The Research Block: Time Management in the Research Phase

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As of August 2020 I had passed my preliminary examinations at the University of Tennessee-Knoxville, in analysis and partial differential equations. In the mindset of many potential advisors, this was the green light to begin working on research with them. Of course, I had to first identify an advisor and a project. While I detail this process more in a different blog post, I want to jump to what happened from a logistical standpoint after I made these important decisions.

In the Fall 2020 semester, I had extra work to do each week as my project initiated, along with one extra meeting per week with my advisors (that typically lasts around 2 hours, sometimes longer). While this quickly became the most exciting part of my weekly routine, my responsibilities on other fronts did not diminish. Since my project draws from multiple foundational areas of mathematics, and I am only in Year 2, I am still pushing through relatively heavy course loads, somewhat heavier than is strictly required for a student with preliminary examinations behind them. And that’s not to mention teaching responsibilities. It is a lot of work; I’m not complaining, just stating facts. Somewhere in the middle of the Fall 2020 semester, it occurred to me that the progress on research is ultimately what will allow me to graduate, which means I felt a stronger need to make it a priority NOW, even though I shouldn’t be expecting to graduate for a few more years.

Therefore, I wanted a new plan for Spring 2021, in anticipation that expectations from my advisors on research progress would only increase as I moved further along and got more up-to-speed on background material. This involved a simple, tried-and-true step at the beginning of the semester: research blocks. In other words, I needed to prioritize research as if it were a meeting. Time set aside only to work on research, not homework, not teaching, or anything else that was important. Then those other responsibilities would fill in the time I had remaining throughout the week. Of course, my class meeting times and the times spent lecturing were largely beyond my control, so I worked around those.

Here’s my general agenda of everything I have scheduled in a typical week this semester, in rough chronological order per day. This doesn’t include time spent on problem sets, grading, or personal errands/exercise. All those things fall into the time that is remaining. Same goes for sleep (I typically go to bed at 11:30 and get up at 8:15 during the week, and weekends are more variable).

Monday:

  • Lecture quantitative reasoning course (~1 hr)

Tuesday:

  • Research block (~3 hrs)

Wednesday:

  • Lecture quantitative reasoning course (~1 hr)

Thursday:

  • Research block (~3 hrs)

Friday:

  • Lecture quantitative reasoning course (~1 hr)

Saturday/Sunday:

Other than the occasion where my Friday meeting gets moved to Sunday, I usually don’t have anything scheduled on weekends. In other words, the weekends become spillover of what didn’t get done during the week.

I should indicate that this breakdown does not mean I limit myself to 8.5 hours a week to work on research. In nearly any week, I spend considerably more time on it than that. My main project with faculty members aside, I also have a project with another graduate student, and an ongoing mentorship effort where I am helping an undergraduate student in India conduct research of his own. Also, I occasionally need to do extra exam proctoring or meet with my students outside of class, but these events don’t occur within a regular time frame.

Since my weekly meeting with my advisors is on Monday, I use that as a guide to pace myself throughout the week. Usually on Monday nights I make a clear list of tasks that need to be completed by the following week, in bullet-point fashion, and I update that list as I move forward. The research blocks are mostly used for working out results and writing them up in an Overleaf document I share with my advisors; the meetings are mostly comprised of looking at the document together and making edits, in addition to talking about the longer-term trajectory of the project.

If I get stuck on something, I can email my advisors, though depending on the question’s depth it’s sometimes easier to wait until the next meeting to bring it up. I am more likely to contact them if I am ahead on my other responsibilities, particularly with completing homework. On the flip side, even if I can figure out something on my own in 20 hours condensed into two or three days, the opportunity cost for how that time can be spent otherwise is usually too high. That opportunity cost is lower if I have less going on in that particular week. As the semesters go on, I hope that my course load lightens and that I can afford to spend more time on my projects. There’s almost a guilt associated with it, though even if I dropped some of my “extra” activities, I don’t think my progress on my main project would be much faster, because the progress would become saturated. Forcing myself to move between different activities lets me subconsciously think about one task while actively working on another, or taking a break.

The moral of the story is this: if you want to make something a priority, block off the time. It doesn’t matter if that “thing” is a work-related task, a leisure activity, or simply getting enough sleep.

This past weekend I went to my first large in-person social gathering since the COVID-19 pandemic began: a birthday party/cookout for one of my friends in the Ph.D. program that I am enrolled in. At the party, the birthday girl said that her advisor had been looking to take a weekend off, being swamped with projects and teaching, among other things. She made a simple suggestion for her advisor: put the weekend off on your calendar, and “we’ll deal with it.” The same can be said for me, looking to make my research a priority to accelerate my intellectual growth and progress through the Ph.D. program.

Math PhD Student University of Tennessee | Academic Sales Engineer | Writer, Educator, Researcher

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