If you’re considering returning to graduate school, you’ve probably wondered how you’ll get everything done and keep on top of your already hectic life. It’s a struggle for all graduate students, but for working moms, it’s an even bigger challenge.
When I was working on my PhD (which I chose not to finish and will discuss in another post), the residency requirement was to complete 18 hours during two semesters – 3 classes each semester. I was already working a demanding job and raising three children so this was a huge concern for me.
You’ve probably heard the old joke: How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time.
I’ve found the same to be true when you’re looking at a major project (like competing a degree). It can be overwhelming to think about completing the whole thing at once. But you’ve got to do two things in order to survive your semester without losing your mind. You’ve got to take a look at the whole project in its entirety to know what all you’ve got to get accomplished (the elephant view), and then you’ve got to break the work load down into smaller, more manageable chunks (the daily bite).
I used two spreadsheets to keep me focused and to develop my plan of attack on two levels: the big semester overview, and the daily overview.
The Elephant View: Your entire semester at a glance
- The first thing you need to do is get the syllabus from each class you’re taking. You should be able to find these through the online portal for each class prior to the start of the semester. If not, you’ll get them from your professor during the first class session.
- Next, create an Excel spread sheet with every date listed until the end of your semester. Include weekend dates because you will definitely be using your weekend time when you’re in graduate school! In fact, when you’re got a full time job, your weekends become your time to catch up on your school work.
- Using the syllabus for each class, plug in dates of tests, project deadlines, when specific readings must be done, etc. I color coded each type of activity (red for tests, etc.) so that I could tell at a glance where specific things fell during the semester. I’m a very visual person and it helped me to be able to see three red cells bunched up together because it told me (without even reading) that I was going to have a week full of testing and that I’d better get prepared ahead of time.
- Log in non-negotiable dates at work and your child’s activities that you absolutely MUST attend (know that when you’re in graduate school you will have to make trade-offs). This will allow you to see where there are potential conflicts that you’ll need to arrange for, or where you’re going to have to work ahead so that you won’t be missing something important to your child. This also lets you know when you’re NOT going to have time to focus on getting school work done so that you can plan accordingly.
- Your next step is to start planning backwards. This means that you look at your projects and readings, and start breaking them down in to smaller chunks. For example, if you need to get four chapters read during a certain week, you spread them out so that you’re not trying to read all of them the night before class. Likewise, you’ll also want to look at the length of each chapter. I remember a particular class where the chapters would be over a hundred pages. A first glance had me thinking, “this is going to be an easy week!” Until I realized how long the chapter was. At that point I broke the chapter down into chunks and scheduled different reading sessions over the week.
- I printed off a hard copy of each week (I’m a paper girl at heart) and kept it on the bulletin board right in front of my computer. I’d also highlight each section when it was finished. Highlighting this on both the physical and digital copy helped me keep from getting behind (or if I did get behind, it made it immediately apparent where I needed to play catch up).
The Daily Bite: Planning what you’ll chew on each day
- Now that you know WHAT needs to get done each day, you can start planning WHEN you’ll do it.
- Create another spreadsheet with the days of the week across the top, and times of day down the left-hand side. You’re creating a grid where you can log your daily commitments.
- Log in the time you’re at work and what time is spent commuting, grooming, sleeping, etc. You might color code these by the type of activities
- You now know how much time you have left to get your graduate work done. Now you can begin plotting your schoolwork schedule for each day.
- Take the big spreadsheet you just created with your entire semester on it and use these two spreadsheets together to refine when you can work on various projects.
- Look at your reading lists. Figure out how many chapters or pages you need to read each week in order to keep up. Now break the weekly reading list into daily tasks. It’s very difficult to catch up if you get behind.
Keeping Up: The biggest challenge
Now for the honest part. You can make all the spreadsheets you want but if you’re not religious about sticking to a daily schedule and getting things done EVERY DAY, then you’ll get behind. I used to tell students in middle school that it’s easier to stay caught up than is is to play catch up. This is even more critical in graduate school because when you’re behind, things begin to snowball.
Remember that elephant joke I told you? You couldn’t eat it all in one sitting and you’d make yourself sick if you tried. The same is true with graduate school. It’s possible to get so far behind that catching up is impossible.
So don’t get behind.
You’ll have to make some tough choices: do I watch my favorite TV show or read that chapter? Do I go out for lunch this weekend or get started on that paper? The brutal truth is that you’ll have to make sacrifices if you want to be successful in grad school. But the result is worth it. You can always catch up on those TV programs later and your real friends will understand that you’ll make time for them when you can. And following the plan will allow you to meet your family and work obligations so that you don’t reach the end of your degree with regrets.
If you’re still considering whether graduate school is right for you then you can read more here.
Your success is up to you – you can do it!