New Year’s Resolutions for the Graduate Student I: Time Management and Your Reading Load

One of the most difficult-to-master aspects of graduate school is time management. Between coursework, our own research, comps, writing the dissertation, and various professionalization duties and activities, it can seem as though we can’t or shouldn’t have a life outside of the academy. However, it is absolutely CRUCIAL to have a life outside of the academy. A robust one, filled with people, activities and hobbies we enjoy, and healthy eating and moderate exercise. It’s insane that so many people graduate with their PhD and between 20 and 50 extra pounds and a host of ailments ranging from high blood pressure and depression or anxiety disorders to Type-2 diabetes because “I didn’t have time to worry about working out and eating right. I figured I’d handle it when I got the TT job.” We’re not setting ourselves up for success either on the job market or after when we are putting our Selves through the stress wringer and sacrificing our bodies and minds on the altar of academia. That’s backing into a corner we might have a lot of trouble getting out of when all is said and done (because how will you handle it if you get a TT job and have seven more years of the same thing in your bid to earn tenure?)

I am not claiming that graduate school should be easy, or that we shouldn’t feel stressed out — but rather that we need a better game plan not just for surviving, but also for thriving, in graduate school — and I believe the key to this is better time management skills. I also think that developing better time management skills early on in graduate school can reduce the stress load involved in finishing a PhD and set us up for greater chances of success once we secure a job after graduation — because we already know how to successfully juggle our multiple responsibilities without sacrificing our health and well-being.

Even a well-adjusted individual is going to feel completely frazzled and over-committed from time to time as a graduate student. It’s all-too-easy to fall into the trap of DO IT ALL! And I am as guilty as anyone of going overboard — so this advice is for me to follow as well as anyone else. Sometimes, you have no choice: you have a string of tight deadlines to meet, and things are just going to be hairy for a while. But if your entire graduate school experience seems to be hopping from one crisis stressball to the next, and you don’t remember the last time you didn’t have fifty things to do and no time to do them in, and you haven’t seen a movie or show, or gone out with friends, or read a non-academic book, or done something you love to do that has nothing to do with academia in the past month, then it’s time to re-evaluate how you are managing your time because you are losing yourself in the degree process and that’s the most undesirable outcome imaginable. There IS time to do more than research and write, but only if you claim that time. You can only claim that time if you learn to maximize how you use your time. You can only learn to maximize how you use your time by actively planning how best to go about accomplishing what you need to do, what you want to do, and what you ought to do.

There are three main aspects that we need to consider when it comes to time management in graduate school: our academic workload, our personal lives, and our physical and emotional well-being. I am going to tackle each of these in the next series of posts to this blog.

This first post in the series is about what “they” don’t tell you about graduate school — which is that you will NEVER GET EVERYTHING DONE. Especially the reading.

I mean it: No matter how much time you devote to your studies, no matter how many all-nighters you pull, no matter how much of a life you cease to have outside of your seminars and directed readings and independent studies, you will never, ever, ever, “finish”. You’ll never read all the things, do all the things, study all the things, or write all the things.

Here’s the secret: “They” don’t expect you to.

You heard me, but I suspect you aren’t really listening, so I’ll repeat that: No matter what they actually say to you, NO ONE you are working with expects you, the graduate student, to have read and mastered everything you have been assigned to read and master, encouraged to read and master, exhorted to read and master, and had suggested to you as being important to have read and mastered. You know what? Those offering up these reading lists have not read all of the things, either. They are suggesting to you things they have read or read about and found useful or think you might find useful. You have to decide whether, when, and to what degree to pursue those readings. (Unless your dissertation advisor has told you “You must read this book for that chapter” — in which case, drop everything and get that book read.)  Otherwise, you have to decide whether to file the text away as a “to-read”, to get it right away and read it cover to cover, marking away with your trusty pen/pencil/highlighter, to skim it to determine its worth in your pursuits, or not to read it at all because it sounds great, but it’s not relevant and you only have 24 hours in a day.

This is one of the most difficult-to-navigate aspects of graduate school, because you are used to obediently hunting down every reference your professors toss at you — but they used to just toss you one or two at a time: now, they hand you a whole list, or direct you to someone’s posted online annotated bibliography to wade through. Now, it seems like reading what’s on the syllabus, plus the additional readings, can’t possibly be enough: you feel like you have to go out and find ten or fifteen other sources. Now, it seems as though as soon as you think you have a reasonable body of literature under your belt, your advisor suggests you look at it from another angle (that includes a whole different set of texts to consider, sometimes not even anywhere in your usual area of study.) Now, it seems like everyone else in your cohort has read more than you have read, and you have to prop your eyes open with toothpicks, caff up to extremes, and catch up, or fall irretrievably behind. Now, it seems like you can’t possibly go on the job market without reading EVERYTHING. In short — now, you are receiving conflicting messages about how to manage your time and energies:


Sound familiar? It’s the litany we all have to wade through. And, for the first time in your scholarly life, you have to decode it for yourself. Also, for the first time in your scholarly life, once coursework is done you are flying solo — just you, 24 hours in a day, and about a billion-billion things to read, digest, and synthesize.

