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How to Be Productive in Graduate School

Updated on June 27, 2012
Being Productive in Graduate School Will Get You to Graduation Faster!
Being Productive in Graduate School Will Get You to Graduation Faster! | Source

Work Smarter in Graduate School By:

  1. Getting advice from fellow graduate students

  2. Treating grad school like a job

  3. Making a list of goals

  4. Using a "to do" list and a "done" list

  5. Doing a weekly review

  6. Writing a weekly update

Getting a graduate degree requires dedication, hard work, and enormous motivation. Most graduate programs, either for a master’s degree or a doctorate degree, are what is considered “self starting”, where the student’s success is a direct response to the work they put in. No one is holding your hand throughout this portion of your academic career and this is why is so important to be productive in grad school.

One of the first steps to access early success in graduate school is to speak with other graduate students when you first enter your program. Ask around and find out what it takes to succeed in your department or college. Fellow students’ suggestions can be one of the most helpful ways to start an advanced degree on the right foot. For example, you might be instructed to avoid a certain class or professor, to select a thesis topic right away, or wait a while for thesis selection. It can vary by degree program and which college or university you attend.

Another critical component of being productive in grad school is to treat school like a job. Even if you already have a job or if you don’t, develop set hours that you work on reading material, studying, writing, and doing research. Make these hours devoted to your graduate program a habit; use these hours appropriately every week and you won’t waste time trying to decide when you are going to do what. Even better, if you are taking classes, devote certain hours of the week to work for each specific class. For example, you set aside 2 hours every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday to work on your class reading for your “Advanced English Literature” class. Cal Newport, author of How to Be a High School Superstar, How to Be a Straight A Student, How to Win at College, and the Study Hacks blog, calls this weekly set class study time a “shadow class”.

As many students are aware, a to do list is critically important for anyone trying to accomplish a major goal. For graduate school, make a list of your overall long term goal, a few short term goals (like semester by semester), monthly goals, and weekly goals. This will indeed take time, time that you could be spending on your studies, but the time invested in developing your goals is time well spent. After you have established your long term and short term goals, make a daily to do list with your most important tasks listed. Don’t make a huge to do list because you will get overwhelmed. Just list the critically important things you need to accomplish for the day. At the end of the day, revisit this list and evaluate what you did and didn’t get accomplished. You can then move tasks to your to do list for the next day.

In addition to a to do list, a student can feel very productive and accomplished by making a “done” list. List everything you have completed or accomplished for graduate school on this weekly list and aim to make each list longer than the previous week. If your research advisor or another professor asks you what you have done recently, you can quickly pull out this list, instead of having to remember back a week or two.

Doing a weekly review at the end of the week and writing a weekly update are two very effective indicators of productivity, and not many graduate students do either. David Allen in his book, “Getting Things Done”, discusses the importance of a weekly review and describes how to implement it. Businessmen and women throughout various industries are quite familiar with weekly reviews, but it is not implemented very often in academia. Writing a weekly update, even if you do not have anyone to give it to but yourself, is very effective at showing you exactly what you have and have not accomplished that week. In graduate school, there are very productive weeks and not very productive weeks, and through a weekly update, a student can easily see what kind of week he or she had. Both the weekly review and a weekly update can be written quite easily and quickly if you are making a “done” list every week.

Following these productivity suggestions can possibly make earning a master’s degree or Ph.D. faster and maybe even easier. Length of time until graduation is usually directly proportional to the amount of work a graduate student puts into his or her program. If you are more productive, you can get more accomplished in a shorter period of time with less effort!

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