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Responsibilities May Include

A step-by-step guide to keeping track of grad school activities

A detailed plan can help you decide when and what opportunities to say yes to and, more importantly, which to say no to.


I come from a family of planners. My mother insists “If you don’t plan it, it won’t happen.” Whether planning a family holiday (including every meal), helping to organize a local curling bonspiel, or event planning for my graduation, my Mom was Master Planner. Why am I telling you this?

Fast-forward a few years and I was putting this childhood training into action in grad school. Molecular biology was my toolkit, so meticulous planning and documentation of my work was critical for success in the lab. My ability to organize, along with technical work experience, helped in experimental design and execution, and my “master planning” helped to balance laboratory work, courses, being a TA, eating good food, and having fun.

Be intentional, stay flexible

In my ideal world, every graduate student would have a plan to guide and keep track of their grad school activities. This doesn’t have to be overwhelming, but a little thoughtful planning can prioritize your objectives and save you time in the long run.

There may be a time when you lose momentum, and a plan can get you back on track. Other times you will need to focus, and a plan can help you meet a deadline or finally finish that paper. There will be many chances to get involved as a grad student: committees, presentations, seminars, socials, etc. A plan can help you decide when and what opportunities to say yes to and, more importantly, which to say no to.

Your graduate success plan

Let’s get started! Take out a large piece of paper or open a word processing document; whatever works best for you. Roughly mark the years of your degree and then add the following to your timeline:

Your musts: What is essential to complete your graduate degree? These are your program requirements. They will form the foundation of your graduate success plan and include, if applicable:

  • Courses,
  • Committee meetings,
  • Comprehensives,
  • Research plan,
  • Thesis/dissertation writing, and
  • The date you plan to graduate!

Your “really helps”: What else can help you excel academically throughout graduate school? These will vary depending on your program and discipline but include such items as:

  • Funding (awards to apply for, application deadlines),
  • TAing or RAing,
  • Conferences (regional, national, or international, including abstract deadlines and possible travel awards),
  • Peer-reviewed publications, or
  • Experience sharing your research (poster or oral presentations at a conference or in your department, newsletter or blog articles, a competition such as Three Minute Thesis, SSHRC Storytellers, or NSERC Science Exposed).
  • Other?

These first two categories will be your graduate school guide and provide excellent agenda items for your next meeting with your supervisor or committee.

But what about preparing for after graduation?

This is a great time to pause and complete a self-assessment: visit your university’s career centre, complete an online individual development plan, or read a book such as Designing Your Life. These activities can help you better define successful career options for yourself within or beyond academia. They will also help you seek out additional opportunities which you can now add to your graduate success plan:

Your needs/wants: What skills, competencies, or experiences can you foster during grad school? What will help you succeed after graduation? Building on your academic timeline, how might the following be embedded into your graduate journey?

  • Professional development courses
  • Career counseling
  • Internships, co-op, work-study
  • Immigration deadlines (to work in Canada or another country)

Your “nice to haves”: Who will support you during and after grad school? Having a network of personal and professional relationships can help. Consider adding the following to your timeline:

  • Attending networking opportunities (meet new people through conferences, social events, university events)
  • Joining a professional society (many have trainee rates and offer professional events and workshops)
  • Volunteering (help an organization in need, gain experience, build connections)

After designing your graduate success plan, build in a six-month to one-year review to check on your progress and adjust as necessary. Share with your supervisor or peers for feedback. Is anything missing? Are you taking on too much? Is this really you?

Break it down

Establishing a routine that includes a more structured weekly or monthly plan can help you achieve the longer-term goals of your graduate success plan.

  • Include regular courses and seminars, time for research, and protected time for daily or regular reading and writing.
  • Add time for exercise, sleep, and meal planning.
  • Depending on where you are in your program, pencil in time to work on scholarships, attend a professional development workshop, or conduct an informational interview.
  • If you struggle with being accountable to yourself, consider joining a peer writing group or making plans with a friend to exercise or share a meal.

Grow as a professional

Being able to confidently plan and prioritize your time and tasks will help prepare you for a variety of careers. For example, organizations such as the National Center for Faculty Development and Diversity offer webinars and advice for faculty on how to thrive in academia. One of their key focus areas is strategic planning for the academic year, term, and week to help faculty balance responsibilities, make time for important work such as writing, and manage stress. Similarly, university staff are encouraged and supported to have strategic plans for their careers through human resources and professional associations. Many organizations require employees to submit individual goals, tied to company goals, which are evaluated annually and, sometimes, tied to salary compensation.

What are you waiting for? Get started on your plan to succeed in grad school and to hone competencies that will help you to thrive in whatever you do. Turns out Mom knows best after all!

Jacquelyn Brinkman
Jacquelyn Brinkman is the manager of the Graduate Pathways to Success program in Graduate and Postdoctoral Studies at the University of British Columbia. She completed her MSc in Biology at McGill University.
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  1. Jon Driver / August 15, 2018 at 14:05

    I was just preparing a mini-workshop for incoming graduate students in my department on time management – thank you for this very useful summary which has saved me a lot of work!

    Based on my experience as a former dean of graduate studies I would add something about planning one’s interactions with one’s supervisor. There are many different styles of supervision (from benign neglect to micromanagement). It’s important for graduate students to (a) understand what the supervisor wants/expects, and (b) to figure out how to “manage” their supervisor so that the student’s needs are also met. I will also give a mini-workshop on this topic to our new students.