You CAN’T read all the things. You know it. I know it. Your advisors and professors and dissertation directors know it. Job search committees know it. So — how do you handle this insane pressure you are feeling to READ EVERYTHING?

Here is where we as graduate students need to learn how to differentiate between consulting, considering, and mastering texts.

By “consulting” I mean having a look — reading a review, reading the first few pages or the introduction, the table of contents, and the back cover of a monograph or collection of essays, reading the list of contributors and perhaps flipping through a few, random pages, reading the abstracts for articles, skimming a primary source you might or might not need to read in its entirety — in short, familiarizing yourself with the book or article in question and its contents. This is a valuable activity for preliminary research forays, for finding materials to consider in creating an argument, and for building up your storehouse of “where to go to find information about what”. You won’t remember everything you’ve looked at, but done regularly, consulting work like this helps you begin to know which scholars are working on what subjects, and to organize your thinking broadly around themes and the writers dealing with them in your field. You get a feel for the relationships between scholars and their work, and this can help you figure out where your work might fit. Paying attention to series, series editors, and publisher lists alongside journals can also help you figure out where to send your own work when you begin publishing. I do this kind of work once or twice a week using various means — sometimes, scanning the TMR lists for likely reviews to read through, sometimes, looking up keywords via the MLA or JSTOR database, sometimes, just going to a shelf in the library and flipping through the physical books, themselves – especially essay collections. I may, or may not, write down my findings, dependent upon why I’m doing this consulting. If I remember, I’ll put a basic note into Evernote – author, title, keyword(s) and/or bibliographic material, especially if this is something I think I’ll find to be useful down the road. I also skim through the proceedings and programs for conferences I attend and pay attention to which scholars are working on what subjects that way as well.

I don’t spend a LOT of time on this kind of consulting work — about an hour or two a week, more if I’m compiling materials for an essay or an article. I also don’t invest a lot of energy and concentration doing it, which makes it an ideal activity for when I’m feeling lazy, unmotivated, or sort of weary with my usual workload, but still want to feel productive. It really is just an exercise in familiarizing yourself with what’s out there, without delving too deeply into it or investing too much time where it’s not likely to payoff for you. But if you do this for an hour a week, for four years of graduate school, I can guarantee you that the knowledge builds up and becomes useful reference points you can use either for yourself or to help direct others. If a student of mine wants to write about medieval monstrosity, I’d direct him or her to the work of Asa Simon Mittman, Jeffrey Jerome Cohen, Dana Oswald, John Bloch Friedman, or Andy Orchard, for example. For medieval magic, perhaps I’d send him or her to hunt up the work of Richard Kiekhefer, Michelle Sweeney, Bill Griffiths, or Bengt Ankerloo as an entry point. I haven’t READ all the Middle English romances (yet), but I know of them in summary form and can turn to them as needed from there. I’m not a historian, but as a medievalist I pretty much have to know some of the history and historiography of the period, so I do know that for chivalry, knights, and warfare Maurice Keen, Kelly Devries, Richard Barber, Phyllis Jestice, and Steven Isaac are good names to begin with. I might not need to know a lot about the Middle English mystic saints for my own research, but if I’m teaching a class on medieval women and one of my students wants to write on Julian of Norwich, knowing that Denise Baker, Caroline Walker Bynum, David Aers, Grace Jantzen, and Sandra McEntire are well-known scholars who have worked on Julian gives the student a jumping-off point. Have I read them all? No. But I have done enough consulting of texts to be able to say that they are referenced regularly in Julian studies and therefore that they are solid jumping-off points for scholarship on the subject. Having this kind of broad, referential knowledge of important scholars in several given subject areas shows you are aware of the scholarship in your broader field and makes it much easier to serve as a good reference point for the disparate interests of your students. Done over the course of your degree process a little at a time, building up this kind of broad referential knowledge base is a minor, but effective, investment of time and energy.

