Graduate Research: Organizing and Planning

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Getting organized is key to your success. The thesis will not magically happen. It will not write itself and you cannot absorb theory through pillow osmosis—though that would be nice. A former boss told me that theses and dissertations require only a modicum of intelligence and a lot of sweat (she had a Ph.D.) I’d say most of us have more than a modicum of intelligence, but without organization and structure you’ll never gain traction and momentum. In my six years working in higher education, I’ve heard, anecdotally, that there are a lot more ABD’s in the world than Ph.D.’s. If you want to earn the second set of letters – keep reading.

  1. Know Yourself
    Know your work style, your strengths and weaknesses and accept them. You need to know these to work into your planning. If you’re not sure, contact University Career Services, the Korbel Office of Career and Professional Development, Daniels Career Services or Sturm College of Law’s Office of Career Development & Opportunities  to see what assessments you can complete.
  2. Have a System
    I’m naturally deadline driven and work well when I know what my next milestone is. With my advisor I always set up a timeline for the next few weeks or months depending on what phase of the thesis I was in. While I was analyzing data my dates were more spread out so that I had time to read and take notes. When I was writing, we met more frequently to review my progress and get feedback. Your discipline might require a different system or structure, but try to make a plan and stick to it as best as you can. In my experience, having the structure and deadlines also freed me up to say yes to fun activities without feeling guilty about the looming amount of work.How you schedule and work with your advisor will depend on your work style as well as the advisor’s, but know what you need to stay on track and commit to that for your own sake. Advisor doesn’t care if you have a timeline, but you know you’d be better off having one – then create it. Put it on paper or a calendar and set electronic reminders if needed – whatever you need to get it done.
  3. Create a Space
    Do you remember Arianna Huffington’s Sleep Revolution tour? She and other advocates of sleep (that could be another post about research and sleep) talk about the importance of creating a space that is dedicated to sleep and rest—a space that is free of distractions, noises, lights and electronics that disturb deep sleep. Apply this notion to your work space.Create a space that is free of distractions and dedicated to your research. Make sure that you have what you need to accomplish your work so that you never have to go hunting for tools or comfort items that improve your work. My “home office” included 24″ monitor so that I could work off of two screens (my laptop, too) and save time flipping between tabs. I installed a keyboard tray and bought an exercise ball to round out my ergonomic needs, ensuring that I could occasionally sit and work for extended hours. Even if you work 1-3 hours per day like I did, after a week of writing and a full-time job I was at a computer 30-50 hours per week.
  4. Office in a Bag
    Sometimes I couldn’t bear to sit at my “home office” any more. I needed to get out, get some fresh air, see some other faces or hear some ambient coffee-house noise or music, depending on your favorite local hangout. Figure out what you need, bare minimum, to accomplish solid work, and put it all in one bag, purse or backpack. Save everything online so that you can access it from anywhere and still reference your articles and other research even if you are Steam Espresso Bar. Need other physical tools? Know what those are and if practicable, have a second set ready to go for those spontaneous research and writing dates you’re planning—you never know who you’ll bump into at a coffee house. But seriously, research doesn’t have to be a lonely endeavor! setting up times to write and work alongside other students can boost morale and encourage us to stay on track.
  5. Other Ideas?
    I’m sure there are many other great ways to stay and be organized for research. If you’ve got great ideas, send them my way and I will update. There are many students whose work also includes being in a lab and working on teams, so I’d love to hear what other planning and organization issues, struggles or successes you’ve had.


Read more in this series:

Graduate Research: Committing to a Thesis or Dissertation

Graduate Research: Tools

Graduate Research: Writing and Editing

Graduate Research: Thinking

maria headshot croppedMaria Kuntz is the Marketing and Events Manager at University Career Services at DU. She just defended her Master’s thesis, How the Greek Press Constructed the “Greek Economic Crisis,” and graduates in June 2016 with a master’s degree in International and Intercultural Communication from Media, Film & Journalism Studies and the Josef Korbel School of International Studies. She’s been working in marketing, communications, community relations and development for nearly 14 years and began working at University of Denver in August 2010.

By Maria Kuntz
Maria Kuntz Assistant Director, Advancement Marketing