The Importance of Being Flexible With Your Time: Advice for New Doctoral Students who Like to Plan Ahead

By: Cinthya Salazar, University of Maryland, College Park 

When I started my doctoral program in Student Affairs during the fall 2015 semester, I could not have predicted the way graduate school was going to unfold and how much I was going to grow personally and professionally throughout this journey. Prior to starting my studies, I worked as the Director of a retention program for first-generation college students of color from low-income backgrounds. I was used to never ending to-do lists, long days with working meetings over breakfast and lunch, late-night programs two to three times a week, and an inbox that always had unread or pending messages. I was also used to knowing what was on my calendar next week, next month, and even a full semester ahead. As a Director, I had to start planning for the summer component of the program during the fall semester and I loved it. As a planner (extreme J on the MBTI test), it brought me comfort to plan ahead and I would get anxious or stressed if I did not have my calendar blocked at least two to three months upfront. 

During my first semester of graduate school, I clearly remember marking my calendar for every assignment on each one of my syllabus, and creating calendar blocks for my reading and writing times each week. I also added my one-hour commute times to/from school, advising and research meetings, and when I was planning to work on extra projects. Quickly into that first semester, I realized that while my plan looked “reasonable,” it was not realistic. Some readings took me longer to complete than I had anticipated and sometimes the writing did not flow, so the two hours I had blocked in my calendar to write a page would become four hours. I was a full-time doctoral student, but I was trying to use the tactics that had worked for me as a full-time administrator without fully understanding the differences between those roles. I thought that because I had been so busy in my job as an administrator and had to plan ahead to be effective, I had to do the same to be a successful student. I did not! 

After my first semester though, I did the same. I blocked my writing and reading hours each day, but this time I added buffers in case some tasks took longer. This worked better, but as I went through the second semester, I noticed how I was missing out on some really great learning/professional opportunities. Sometimes I received university e-mails announcing a notable speaker on campus for the very next week and I would not plan to go because I had a “reading appointment” in my calendar (yes, I was that strict). I also passed on a couple of research projects because I did not think I could make time in my calendar for them back then. I was worried about the effects that constantly adjusting my schedule would have on my academics. I thought that if I kept moving my writing and reading calendar appointments to attend a lecture or meet for a new research project, I was not really prioritizing my graduate work. I did not have a good balance and was not allowing myself to take advantage of the unique opportunities that come with having access to a graduate education. 

While I was inflexible with the academic appointments on my calendar, I had no issues cancelling personal or social plans; although I did not have many to begin with because I had not made time for them. That first year, I did not block my calendar on a weekly basis for a day off with my partner. I did not plan social activities with friends and did not call my family as often as before because I needed more time for school work. I kept thinking that I could not afford to get “distracted” and that “life” could wait until I was done with school four or five years later. But life was happening right there and then, and I was not fully living it. Needless to say, this took a toll on my well-being and after a year I was exhausted and already feeing burnout. So, when I completed my first year, I took the time to reflect on why I was feeling so tired so soon and what I needed to change to have a better balance during the subsequent years. I asked myself, what else I wanted to gain through my remaining time in school besides the degree. Was I only in school to get my Ph.D. and at what cost? I thought not just about what I needed to do to obtain my degree, but what I really wanted to gain personally, academically, and professionally as I went through my doctoral journey. 

I made the decision to no longer let my calendar dictate my learning and growth. If I really wanted to persist and enjoy my time in school, I could not put “life” on hold for years; I needed to have a balance and not add more pressure to myself because as doctoral students we already have a lot of stress. I had to be more flexible and become more comfortable not planning every single day of the semester ahead of time. I had to learn to be okay delaying my academic timeline and welcome the unknows. I needed to make time for myself, my partner, my family and friends. This did not mean that I was being irresponsible or getting distracted, it meant that I was implementing the strategies I needed to keep moving forward. I know these can sound like simple realizations, but as a goal-oriented person and high-achieving scholar (typical doctoral student), I started my program solely focus on my studies afraid that doing anything else would result in failure.  

The process of learning to be more flexible with my time has not been easy. Despite it all, I am a planner and I function better having structure. While I still plan my dissertation writing and research assistantship hours for accountability purposes every week, I also make sure to have a balanced schedule and make time for my partner, family, friends and myself every semester. Nowadays, I am also more open to consider opportunities that may come up unexpectedly, which has only resulted in increased personal and professional growth and satisfaction. If you are a planner like me and just beginning your doctoral journey, think about what you will be missing out or sacrificing if you are not flexible with your time and timelines. It could be a great learning/professional opportunity, unforgettable moments with your family/friends, and even your well-being. You are also just beginning to learn to be a doctoral student, so what you plan ahead may not work out because you have not yet gone through the full experience. You are the only one who knows what would help you persist and obtain your degrees, so I encourage you to make the time to pause and reflect early on how you want to live out the years that you are in your program and how your needs may have changed now as a doctoral student. 

Cinthya Salazar is Ph.D. candidate in the Student Affairs concentration at the University of Maryland College Park, and has over eight years of professional experience in higher education. During the last three years, Cinthya has worked in several qualitative research projects that have examined the experiences of students and professionals of color in higher education. Cinthya’s dissertation focuses on the persistence of undocumented college students in Virginia, and her broader research interests centered in the college access and retention of minoritized student populations. 

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