I’ve decided that being a grad student can be summed up by four activities: Reading, Writing, Waiting and Doing. I think I probably spend about 90% of my time split between those activities. The remaining 10% involves meetings and seminars.
- Reading – Research papers, journals, textbooks, etc. You need to read everything you can find about your topic. How can you become an expert in your field, if you don’t know what everyone else has already done, or is currently doing? And so you spend lots and lots of time trying to play “catch-up” and hoping to understand how all the information ties together. While also identifying areas where progress can still be made, so that there’s something for you to work on.
- Writing – You write papers (for classes and conferences/journals), scholarship applications, thesis proposals, dissertations, candidacy documents, emails, etc. Writing is your chance to sort through your ideas. To help you clarify exactly what question you are trying to answer, and how you should go about doing so.
- Waiting – I never realized before I started grad school, how much time is spent waiting. Instead you hear about how students are always busy, which I’m not saying isn’t true. But, there’s a lot of time spent waiting – waiting for information from other people, waiting for rejections/acceptances of papers, waiting to hear about applications, waiting for approval to move forward with your next research step. Just waiting.
- Doing – You’d think (hope) that this is where you’d spend most of your time. After all, how do you actually move forward with your degree without actually doing stuff (designing and running experiments, collecting data, analyzing data, etc)? However, in my experience, you end up spending a lot of time determining the right course of action, so that less time needs to be spent actually doing (and re-doing). All that time reading and writing is setting you up so that you can (fingers crossed) head down the right path on the first try, instead of on the third and fourth.
Lately, I’m splitting my time between writing and doing. Which seems to be a good balance for me. The writing helps me clarify what I’m doing, while the doing gives me more to write about. And, of course, I’m currently waiting for some information, while trying not to become obsessed with checking my email.