How To Be A Successful Doctoral Student

Happy August! Are you ready to start your new adventure?

For some of you, this is not your first year. However, you may still feel like you need some direction in life.

There is no pressure to feel like you need to have it all together. I still didn’t feel like I had it all together when I became Dr. Lacy.

I do think it is helpful to know how other people organized their doctoral lives. Even if these things don’t click with you, hopefully, it will give you some ideas of what will work best for you.

Also, there is not one thing that is going to work...or work the entire time you are in your doctoral program. You will change and your needs will change.

Practice grace and patience with yourself. You will come out on the other side.

3 Things I Needed The Most

This week I will discuss the three major things that will have the most impact on your life right now. I will talk about how to organize all your to-dos and events, talk about managing your readings and notes, and talk about building routines to further productivity.

Planners, Planners, Planners

I love planners, calendars, and notebooks; all things related to stationery and office supplies.

I have used a planner since middle school. Mostly, I used my planner to write down important dates, birthdays, assignments, and exams. I would spend a lot of time writing everything I needed in the beginning of the semester only to not use it on a regular basis throughout the semester. I had it with me all the time but for some reason, I just didn’t refer to it everyday. It was something about writing it down helped me keep it in mind. Plus, in K-12, teachers and grownups are constantly reminding you what you need to do and when.

However, being in a doctoral program changed all of that for me. It was difficult to keep up with all of the readings, the assignments, the other dates like research meetings, and things I needed to do for my graduate assistantship. Transitioning to a new city and a new school was a lot for me! This additional stress did not leave a lot of room for me to remember everything together in my mind.

During my first year, I thought I would manage everything digitally. I would use my Google calendar, write my assignments in Google Documents, and buy only digital books. It was a disaster. It was difficult to focus constantly reading a screen. I learned that I love the feeling holding an actual book or document and being able to handwrite notes on the pages. Yes, there are apps to do this with digital books and documents; however, it was not the same.

My first key piece of advice: Please do not try anything new when you first begin your doctoral program. The transition will be stressful enough and adding a new system to the mix can make it more chaotic.

Needless to say, I went back to using a paper planner. I went to Target and got a regular ole horizontal planner. This was before the days of my addiction to planners, stickers, and decorations. I was only concerned with keeping everything in one place.

What will you use to keep track of everything? Will it be a paper planner, a digital calendar, a combination, some other things?

The takeaway is to have something. At the end of this post, I have linked to a few tools that may help keep you on track.

There are so many options. Maybe just having a notebook where you write down everything is enough for you. Whatever it is, keep it consistent to save yourself some headaches.

Note Management System

You will be confronted with an endless amount of reading as you begin your doctoral program. How are you supposed to read it all, let alone keep track of everything you are reading? This reading can be overwhelming. You will make it through it. Next week, I will be speaking about how to crush your reading without stressing yourself out.

Today, I want to give you some tools you can use to keep track of the notes and other important things from your readings. You will be thankful that you took time to have a comprehensive note management system when it comes time for final exams, preliminary exams, or writing various manuscripts. You will remember random things and your system, depending on how well organized it is, will help you to locate that random thing.

I mainly used Evernote for my note management system. You can organize things into notebooks. And every time you make a new note, you can give it a title and tags to helps it be more searchable for the future. Evernote also keeps track of dates and authors. There is also an option to share with others.

I additionally like that you can add pdfs, pictures, and web pages right into the note. So you can have it all in one place. The best part is that it is free and you can take it along with you without having to carry around any physical storage device.

You can also use other systems to do something similar, such as Google Drive and Onedrive. I just prefer Evernote for my notes. I have also used a Word document to keep all of my notes in one place. Microsoft Word gives you the option to put the document into a notebook layout. It really is going to depend on what works best for you.

Digital books and pdf did not work for me; however, writing notes or brain dumping was better in a digital space because I type faster than I write. I could just brain dump about what I read or things I heard in class. For some classes, I did use a paper notebook but mostly I used a Word document and Evernote.

Work Routine/Place

I’m a person who is not the biggest fan of routines and after this doctoral experience, I cannot deny the power of routines for productivity. During my first year, I worked on my readings and assignments whenever I felt the urge. The deeper I got into the year, the less I felt the urge. So I had to come up with some routines.

First, I had to stop working at home. I found that it was better for me to physically go to another location to get more work done. There were too many distractions at home to stay focus. I found a coffee shop that had great internet, plenty of seating, and decent coffee. I would go to this place at least four days a week to get things done. I even asked classmates to join me because that also helped me to focus. 

What is your place where you will go just for work? What does this place need to have? Comfortable seating? Quiet area? Do you need others to be around?

I would also encourage you to treat this as a job where you go to this place the same days and times every week. It will train your mind and body to know it is now the time to be productive and do school work.

If you prefer to stay home, designate a specific space where you will go to complete work. The bed may not be the best place though.

Tools That May Be Helpful

There are so many things that you can use to help yourself stay focus and to be successful. I will say keep it simple at first. I only shared three things as I do not want to overwhelm you but there will be more great tips to come. Until then, check out this resource guide of tools and let me know if you have any to add to this list.

What tools are you using to keep everything together?