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Meeting the Challenge: Learning How to Better Manage Your Time During Graduate School

February 5, 2016

By Vicki Dominick

Time management in graduate school presents students with a variety of new challenges. By learning about these challenges and following the recommendations below, you can successfully manage your time in graduate school.

Challenge: Increased academic rigor

You should expect to be assigned a great deal more reading than during your bachelor’s degree. In addition to the amount of reading, the complexity of the concepts presented will be greater as well. Also, you will be expected to write lengthier papers and take on larger, more complex class projects.

All of this takes more time. For a typical 3-credit graduate class, you should set aside 9-12 hours per week for reading, researching, writing, and completing assignments. You may also need to spend more time on campus meeting with faculty or consulting with research librarians.

Challenge: Long-term requirements

Graduate school often includes requirements outside of academic classes such as qualifying exams, comprehensive exams, research proposals, and thesis or dissertation papers. Rather than thinking in terms of semesters, graduate students need to think in terms of years.

Create a 2-year monthly calendar for long-term requirements and projects. Include important departmental and university deadlines, conference dates, and your expected graduation date. Be sure to update this calendar regularly and add your own interim long-term goals as well. This will help you keep the big picture in mind and remind you of what you are working towards.

Challenge: Independent work

As you progress in your program, you will be expected to take on more independent work such as capstone projects or dissertation papers. Without the structure of a course with regular class meetings, assignments, and grades, it can be difficult to work on these projects. In addition, you often lack the social support found in classes from fellow students who are facing the same challenges at the same time as you.

Create a weekly schedule with specific days and times set aside in order to complete this independent work. Without a plan, it is easy for your days to get filled with other activities. By saying what you are going to do, when you are going to do it, and how long you are going to work on it, you are much more likely to complete the project. In addition, include checkpoints to ensure that you are on track to achieve your goals. You can form a study group to review for your qualifying exam, schedule a monthly meeting with your dissertation chair, or join a peer writing group. Weekly write-ins are available on both the Fairfax campus  and the Arlington campus

Challenge: Multiple commitments

Most graduate students have more commitments than they did during their undergraduate programs. You may hold a graduate assistantship or a full time job. Perhaps you have a growing family or you need to care for aging parents. Maybe you are involved in campus or community organizations.

It is possible to balance all of your obligations, but you need to be realistic. If you are working, add up how many hours you work, how many hours you are in class, and how much study time you need during an average week. Remember, you still need to have time for sleep and recreation. Determine if you need to reduce your work hours or if you need to be a part-time graduate student. It may take longer to finish your program, but it will be worth it in order to balance your life. Also, if you have a graduate assistantship, find out how many hours a week you are expected to work and create a schedule with your supervisor. Make sure you are clear about your responsibilities. It can be easy for a 20 hour a week assistantship to balloon into 40 hours a week if you are not careful.

In terms of your home life, discuss your academic goals with family members and decide if others can take on some of your responsibilities. Children may be able to take on more chores and a spouse or sibling may be able to help out. It may also help to lower your expectations about household cleanliness. Maybe it is okay to vacuum four times a week instead of everyday and the kids can make their own beds, even if they are not perfect. Finally, see if you can share child-care responsibilities with family members or other graduate students so that you have regular blocks of study time available.


If you still need assistance managing your time, there are a number of resources available to help you. First, speak with your fellow graduate students about their time management strategies. Your classmates are facing the same challenges and can offer you advice. Second, talk with your faculty members. They have been through the same process and they understand the department’s culture and expectations. Your assistantship supervisor should be able to help you prioritize tasks and make sure the most important work is being completed. Third, Learning Services offers individual academic coaching. You can make an appointment online at by clicking here to meet with a coach who will help you determine your academic goals and help you develop a plan to achieve those goals.

On January 29, Learning Services and Graduate Student Life offered a webinar on time management.  Click here to view the webinar.

Vicki Dominick is the Associate Director for Learning Services at George Mason University.

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