The Embroidered Wug

A blog about the beauty of language... and grad school. What's a wug? Look here.
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The dissertation transition: How do I organize my time??

This fall semester is going to be a little different for me — and not just because COVID-19 has canceled my fieldwork plans and forced me to work from my kitchen. This semester, I am officially a PhD Candidate. I have finished my graduate coursework. I have submitted a Qualifying Paper. I have convinced five kind scholars to be on my dissertation committee. I have reached the notorious ABD stage: All But Dissertation.

Which means that this fall, I have “nothing” to do except plan and write a dissertation.

The prospect of a wide-open semester, without the structure of regular coursework, is pretty daunting right now! This new stage of grad school comes with a lot of new challenges, not the least of which is organizing all this new-found time. This task is all the more difficult in 2020, when I’m working from home with even less structure (and less ability to plan for the future) than I might have had in the “before times”. I’ve experimented with a few different organizational strategies over the past 25 weeks of #PandemicLife, and I’ve started Fall 2020 with a new notebook and a new strategy.

The beginning of my notebook has three types of long-term plan: a 3-year plan (very tentative); a semester-long plan (goals for August–December 2020); and a month-long plan (goals for September 2020). Each Friday, I reference these lists while I make my schedule for the upcoming week. There are three features of my weekly schedule that I want to talk about today.

My weekly schedule, freedrawn in a bullet journal, is divided into seven long horizonal strips. Each day has it's own color, and is divided into a list of events for the day, a small journal section, a list of work-related to-do's, and a list of additional household tasks.

Planning each day's tasks a week in advance

When I make my weekly schedule, I include my planned tasks for each day. In the past, when I’ve tried to plan my to-do’s in advance like this, the pile-up of short-term deadlines associated with coursework has gotten in the way. It can be hard to estimate how long a particular homework assignment will take, and once you go overtime on one task, the whole schedule can fall to pieces. But one of the benefits of my current research commitments is there’s a lot more flexibility about how quickly I get things done. And in my unstructured, work-from-home environment, having a concrete list of tasks helps me start each day with purpose.

One reading goal and one writing goal most days of the week

My next major milestone is my dissertation proposal, which I’m hoping to have finished around the end of October. It’s very scary to just starting writing though! I’ve recently discovered that reading can help jump start my writing process. If I read an article, and start jotting down my thoughts about how it impacts my research plans, I often find myself shifting pretty fluidly into freewriting (that is, writing a very rough, informal draft). And as an added benefit, I’m working through my massive pile of to-read articles! So while making my schedule each week, I choose the articles I want to read, and follow each one up with an open-ended “write” goal.

Fridays are rest days

On Fridays, I have just four to-do’s: practice my Spanish on the Fluent Forever app; backup my files; write a blog post (optionally); and make my schedule for the upcoming week. Friday afternoon happens to be the meeting time for the Documentation & Description research group at UT Austin, so it’s natural to have this day be set aside for administrative tasks and reflection. (It also gives me space to finish up any tasks that I might not have gotten to earlier in the week!)


So that’s how I’m trying to organize my transition to dissertation. But I’ve never done this before! So maybe my plans will change entirely, and that will be okay.

Friendly reminders, drawn in little cloud bubbles in my journal: you haven't done this before; there's a pandemic; take care of your body; breathe