By nature, I am an early morning person. I love to wake up with the sun at dawn and start working between 5 a.m. and 6 a.m. Perhaps it is the silence or the lack of interruptions, but I find that my mind is the sharpest during the early morning hours. During my last semester in graduate school when my thesis deadline was nearing I was frequently in lab by 6 a.m. and started doing experiments or writing my thesis right away (sometimes the two simultaneously). By the time my colleagues arrived between 8 a.m. and 9 a.m., I had already revised a chapter of my thesis or completed a significant part of an experiment.
Clearly, this schedule is not for everyone, and I realized this the hard way. I worked on a study with a lady named Sara (not her real name), and she was definitely not the early morning type. On good days, she strolled into lab with her coffee at 11 a.m., but sometimes she showed up in the early afternoon. There were days when she did not even begin working seriously until I was about to leave to go home. She was a hard worker and stayed in the lab until the early morning hours, but it took some effort on both of our parts to collaborate on our project.
While Sara and I practically lived in different time zones, we had one thing in common: a structured schedule. Graduate school can be an unstructured experience for many students. There are few deadlines and only vague guidance from the PI’s, and somehow graduate students must find a way to complete an original and novel research project. No wonder that towards the third or fourth years, many students lose motivation and even question the purpose of graduate school altogether.
So, what can you do to be productive this semester? How can you be motivated each day, get your work done, spend time with your friends and even squeeze in a few (i.e.7-9) hours of sleep at night?
The answer is a structured and regular schedule, and the beginning of the semester is the perfect time for planning. Students who were successful in graduate school (i.e. graduated relatively quickly with a good publication record) attribute their accomplishments to balancing work with a healthy personal life. By the time you are in graduate school you probably know which time of day you are most productive. So, schedule the highest priority tasks for the 3-4 hours when your mind is the sharpest. Also, make sure you take care of your body and relationships. A good rule of thumb is to schedule at least three hours a week for hobbies/sports and at least three hours to connect with your support group (spouse, friends, student group etc.)
Cannot get out of bed in time, or are tempted to stay up late again for no good reason? Reward yourself for sticking to your schedule. Bagel with lox and hot chocolate with whipped cream were among my favorites, but I know fruit smoothies and foaming lattes are also high on people’s lists. Have fun!