“Considering” texts means reading them in their entirety, or nearly so, and giving them your full attention for some clear purpose. I place (almost) all assigned readings on course syllabi into this category, as well as the wide reading I am doing in my field for my own edification, particularly when a text is associated closely with a subject I am working on in my own research. This can include both primary and secondary sources. Considering a text might include making notes, cross-referencing it with other texts you have read in search of patterns of thought or synthesis of materials, comparing it with other texts to determine similarities and differences of thought, or similar academic activities. This requires a much greater time and energy investment than simply consulting texts. A mistake many graduate students (myself included, from time to time) is to think that everything we read needs to be considered. It doesn’t, and falling into the trap of thinking that it does means spending hours and hours reading books that actually are not furthering our own work. If you catch yourself reading something you don’t really NEED for an immediate project or assignment, aren’t particularly ENJOYING either because it fascinates you or because you like the writing or for some other reason, and seem to be FORCING yourself to read “because you should” – this is not a book that needs to be considered – at least, not at the present time. Just skim for anything you might really need to know – maybe even just browse the table of contents so you know what’s there if you need it later — and set it aside in favor of something more immediately relevant and useful (grad school secret number 2: YOU DO NOT HAVE TO FINISH READING EVERYTHING YOU START READING.)

Grad school secret number 3: you do not have to read EVERYTHING on EVERY syllabus in considered fashion. You certainly should try to complete all of the reading, but at the same time, you are a creature with personal needs – like eating, sleeping, and exercising – and you only have 24 hours in a day. If you are taking three courses and teaching 1 or 2 courses, you actually will not have the time to do all of the reading for the classes you are taking in a considered fashion. Your professors know this. I am not advocating that you show up to class completely unprepared – I am saying that probably once or twice a term, every term that you are still in coursework, you are NOT going to get the required reading done. SKIM, find something or a few somethings to comment on in class, and let it go. This is not a determination of your worth as a student or as a reader. It is a sign that you actually are a human being. If you really feel guilty when you are not wholly prepared for class, having carefully read and considered the texts being discussed, then you need to make arrangements to get the syllabus before the term begins and to get started on the reading before classes start. That is literally the only way I have ever gotten through the entire reading load for a term. I’ve ceased to feel guilty when I drop the ball on class readings – because I haven’t dropped the ball. I have done all that I can reasonably do, and my professors and I both know that because of my performance over the course of the term. If it comes down to, either you get a good night’s sleep or you read 200 more pages, get the sleep. You might still be able to contribute to the discussion based on what you have managed to read and to glean from what your peers are saying, but you will decidedly not impress your professor by nodding off halfway through a class session.

Considering texts and then writing about them, both for classes and for comps and your dissertation, is the work that will comprise most of our time in graduate school. But it still shouldn’t take up ALL of your free time. It shouldn’t be onerous, a chore you have to wade through on your way to degree – it should be interesting, engaging, and exciting work. If you find yourself spending hours and hours on a book and seemingly getting nothing out of it, you might be mistaking a work you should simply be consulting as something to be considered. Put the book aside and focus on something else for a while. I set a cap on the reading I allow myself to do during the week – I can read for up to 5 hours a day during the week, and a little more on weekends if needed (it usually is). By “reading for 5 hours a day” I mean averaged out – some days, I don’t read anything; some days, I read all day long – but I actively monitor my reading during the week to ensure I am hitting that 25 hour mark, tacking on 10 or so hours on weekends as needed. That gives me between 30-40 hours of reading a week. If I use 5 of those weekly reading hours for consulting work, then I’m reading in considered fashion for about 25-30 hours a week. That is MORE than enough to ensure that I am well-read by the time I am working on my dissertation and hitting the job market. Think about it – let’s be conservative, even. If you read for 25 hours a week, 40 weeks a year, for four years, that is 4,000 hours of reading. If you budget 2 hours per article, or 10 hours to read an average-sized book, that would be 2,000 articles or 400 books read, even doing the bare minimum of hours per week and shaving off 12 weeks in the year as off-time. Obviously, when it comes to preparing for comps, my weekly number of hours reading will probably ramp up – but I will also not be in classes and therefore will only be reading my comps lists, which I have set a year ahead of time to give myself extra time to work on those readings.

I DO NOT advocate reading more than this. You are not likely to achieve any great gains, and you will burn yourself out. It’s all about balance. I think this is where we trip ourselves up – if we don’t cap our weekly reading load, then we can and will overdo it, leaving ourselves with little extra time to think and write, teach, mark papers, or perform other activities associated with our jobs; further, we will definitely believe we have No Time. Obviously, if reading 5 hours a day makes us good scholars, then reading 6 or 7 hours a day will make us better ones, right? No. That’s the fallacy. At some point we reach saturation and we NEED down time in order to allow our brains and bodies to recharge – generally, right around the crunch time in a term when it seems like the reading load is too vast for us to ever get it done and get a paper written. But we are doing that to ourselves. By having a firm, set number of hours per week we can and will devote to reading, we set ourselves up for a much better time of it. In a 9 hour workday, if we devote 5 hours a day on average to reading, we still have 4 hours a day on average for teaching, office hours, marking papers, and writing, especially when we can double up lunch with an appointment with a student, with being collegial by eating with fellow scholars or our advisors, or with reading. If we use the considered reading time as prewriting by taking notes and writing and reflecting as we read, then it does double-duty as writing time as well. In the non-reading periods – those 12 weeks we mentioned, for example? – we can devote much more time to writing. The weekly reading cap keeps the workload better balanced over the course of the term. In the end, we are still working the same amount as your average American, leaving us with time to have a life. We just have to claim that time by effectively using the time we have.

