JI Heads Back to School 3

By August 22, 2016

I am a compulsive planner. Therefore, most of the work that I do in getting ready for the semester is planning out which readings and assignments will take the most effort and concentration throughout the semester, the next term, and the following summer. I firmly believe that if you fail to plan you plan to fail. A good spring semester starts with planning. A good spring builds on a good fall. And a good summer builds on top of a great school year.

Planning Process

While reading this post, it’s also important to keep in mind that I am constantly thinking about how to be a good husband and father while doing everything I need to do with school and work. Every person needs to figure out his or her own work/family balance. However, for me, I know I will have primary care for my daughter on Mondays and part of Fridays and will be with my family for most Saturdays and Sundays. My wife works part time as a CPA (which means full-time during busy season). It takes a lot of planning and flexibility, but it’s worked well for my family situation (so far). However, it’s taken a lot of trial, error, and help from friends and family.

[I wrote this before Amanda’s intro to the series, and I wanted to add something: GET OUT AND FIND SOME MENTORS. You may be waiting for that perfect professor to come along that will take you under their wing. I’ve been lucky enough to have supportive and kind mentors at every level of my education, but I’ve benefited just as much, if not more, from “horizontal mentoring.” Ask questions to the people at your level, just ahead, or just below. Make academic friends on Facebook/Twitter/anywhere you go. You’ll learn and teach more effectively if you’re learning from and teaching those around you, too.]


I am a second-year PhD student in History, my last year of coursework. Assignments are generally books or articles as well as term papers.By the first day of school, I have e-mailed with my professors and met them face-to-face. Before I email them, I take a quick peek at their CV to learn more about them. When we meet I ask them about expectations for the class and what they expect from me. I find that this allows me to feel more comfortable with each professor before I walk into the classroom on the first day. I also ask for a book list (not syllabus) so that I can order my books ahead of time and save money by purchasing used copies from Amazon. Once the syllabus is available, often the first day of class, I input all the important dates and assignments into my Google calendar. I set a reminder for each assignment, with an alert the week before the assignment is due and an alert for the day before the professor expects it. Sometimes this is a pain, but I like to know when things are due and work out how and why assignments work together in a syllabus. This also allows me to schedule time to go to the writing lab on campus, well before the assignment is due. This ensures that I’m not writing last minute and gives me a chance to bounce my ideas off an indifferent party. Seriously, people. GO TO YOUR WRITING LABS.

After coursework is figured out, I turn my attention to my TA assignment for the semester. This term I am overseeing the online sections of an introduction to American history course, so I am learning a new set of skills related to the technical nuts and bolts of the course. I schedule time to answer student questions each day and block out extended periods of time for grading after exams.

In addition to my TA responsibilities, I work for the Office of Research Administration at the University and work as a research assistant for several professors across the country. With these added responsibilities, I need to make sure that I can do each task well in the allotted time. Schoolwork is my first and foremost responsibility, but I view graduate school as a time to learn valuable skills and to professionalize. It takes time and effort but it pays off, both professionally and financially.

This semester I am presenting at two conferences and attending another. As you can guess, these commitments also go into the Google calendar. I need time both to write the papers, ask a professor to look over them for glaring weaknesses, and to schedule my travel with my department. I am fortunate enough to have a wonderfully supportive department and department administrative team that goes above and beyond for students.

Each of these tasks can be broken down into simple goals that make the process of preparation less daunting. I plan out my week every Sunday and reevaluate my list on the train ride home from school/work each day. This allows me to evaluate what’s most important for me to complete the following day before I arrive home. That way I can focus on being home rather than worrying about what I have to do the next day. I have just as many hours in a day as Lin-Manuel Miranda. I might as well use them.


Before spring semester starts, I’ll sit down and go over the term to ask myself a few questions. What went well? What do I not understand from the semester? To what end will my future writing go? What should I never do again? Have I taken good enough care of my physical and emotional self while working last semester? I find that looking back over the previous semester helps me figure out what I can do to stretch myself and learn but not drive myself insane over the coming semester.

Spring will look much the same as the fall semester–coursework, TA responsibilities, research jobs, etc. But I also will write several conference proposals and submit my work for awards/grants.

Spring is also an important time to plan for summer. For those with the luxury to work on their academic interests having a game plan for making the most of that time is imperative.


Each summer I work research jobs, for the university, and on my own projects. This coming summer I will be studying for comprehensive exams and preparing some of my prior research for publication. My university allows me to produce annotated reading lists/syllabi for minor fields. I hope to get both of these done before the end of the summer so that I can put all my non-family/work time into studying for comprehensive exams.

Writing an article, for me, requires a writing group. These groups allow me to get feedback from smart people while also building my own editorial and argumentative skills through reading from others’ work. I am planning on forming a group–if you’re interested in joining such a group be sure to let me know!

A resource I also have benefitted from is Baylor History Professor Thomas S. Kidd’s newsletter. Dr. Kidd sends a newsletter (roughly every Wednesday) and he often covers the benefits of writing, planning, and time management. You can subscribe here.

And, finally, an inspiring video:


What did you do as a PhD student to prepare for the semester? What do you wish you had done?

Article filed under Miscellaneous


  1. This is actually so great! Not only does it give me a kick in the pants for what I should be doing right now, but I also love that you lay out your method. I always love finding out people’s strategies for staying on task and balancing work/family life. Good work!

    Comment by Hannah — August 22, 2016 @ 4:52 pm


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