Thursday, August 6, 2015

PhD Talk for AcademicTransfer: How to outline a planning for a semester

This post is part of the series PhD Talk for AcademicTransfer: posts written for the Dutch academic career network AcademicTransfer, your go-to resource for all research positions in the Netherlands.

These posts are sponsored by AcademicTransfer, and tailored to those of you interested in pursuing a research position in the Netherlands.

If these posts raise your interest in working as a researcher in the Netherlands, even better - and feel free to fire away any questions you might have on this topic!


If you live on the northern hemisphere, the days are getting shorter again, and summer is ever so slightly coming to an end. The long holidays are over (or the quiet semester with less lectures and responsibilities is over), and the buzzing of Fall semester can be heard in the distance.

And now that the Fall semester is drawing near, it might be a good moment to set goals for this semester, and plan accordingly. In this post, I'll guide you through the steps that will make Fall 2015 your most productive semester ever.

Ready for the challenge? Here we go.

1. Outline your major goals for the semester

Before you go into more details for the semester and how everything will fit in, time-wise and all the nitty-gritty, PAUSE and focus your thoughts:

What are the five most important things that you need to do this semester?

If you don't like lists, you can journal about it - either via 750words.com, a document in Evernote, or by writing long hand. Just find the red thread throughout your semester - this is the clothes hanger on which you will build your semester (don't you think Dutch expression translated can be very informative?).

Once you have outlined these five tasks (or even less, if you are working on a very large project such as your dissertation), try to identify when during the semester you will work on each project/task.

Will you work a few hours a week on each project, to make sure all projects move forward at the same pace?
Will you tackle one project at a time?


Identify how you will work first, and then map these tasks onto a plan for the semester. I like to use a monthly overview in Google Calendar, and select all the days that a project will be running (this is the approach I used in the past), or I put daily/weekly reminders in my ToDoist for the period of time that I plan to work on this task (my current approach).

If I want to study Spanish every 3 days during the semester, I'll put such a reminder in ToDoist. I also put a reminder of when I plan to start drafting a paper, when I plan to have the first version finished and when I plan to submit it.

2. Make a weekly planning

Now that you have the big rocks of your semester identified, you can zoom into your semester and try to fit all the bits and pieces of work that need to be done on a daily basis into a weekly schedule.

The elements that you need to fit in are (among others):
- teaching
- class preparation
- research
- writing papers
- reading papers / keeping up with the output in your field
- faculty responsibilities (such as, directing a lab)
- service on committees and other regular meetings
- office hours
- time to reply e-mails
- admin time


As you can see, I filter out e-mail and admin, and bunch all these small tasks into an hour of mail/admin a day (even though that hour sometimes expands beyond its limitations). I'm not replying to every single mail the moment it shows up on my phone (I typically stow away my phone in the drawer and close my mailbox anyway), and e-mail has a low priority for me: I'd rather miss my daily hour of replying e-mails than my daily hour of writing papers. Because papers are fab and emails mostly flab.

Once you have identified your building bricks, you can start to construct the framework of your semester. First, think of how many hours a week you are willing to work. 30? 40? 50? I don't recommend that you plan to work more than 60 hours a week, because your brain needs to refresh and refocus from time to time as well.
Then, distribute the hours that you have over the different categories. Typically, your time can be divided along the different categories (just giving you some rough estimates - things might look very different for you if your responsibilities are different):

- teaching: the number of hours you are actually in class
- class preparation: 2 hours per hour of class if it's a course you've taught before; 4 if it is a new course
- research: a few chunks of 2 hours throughout the week
- writing papers: at least an hour a day
- reading papers / keeping up with the output in your field: at least twice a week an hour
- faculty responsibilities (such as, directing a lab): at least three times a week an hour
- service on committees and other regular meetings: as scheduled
- office hours: depends on your university guidelines
- time to reply e-mails: about an hour a day
- admin time: half an hour a day


The details of setting up your schedule for the semester are in a previous post from this series.

3. Make a semester planning

You have already identified how your Big Rocks are taking up time and space in your planning for the entire semester. Now, you can weave your other responsibilities around it.

Sounds vague?

Here are a few things to identify:

When will homeworks be due, and when will you take midterms?
What are your important self-imposed deadlines for your research?
What are good times throughout the semester to follow-up with (international) collaborators?


Have these elements sorted out, and add them to your planning.

You will see that, as the semester progresses, your weekly schedule will serve as a guide for you, but it shouldn't be a terribly rigid plan. You are able to, and allowed to, move some blocks of time around in your schedule as necessary. Similarly, you can identify weeks where your schedule might be disrupted because of conferences or other special activities. Make sure you already build these elements into your schedule for the semester.

4. Plan personal activities

So important - don't forget to plan activities that you find important into your weekly and semesterly schedule.

On a weekly basis, you might think of planning time for workouts, social activities, date nights and other "regular" activities that you want to do repeatedly during the semester. Make time for them, and put them in your planning. You will feel much better when you arrange quality time for yourself (whether that means an evening of reading a good book, taking a bath, or crushing a damn-hard workout), than when you just stick around the house after work, eat and veg out on the couch (not that you are never allowed to do so and always have to be productive, but that in-between state is just not good for you when you stay in that state for too long).

Then, on a semesterly basis, plan out a few cool things you want to do. It's OK to spend an entire weekend working, if necessary, but don't do so the entire semester - you might want to have something to look forward to on a shorter notice. Decide what you want to do with your semester breaks: work on a paper, or get out to the mountains and hike - both are great options. Sleeping in, trying to "write a bit", replying emails and watching Netflix - not so good, too much in that half-working half-relaxing kinda state.

5. Focus

Now that you have your schedule figured it, it's time to put your ass in your office chair and grind. Or at least, ideally. In reality, there are a ton of social media platforms, the news, food, internet, your phone, your puppy and your mother-in-law that all want your attention. So remember your Big Rocks of the semester, and focus on those. I recommend you check out my guideline for better concentration in five steps, to help you sharpen your focus.

Remember that you feel much more successful if you've spend a day pomodoring through a difficult task, with short breaks for coffee, walks, bathroom and all of that, than when you try to do a bit, then go to check Instagram, do a little more, then read a blog post and so on (guilty as charged - I admit!).

Focus, focus, focus - try to think of what you will remember of this semester in two or five years from now. It won't be that BuzzFeed video - I'm sure.

6. Reward yourself

If you work hard, you gotta pat yourself on your back. Nobody will come after you to pat you on your back, so you have to take care of it yourself....

Finish a paper on time? Go get yourself a massage.
Submitted your research proposal? Head to the beach for a weekend.
Graded all those exams? Time for a movie.
Got a paper accepted? Go out to dinner and celebrate.

Life is to be enjoyed - and as academics, we're often too hard on ourselves (we little club of perfectionists...). So take good care of yourself, and put a bit of sparkle into your semester. This bit of magic will make your semester so much more balanced and enjoyable.

So, go ahead, get started with planning your semester - both in terms of work and fun - and get back to me to tell me what your semester will look like!

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