Knowing your mission

In order to effectively manage your time, you have to decide what is most important to you so that you can determine how you want to spend your time. It is often easy for us to confuse unimportant tasks with important ones when we lose sight of the bigger picture of why we do what we do. As graduate students and postdocs, we often have to juggle many roles that may include teaching, research, writing, mentoring students one-on-one, networking, taking classes, professional development, and spending time with family and friends. Setting daily as well as long-term goals becomes significantly easier when you are centered on your personal values and vision. Below are some tips for becoming more in control of your time to maximize your productivity and find fulfillment in your work and life.

Write your mission statement

Think back to when you were first applying to graduate school. Why did you apply? What did you hope to achieve as a graduate student? Have your professional or personal goals changed?

Now think more broadly. What are the three most important aspects of your life? What three things could you do that would immediately improve your work life? What three things could you do that would immediately improve your personal life?

Answering these questions can help you in thinking about the vision you have for your life as a graduate student/postdoc, friend, family member, etc. In turn, this can help you realize what you need to focus on in order to work toward your vision. Working toward this vision is your mission. In The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, Stephen Covey explains that a personal mission statement can act as a personal constitution so that you are no longer being driven by the things that happen to you. Writing or reviewing a mission statement ensures that your actions align with your goals. Therefore, you can become more proactive in achieving your goals.

Writing a mission statement will take time for introspection, but it will ultimately help you in determining how to best prioritize your days, weeks, and years as a graduate student or postdoc.

Knowing and communicating what you need

Once you have a mission statement, you can better communicate your goals and what you need as a trainee to your adviser. This is often referred to as “mentoring up.” In Self Leadership and the One Minute Manager, the following statement is made: “When your competence is low, you need direction; when your commitment is low, you need support.” By taking the time to analyze what you need when undertaking a new project, you can more effectively seek out the direction you need; by viewing your dissertation, research, and professional development through the lens of your personal mission statement, you can find greater motivation to increase your commitment even when the support you receive may seem minimal.

How to say “no”

As graduate students and postdocs, there are often many requests from advisers, reviewers and committees that we cannot say “no” to (an additional experiment for a paper, adding an additional chapter to your dissertation, etc.). However, we say “yes” and “no” to things constantly throughout our day. Think about how often you respond with a “yes” to requests from peers, student committees, and others. Many of these requests may align with your personal mission statement and be important for growing your network, being a helpful part of your research team, and/or for your personal career development. However, it is important that one does not confuse tasks that may seem important (that are actually unimportant) with those that truly are important. Staying focused on your mission statement will help you determine what to say “yes” to and what to politely say “no” to. Let us look at an example to illustrate how a mission statement can help one choose when to say “yes” and when to say “no.”

Tom is a second year PhD student in Cell Biology preparing for his preliminary exam, which is in three months. In addition to working on his thesis project, Tom has a critical role in the lab: he trains an undergraduate named Lucy, performs routine maintenance on some of the common lab equipment, as well as orders food for lab meetings. Outside of lab, Tom serves as the GPSC representative for his department and spends time with his wife and one-year-old daughter. Having a busy home and work life, Tom has little time to spare. As Lucy progresses with her project, she becomes increasingly more demanding of Tom, constantly asking for help with experiments. On one particularly long day during which Tom has been constantly badgered by Lucy, Tom’s adviser asks him if he would be willing to take on an additional side project that would involve collaborating with multiple labs outside of the department. The project sounds very interesting and exciting to Tom and would allow him to grow his professional network outside of the department. However, this would also mean working with and training a first year graduate student who just joined the lab and would be working on another aspect of the project for her thesis. Between the stress of his preliminary exam and training Lucy, Tom is very tempted to say no to working on the project altogether. In this moment, Tom remembers his personal mission statement, which includes the following sentence: “I will strive to contribute to my field by performing cutting edge research, training new students in the lab to become independent scientists, and seeking help from experts outside my immediate department.” Tom realizes that this new side project does align well with his professional goals. He also realizes that he has been waiting on Lucy hand-and-foot, which has not achieved the purpose of helping her to become independent. That afternoon, Tom discusses with his adviser the taking on of this side project in light of Tom’s quickly approaching preliminary exam. Tom’s adviser is a new professor seeking tenure and desperately wants Tom, his first student, to pass the preliminary exam. Therefore, Tom’s adviser agrees to let Tom take Monday, Wednesday, and Friday mornings to study outside of lab in a distraction-free environment. Tom then arranges to have a weekly meeting with the first year graduate student who will conduct the bulk of the experiments for this new project until Tom finishes his preliminary exam. Tom also asks this new student to take over the responsibility of ordering food for lab meetings. Additionally, Tom meets with Lucy and praises her for being so proactive in her research. He then suggests that she should spend the next few months focusing on getting replicates of the experiments she is most comfortable with and postpone starting new experiments. Tom manages to divide his time so that his Tuesdays and Thursdays will be dedicated toward working with Lucy and his new side project, while his Monday, Wednesday and Friday afternoons will be spent finishing up any last minute experiments related to his thesis project that Tom wants to complete before his preliminary exam.

The above information comes from the following resources:

Blanchard, Ken et al. Self Leadership and the One Minute Manager. HarperCollins Publisher Inc., 2005.

Covey, Stephen R. The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People: Powerful Lessons in Personal Change. Free Press, 1989.

Other resources on this topic include:

Sinek, Simon. Start with Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone to Take ActionPenguin Publishing Group, 2009.

Sinek, Simon. Find Your Why: A Practical Guide for Discovering Purpose for You and Your TeamPenguin Publishing Group, 2017.