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Time neither stretches nor shrinks

Today, I have the pleasure of hosting Natalia Sali, who shares with us her academic schedule. Natalia is a second year part time PhD student at Royal Holloway University of London, College of Social Work. Her research is on parental mental health of parents from Black and Minority Ethnic community. She studied in Centro Escolar University (Philippines), University of the Philippines, and University of Westminster. She has a degree in Social Work, MA in Social Work, and Diploma in Health and Social Care Management. She works full time as manager of Contact a Family in Southwark, and has been working in the voluntary sector for more than 20 years. Natalia also volunteers with the Southwark branch of the London Vegan Society.

How often do we hear people saying they have a thousand things to do, and have very little time? As PhD students, we sometimes feel this way. When one is working, has a family, and has other interests – having to read dozens of books and articles, to write long essays, conduct field work, transcribe, attend seminars and conferences, and meet our supervisors – seem to be overwhelming.

My personal view though is that time is constant. There will always be 24 hours a day, and it will never be a surprise to know we only have 24 hours a day. I am however only in my second year and I know that my experience is different from the rest who are already in the middle of their research. Nevertheless, there might be some principles here that one can take.

Catch that early sunshine
. It helps to be an early riser. I wake up at 6am to eat breakfast, catch up with emails, read academic blogs and tweets, and prepare for work. During autumn and winter, I squeeze in 45 minutes of jogging (from 7am to 7.45). During summer, I run after work. Being physically fit boosts the energy, and waking up early means we can accomplish a lot.

Don’t neglect your ‘bread and butter’. The 9 to 5 job, five days a week use up almost half of my week. But work pays the bill, and the tuition fees! When I enter the office, I am on work mode.

Work mode to pre-study mode.
It is important to set a boundary between work and study, and to train one’s self to do so. The moment I log out and turn my work computer off, I switch to non-work things. During summer and spring, I go for a jog from 5.30pm; followed by cooking dinner at 6.30 pm; dinner at 7.00pm; and do volunteer work where I write and respond to emails.

Study mode.
At 8.00pm, I read books and take notes. I do an hour then take a break for 15 minutes; continue for an hour, writing down my thoughts on what I read, until I need another short break. I study for three hours. It is important to find that time of the day where we are most productive.

Easy mode. If I don’t have an essay to write, or have just finished one – I read leisurely. It is different though when I have an essay to write, in that I don’t read other books but only the ones related to my topic.

Sleep mode. At 12am, I lie down and read tweets or read/send messages to friends. I sleep at 12.30 am.

Weekend miscellany. Contrary to what others might think about PhD students, we do have social life. I visit friends, or go out with them. It’s also my time to go for a swim at our local leisure centre. I have time to shop for fresh veggies and fruits at the local market, and experiment on new vegan recipes. I do volunteer work – e.g. write articles for newsletters, or respond to emails.

On Sundays, I’d read some more, search university libraries online for good books, list them down so I can drop by the library the next time I pass by it. I also find online articles related to my research topic and save them in my laptop.

I know the time requirement in conducting a research. I did two try out interviews. For one interview – including setting it up, travel, the interview itself, and transcribing – took seven to eight hours.


1. Avoid time wasters. Social network sites are useful for non-academics but not for us. We learn more from reading online resources, academic blogs and tweets.

2. Book-on-the go. Always bring a book as you travel by public transport. Thirty minutes of reading helps a lot.

3. Cut travel time. On your way to meetings (work-related or not), and you are passing by your favourite library – you can always return or borrow books. This saves you time to specifically make the travel to the library. It will help if you have listed down the books you want to borrow. There might also be some shopping to do, so why not drop by your favourite supermarket on your way home?

4. Don’t procrastinate. Even if you are feeling lazy, don’t fall for it. Merely starting a paragraph or two, or a framework for your essay is a quick win. That first sentence is crucial, but once you have started it, ideas will flow. Finishing the work on schedule means you have enough time to proofread it, or find more information you might need to improve it.

5. Every little thing helps. When we are busy writing, someone has to do the dishes, or the laundry, empty the rubbish bins, and sort out the recycling; or simply listen to us when we get stuck on something. They might not be able to offer solution but they can always reassure us and encourage us to stay focused. We have friends with writing skills whom we can always ask for help. Our supervisors are always ready to help, so when we are stuck, give them a ring!

6. File it away! – Don’t underestimate the time you save by maintaining a good filing system- for both hard and electronic materials. I write details of the books I read on index cards so that I can always go back to them later (also for correct referencing).

And as Benjamin Franklin said, “You may delay, but time will not”. We need not delay. The more we learn to manage our schedule, the easier for us to finish that PhD.

Good wishes fellow students!

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