Time management with a work and school balance
How can someone work and go to school at the same time? It was a question I asked myself anytime I came across someone doing it. I imagined it was hard, there’s a lot going on with being in school alone. It’s literally a full-time job and while the pay is crap, the workload is every bit as real as any other job you would get. So for a long time I considered myself lucky that I was in a position where I could focus on school alone. I didn’t think I could do both. Then last year all that changed.
So quick background, I’ma fifth year PhD candidate in neuroengineering. My BS and MS are in mechanical (two totally different fields) and as of Fall term of last year I decided it would be better for my career path if I took a job at the hospital based lab I had a two year fellowship with. It was a good decision and one I stand by even now. It meant I could work for what comes after my degree while finishing up my PhD. It also meant better pay (like actual pay), better benefits (yay for health insurance, because in the US teeth and health are optional), and it was essentially a postdoc while I’m still just a predoc (lol). In fact, if hopital-PI is correct, once I graduate I could theoretically skip the postdoc all together and just run my own lab, which I would really like since I’m a “non-traditional” student and I feel like I’m behind on my education as it is.
Unfortunately this meant I was now a full-time researcher in a clinical setting and a part-time student. That’s roughly 60+ hours worth of work assuming the hospital side of things was “only” 40 hours of work, which as a researcher, we don’t have a work/life balance because they are basically the same thing. As hospital-PI says, you don’t go into research for the money. Personally, I went in with wanting to leave the world in a slightly better place than when I found it, so that’s my driving factor these days. It doesn’t mean not taking a break though and it definitely doesn’t mean I can avoid doing school work.
Instead I need to find a balance between work and school, ostensibly two parts work to one part school, which is easier said than done. Because research isn’t a constant thing, at least not the stuff I do with human-based research. Instead it ebbs and flows, some weeks it’s non-stop you arrive in the lab before the sun comes up and leave after it’s gone down. Other days it feels like nothing is happening and you can focus instead on other things that you couldn’t do when you didn’t get to see the sun at all. That means plugging in school/breaks into the slow periods because while I am a student, I’m a researcher first now.
For me, planning is key, but that only goes so far. Research is fluid and plans change based on outside factors. People get sick/busy/dropout so things either open up or get weirdly packed. We may find that everyone has similar availability so one day has ALL THE EXPERIMENTS! While other days of the same week have nothing. Basically it means I need to have not one, but two plans. A short term plan and a long term plan. Goal setting is what really keeps me going.
This year I’ve managed to publish three papers, two first author and I have two first author papers and one second author paper in various stages of the writing/publication process. I’ve also got at least two more first author papers planned to start this year. Hopefully one will be published this year if I’m lucky with the review process. The reason I can do that (on top of the school stuff) is my long-term goals. Or milestones really. These are the things that I plan way out (months or years). They are the big to-do items that are there regardless of my schedule and these have two very important things attached to them. Frist, I set smaller milestones along the way, it’s not just boom, publish a paper, it’s write a section, do the analysis, etc.and second, I set deadlines for these things and those deadlines don’t change very much, a week or two at most. This keeps me on schedule for various things and are especially important when the milestones/work are in my control.
Which isn’t to say that problems come up. I have a very firm outline for my dissertation for example, but that got screwed all to hell because of equipment delays so now my nice year-long beautiful flowing timeline is condensed into six crazy months of work. I still hope to hit the ultimate goal by the time I set, meaning I really want to graduate in the spring of next year, but if that doesn’t happen at least I gave it my best shot and the circumstances around the delays were due to no fault of my own.
Then comes the short-term plans. This is the week to week stuff and it changes wildly depending on the day and time. One day I could have everything nicely laid out then the next someone in our lab comes down with COVID and the plan drastically shifts. Short-term goals/milestones are tiny by comparison and they are the somewhat mundane things I need to get done to, you know keep my job. They involve collecting data, conference(s), and other responsibilities I have. Planning out those things are important, but being able to move them around as needed and prioritize based on unexpected events (like someone close to me having a medical emergency for example…) means I can still get my work done.
Now lately it’s been 99% work and to be fair not a whole lot of school. So I didn’t have to juggle much. It has been nice, but like all nice things, it has come to an end. Now I need to squeeze back into my plans the data collection for my dissertation and the other work I need to do to graduate. This is not a bad thing, because I do really need to graduate soon, but it also means a LOT more work on my plate. To balance this, I plan on working smarter not harder.
Because a lot of the work I do is applicable between labs, to avoid duplication of work, my plan has been and continues to be to use the code I write for both school and work projects. Since statistical analyses are the same regardless of the experiment (warning, I’m speaking about the approach applied!) as long as the data is in the correct format, I can reuse any of the code I write for the project. This method has already proven beneficial when I wrote some code for permutation testing, which I’ve been reusing for other projects. These days I’m working on code that can handle up to five dimensions and output what I want depending on what I’m inputting (here). When I start data collection for my dissertation (soooon, I hope), I’ll be able to use this code without any trouble, but it also applies to some of the projects I’m working on for the hospital side of things.
A little bit of extra effort up front saves me a whole lot of headaches down the line when it comes time to apply these analyses. For the day to day stuff, I use an amalgamation of techniques that work best for me, which I call the pseudo-structured method. It works well for me, but that’s the point, finding what works best for you, not copying what I’m doing blindly. For the long-term “big” goals and milestones I prefer just making sure I having well thought out smaller milestones and somewhat firm deadlines for each small milestone as well as my larger goal. The idea there is to give yourself a bit of wiggle room to adjust because things will inevitably happen in life that will prevent you from hitting a long-term goal right on time if you don’t take steps to have room for life along the way.
Now that the fall term is about to kick off along with year four, and probably the final year if all goes well, of the 365 days of academia project it’s more important than ever for me to reassess where I am and make sure that both the long and short-term goals and milestones I’ve established are still correct and everything is ready for the upcoming shift in my workload as I need to take into account more time for the school side of things.
Basically the next few months are going to be overwhelming, but as long as it happens one day at a time, I think it will work out for the best. I don’t have to graduate at the five year mark exactly, but it’s still a goal worth aiming for and I plan to give it my best shot. Because in life, you miss 100% of the attempts you don’t make, so even if it feels like a longshot right now, it’s worth making the attempt.
When I was in college I took high credit loads, but I never worked (except in summer). So I don’t know what it would’ve been like, but I was plenty thankful I didn’t have to do it. I’m glad you got to pursue both tracks like you wanted, but I feel for you when it comes to the high workload.
You’re making me think about the fact that I don’t really have any goals that extend farther into the future than a year. I plan each year in a fair bit of detail (you’ve actually inspired me to write about how I do that some time), but it feels like I can’t see ahead much farther than that. I suppose it might be different if I had a well-defined multi-year project like a PhD. Do the longer-term goals come easily to you?
Good luck pushing through it, and I hope it doesn’t end up being too hard on you.
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August 4, 2022 at 10:10 pm
That’s good, being able to focus on school is always a great thing. I took high course loads during my undergrad and I still think undergrad was harder than my Masters, even though my Masters project was much more difficult technically speaking.
Interesting. For multi-year programs I think it’s easy to do. I tend to think longer term anyway, five years or so long term. I guess it’s because sometimes right now is bad, but if I can see a path to something much better, even when it’s that far into the future, it makes dealing with the now a little easier. It’s a habit I picked up from one of my many therapists, but yeah working on PhD makes it a lot easier to think about that far ahead.
Thanks! I’m hopeful. Thankfully the data collection is the most physically demanding part of the entire thing, once that is done I can worry about the rest at my own pace.
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August 5, 2022 at 12:25 pm
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