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What the President of the United States can teach Graduate Students on Academic Schedules

Today, I am inviting Laura Shum (@lauracshum) to write about her academic schedule. Laura is a graduate student in the Translational Biomedical Sciences PhD program at the University of Rochester. She works on translating bench science to clinicians, the value of research to politicians, and the importance of getting a flu shot to her mother. In the lab, Laura works on elucidating how stem cells make and use energy. Outside of the lab, she has interests in science policy, outreach, and communication. Her personal blog can be found at

The President of the United States doesn’t decide what to wear or eat every day. Humans have a limited capacity to make decisions. Once the quota is reached, there has to be a rest period before being able to make more decisions or it starts to feel physically draining. The POTUS spends his day making important, far-reaching decisions. There’s no point in waste precious energy making small ones.

I keep this in mind when devising my daily and weekly schedules. Having a routine keeps my mind free for the things that matter, and still ensures that everything gets done. I optimized my morning routine by writing down everything I wanted to accomplish before leaving the house, then put those things in an order that made sense. A few key points: I don’t look at my phone before getting out of bed. I’m a graduate student. No email is so important that it can’t wait a few hours. Looking at my phone makes me laze about too long. Secondly, I do a small amount of physical activity as soon as I roll out of bed. This might be a few yoga poses or a set of pushups. Something short and fast to get blood flowing and let me body know I’m up.

Mornings are my golden time. I can get more quality work done before 9am than the rest of the day combined. I recently started harnessing this by going to school later. Once I’m ready for the day, I spend about an hour (7:30-8:30am) writing, or working on one of my side projects. If I go into the lab this early, there’s almost always something to distract me. Staying home, I have a comfortable setup, with no one to interrupt me.

My morning hour of productivity is broken up by day. The night before when I’m setting my to-do list, I decide what will be the priority the next morning. It’s usually one of the following:

  • writing: blog post, homework, abstract, manuscript, whatever is in the pipeline
  • policy work: I’m starting a student science policy group. This is when I research speakers, write emails, plan meetings, etc
  • networking: send emails, research people I want to meet, career paths I’m considering, etc
  • GSS: another student group I’m part of at school. During this time I plan events, write emails, read over meeting minutes
  • reading/lit search: I have a never end list of papers I’m trying to read. I try to get through a few during this time.

These categories get attended to once a week, or less if nothing is needed. The default is always writing. Even if I have no deadlines, I always have a handful of blog posts or writing exercises I’m working on to improve my writing.

I live and die by my calendar and a master to-do list. I carry a notebook everywhere and continually jot down ideas, and things I need to do. I have 30 minutes blocked off at the end of each day where I go through that notebook and transfer things to my to-do list and calendar. I don’t necessarily get to everything on my calendar, but if it’s not on the calendar, then it definitely doesn’t get done.

Let’s start with the long-view and work backwards:

Five Year Plan
I have a five year plan. It’s hilariously optimistic. I would like to graduate quickly. If there’s any chance of that happening, there are many things needed to stay on track. These miles stones are set on this five year plan. They get reviewed and revised about once a month to make sure I’m not missing any big deadlines.

Near the end of every month, I set goals for the upcoming month. I look at my five-year plan and my previous month’s goals and think about what I need to accomplish to move forward. These might be academic (narrow topic for review article), social (host a dinner party), health-related (do 10 pushups every day) or something else entirely. I then set time aside in my calendar to accomplish these.

Every Friday afternoon, I set my schedule for the following week. I look at my to-do list, and block time out for each item. To-do lists are great, but without setting aside actual time to finish things, I never seem to get around to them. This also gives me a chance to be aware of any upcoming meetings I need to prepare for, exams coming up, or similar obligations.

Before bed I review the next day’s schedule. I change or prepare things as needed.

Everything I do goes on the calendar, including exercise, grocery shopping, cleaning, studying, and time with friends. I use one color for social activities, one for lab work, and one for school work. When I’m planning experiments in the lab, I block out time to prepare and set up, time to actually run the experiment, and time to analyze the data. I block out time for classwork, and time to review lectures. I even have a daily reminder to leave time for lunch every day.

I have a super-packed, color-coded, scheduled-to-the15-minute-increment calendar.

Here’s an important note: My precise schedule doesn’t always go as planned. I’m still horrible at estimating how much time something will take. However, I find it invaluable for making sure I get the important things done. It’s hard to tell how much you’ve taken on until you start planning out the specifics. My calendar had been a valuable tool for letting me know when to say no to new obligations.

Sleep, nutrition, and exercise are all very high on my priority list. They might slip for a week before a deadline, but being healthy and happy are more important to me than anything else. My calendar helps me to not take on too much, and to lead a happy and productive life.

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