and decrease your reliance on extrinsic motivators? For example, instead of thinking about having the perfect manuscript or perfect proposal before submitting your work, focus on getting something small completed such as an outline or a small statement written. Then, assume you will have to revise in light of your adviser, another mentor, or a peer’s feedback. From this perspective, the motivator is getting feedback, not getting it right the first time.

Graduate work often lacks quick or reliable rewards. It can be beneficial to regain control of your motivation by identifying short-term, process-oriented things that will be rewarding for you. For example, when applying for a fellowship or scholarship, you can focus on the reward of developing skills in grant writing rather than focusing on the shakier prospect of winning the award. What are some ways you can reward yourself more often for engaging in the research process rather than just for your end products?

While graduate school brings plenty of new challenges for successfully managing your time, there are ways to regain control of the situation and move forward toward your goals. Graduate school can be a less stressful and more rewarding experience as you become more skilled at managing your time. Like much graduate work itself, successful time management is a learned skill that improves with time. If you would like help implementing some of these small changes in your own process of time management, please set up an academic coaching appointment.