Time Management Strategies for Graduate Students

May 16, 2019

As the marketplace demands continuous learning for employees, many professionals are faced with the decision of returning to school to earn a graduate degree. This poses a challenge for people who are already balancing work and home responsibilities. Learning effective time management strategies will help organize your life across work, home and school to create the time needed to succeed in your graduate degree program.

Businessman checking his calendar.

Graduate school typically requires 15-20 hours of work per week. For on-campus students, this includes time in the classroom, completing external reading assignments, meeting for group projects, preparing for exams and traveling to and from campus.

Online students have the luxury of completing coursework asynchronously at a time that is convenient for their schedules, but will still need to allocate time to write papers, participate in discussion boards, complete research and participate in other activities like virtual group meetings.

No matter what format you choose for your graduate courses, you will need to approach each week with a careful plan to fit into your schedule. Many successful graduate students use time management strategies to organize their week so they are in control of their calendar throughout their studies.

Tools and Techniques

Quadrant System

Dr. Stephen Covey, the author of The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, states, “To live a more balanced existence, you have to recognize that not doing everything that comes along is okay.” When we focus on our highest priorities, we work on achieving our goals. In his book, Covey introduces the use of a quadrant system that teaches us personal time management. It is a tool that helps you organize and manage your time and events according to the importance and urgency of each task.

Time management tool to plan priorities.

Covey says that most people who live in Quadrant I are “crisis managers, problem-minded people, [and] deadline-driven producers.” These people live in crisis mode, which leads to stress and burn-out. They will pull an all-nighter or wait until the last minute to write a paper. They react to problems, and when they need a break, they escape “to the not important, not urgent activities of Quadrant IV.”

Quadrant IV is for activities that are “trivial, busywork” and have no impact on getting your tasks completed. People avoid what needs to get done and concentrate on time-wasting activities such as binge watching their favorite TV show, instead of writing their paper or reading a case study. This is time that could be better spent elsewhere.

Those that spend their time in Quadrant III urgent, but not important “react to things that are urgent, assuming they are also important.” According to Covey, “the urgency of these matters are often based on the priorities and expectations of others.” A classmate may text you an urgent message that you have to meet about your group project today. Even though it is important to meet, it may not be urgent that you meet today.

Woman planning her list of priorities.

If we want to be the most efficient, Quadrant II, not urgent but important, will be where you spend the majority of your time. Covey says Quadrant II is the “heart of effective personal management.” These tasks will prove to be your most important drivers in reaching your balance among school, work and home. This is where you plan for your term paper, prepare for your presentation, and outline your capstone project. Building relationships with like-minded people such as your professors and classmates falls in this quadrant as well. Your professional and academic career will benefit from these relationships. The activities in this quadrant will “make a tremendous positive difference in your life.”

In Quadrant II, planning is an important, task and this includes making your schedule. Each week brings new deadlines at work, due dates at school and scheduled activities for your family events. Practice effective time management techniques each week to optimize the time you are spending on your tasks that will help you reach your goals.

Create a Schedule

Time management strategy using a calendar.

Now that you know how to focus on the most important tasks, let’s get to work on planning your calendar so that you find dedicated time for your graduate studies. "One of the biggest myths when it comes to time management is that next week always looks free," psychology professor Timothy A. Pychyl, PhD says in the article, Where Do the Hours Go? The article goes on to say that once you see where your time is going, you can better control it and “build a more accurate schedule for yourself.”

Put everything you do into a calendar, whether online or in a physical planner. Add your work hours, weekend activities, sporting events, even gym time. Once everything is accounted for, you will have a good idea of where you can add your study time. If your calendar looks busy, get creative to find time. Ask friends, family and spouse to share responsibilities. For example, carpool for kids’ activities and order your groceries online. We have provided a sample calendar that a graduate student may create.

Let’s take a look at where you can fit in time to study: early in the morning, later at night and during the day. Once it is laid out, it is not so difficult to see where you can carve out these hours:

Time management strategy using a calendar.

This sample schedule allows 20 hours of dedicated time to your studies. Carving out time, like at lunch time, is a great way to find chunks of time that add up to meaningful work. You can complete short assignments like answering a discussion board, proofreading an assignment or beginning a brainstorm for you paper. The longer periods of time are dedicated for the assignments that require more attention, for example, critical thinking activities, studying for an exam or working on a project.

This type of time management strategy allows you to move your schedule around easily as each week will bring new tasks and commitments. You may find that dedicating the longer study times to certain days throughout the semester, like every Saturday or Sunday will create consistency and predictability in your schedule; but don’t fall into the trap of expecting to complete everything in a single weekend. Find what works best for you as you continually improve your time management techniques throughout graduate school.

Get Started

Begin to put your time management tools and techniques into practice as you prepare for graduate school. Use this quadrant worksheet to plan each week to keep you organized and on track: Quadrant Worksheet

Remember that you can succeed if you practice the techniques outlined above. The time you invest in your education now will pay significant dividends throughout your career and life.


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