It’s midway through the semester. You can hardly make your way through the piles of books, course packets, notebooks and handouts on what was once your desk. Your research has stalled because of the mountain of research papers left to grade from the class you assistant teach. On top of this your committee wants the first three chapters of your thesis in two weeks. This is a graduate school scenario that we all wonder if we can cope with.
If it’s your first semester of your first year of graduate school, rest assured you will revisit this scene every semester until you graduate. It’s easy to become buried in the often overwhelming work load of graduate school, but there are some simple ways you can learn to cope with your work.
Try to create as large a workspace in your home as possible with plenty of areas for all your books, course packets, notebooks, handouts and grading assignments from your teaching assistantship. Keep these all separate and neat. When they become disheveled make sure you get them straight again. This will give you some feeling of control and organization over the bulk of paper involved with your graduate program. Clutter will keep you in a state of feeling frazzled and so distracted you won’t be able to get very much accomplished
As soon as you receive the syllabus for every course, go through it and record all due dates and deadlines for assignments, projects and presentations. It would be ideal if you had several ways to do this from a large paper calendar to using Outlook. The more you meticulously record every detail of all class expectations the easier it will be to remember and anticipate. If you anticipate deadlines you make it easier to pace your preparation to fulfill your assignments.
Carefully study your calendar to find windows of time that can be used to patch in reading or grading. Grading assignments from your teaching assistantship can sometimes feel like the straw that broke the camel’s back, but there are always small pockets of time in your day when you can get a few papers graded or do some necessary reading.
You may be waiting between classes, eating lunch or in the library checking out books, but if you come with some papers to grade you can make some headway. There is a lot of waiting in graduate school. Whether you are waiting for a class, waiting for a meeting to start or waiting for an appointment with a faculty member, there’s no reason not to use that time.
Get yourself a completely serviceable backpack or large bag. Make sure it has lots of pockets and areas to separate everything you’ll need to have with you at school. Try to anticipate and prepare what you need beforehand and get it all ready to go in your bag. Graduate students are often seen lugging piles of books around campus. A good backpack will help you with that. If you are ready for this next step, a small, wheeled carrier can also relieve the book burden.
Stagger your tasks so you don’t get bogged down. If you’re at home all day buried in work, try to do something in one area and then move on to something else, staggering the work back and forth. This sometimes gives you a psychological impression that you’re getting more done but it also relieves that bored stuck feeling when you’ve been doing the same thing for too long. This is also an excellent way to cope with your paper grading.
Find some time to walk away. Take a break and if possible, take an entire day off and declare it a work free day that is only for you. You need these breaks to refresh yourself and feel as if you still have a life.
Hopefully you’ll begin to see patterns in your overwhelmed condition. From these patterns you will be able to find the ways of working that are best for you. The work in graduate school doesn’t go away until it goes away, so be prepared and you’ll be able to cope.