You ARE, of course, expected to master a reasonable amount of material — generally, whatever you and your advisors decide to put on your comps list, as well as whatever you are consulting at length for your dissertation (but not EVERYTHING you read for your dissertation! A lot of that will fall under “considering” work towards establishing your argument through a literature review.) By “mastering” a text, I mean that you know it intimately enough that you can get up in front of a group and with little to no advanced planning lecture at length on some aspect or several aspects of it, or (in the case of a secondary work) use it to illuminate a point or set of points you are seeking to make. This is what I refer to as “back pocket material” – the texts you KNOW. You really and truly only need to master a handful of texts over the course of your graduate career – maybe 20-30 or so, comprising both primary and secondary sources. You’ll figure out what they are because you’ll keep seeing them over and over again – referenced by other scholars, referenced by yourself in your essays, sources both primary and secondary in nature that you turn and return to, over and over again. My rule of thumb is that if I’ve seen it for three different classes or projects then I probably need to know it well. Then again, if I’ve carefully considered a text for 2 or 3 projects, or taught it multiple times, I’m well on my way to knowing it well. Some primary sources in my back pocket are Beowulf, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Arthur’s dream on the boat from Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia Regum Britanniae, Laʒamon’s Brut, and Malory’s Morte Darthur, and Marie de France’s “Lanval.” Secondary works I have in my back pocket are Ad Putter’s “Finding Time For Romance” (Medium Aevum, 1996) and Thorlac Turville-Petre’s England, the Nation. I should note that these particular secondary texts really informed the thinking I did on my graduate (MA) thesis, and therefore that I read and considered them very deeply for a major project, which is how mastering a text happens. A lot of the mastering of texts that you do is probably going to happen while you are working on your dissertation, but can and should BEGIN with considered reading in coursework.

SO, to sum up – as graduate students, we are supposed to read a lot, read widely, and read the right things. We can’t read more than 24 hours a day and probably shouldn’t read more than 5 hours a day. We can and should organize our reading load in order to prevent us from over-doing it and becoming unnecessarily stressed or burned out. In order to maximize our time spent reading we need to learn to differentiate between consulting, considering, and mastering texts. We should beware of spending too much time seeking to consider or master texts that really only need to be consulted. Consulting texts for an hour or two a week leads to the development of a body of general referential knowledge of scholars, texts, subject areas, and fields of study; it is through consulting texts and our advisors that we learn what and who to read in our subject areas of interest. Considering texts for several hours a week leads to the development of skills in textual criticism such as compare and contrast and synthesis work and prepares us for writing and teaching; trying to do too much considering of texts is the trap we fall into as graduate students, and we should develop our skills in determining what texts truly require considering as early as possible in our career to avoid wasting time on texts that don’t require our full attention and energy. Mastering texts over the course of a graduate career means that we have them available at our beck and call for teaching and lecturing, and happens as a result of multiple returns to a text for several purposes. And finally, even though we think so, no one really expects us to read all of the things, and it’s a lesson in futility and stress overload to try: instead, we should maximize our reading and bear in mind that this is the beginning of a career during which we will read many, many more things. It is unnecessary and counterproductive to sacrifice ourselves on the Altar of Academia. Time management in terms of our reading load is the first step to ensuring a balanced approach that allows us to be both scholars and human beings.


About Melissa Ridley Elmes

Professor and writer; Unrepentant nerd; chaotic good. Author of Arthurian Things: A Collection of Poems. PhD, MFA. She/hers. Views my own.
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4 Responses to New Year’s Resolutions for the Graduate Student I: Time Management and Your Reading Load

  1. Pingback: New Year’s Resolutions for the Graduate Student II: Time Management and Your Personal Life | Melissa Ridley Elmes

  2. Pingback: New Year’s Resolutions for the Graduate Student III: Physical and Emotional Well-Being | Melissa Ridley Elmes

  3. Habibi says:

    Its fantastic as your other posts : D, thanks for posting. “Always be nice to people on the way up because you’ll meet the same people on the way down.” by Wilson Mizner.

    • Cerridwen says:

      Thank you for the compliment! I am sorry I missed this comment; I would have replied to it sooner if I had seen it. I hope you are still enjoying reading the blog.

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