Grad School and Rolling Priorities

Everyone loves to give the new grad student advice, like "Stay organized" or "Work twice as hard as your professors do" or "Don't get a Ph.D. in English." But there's one piece of advice I struggled with for quite a while, and I hadn't pinpointed how or why until very recently.

This advice, spoken so often by supportive department chairs and advisors and written in many a graduate school survival manual, is boiled down to one seemingly simple (but actually crazy complicated) verb: Prioritize.

We were told, early and often, to prioritize and to maintain focus on our own graduate work. My interpretation of the pecking order went something like this:


On one hand, this advice is both useful and practical: a non-teaching day, for instance, might be broken up into neat parts: first a few hours on dissertation work, followed by grading, then sending some emails for that conference you're organizing, and finally, researching an interesting fellowship to apply to. Include the activities that allow for personal health and wellness: a yoga class or a run, perhaps, and by 10 p.m. you can be on the couch with a glass of wine, painting your nails and watching Swamp Wars with your husband.

But it never seems to work that way in practice. For me, prioritizing works when the only deadlines that matter are my research deadlines. As soon as my research deadlines begin to rub up against "lower-priority" deadlines or meetings, all those pink arrows in my above chart seem to crash into each other and then fall to the ground. I spend far too long figuring out what I should do first, and how to divide my time, and what can I skip and how can I jump from one task to the other, and before I know it it's 8 p.m., I have two out of 30 papers graded and one sentence written, and a whole lot of stress.

An example: In the dissertation stage we're told writing should come first, one should write something every day, and one should fiercely protect one's writing time, etc. But what happens when, on my designated writing day, I have 30 student essays to read and grade? Do I turn the papers back late? Forgo writing for the day? Jump back and forth between tasks? 

Another example. I highly prioritize exercise. It keeps me sane. But some nights I find I'm on a real roll writing or researching fellowships and can't bear to leave my desk. Better to take a break or slog through? Either way I feel guilty.

So I'd like to suggest a new concept (at least, one that is new for me): rolling priorities.

When we were first told to prioritize in grad school, I didn't realize how often my priorities would shift, and I certainly didn't realize that they need to shift. Needing to shift my priorities is not a sign that I am doing it wrong. Viewing my priorities as a series of shifting, rolling tasks allows me to refocus and re-adjust daily and weekly without guilt that I "should" be doing something else.

So I still prioritize, only now I see my priorities not as linear and fixed, but as fluid and adaptable.

Need to spend a day grading instead of writing? Okay, roll with it. Need to write instead of work out? Roll with it. Need to exercise instead of working on a fellowship app? Roll with it. Just roll!



  1. I struggle with managing priorities too. I've tried rolling priorities, but I've noticed that I will role the solitary and hard dissertation writing right on over for other stuff way too easily. So, I have to prioritize my writing (in the am, always before lunch). I also tend to be as rigid as I can stand in my scheduling since I'm so good at procrastinating and overcommitting.

    It was a total a-ha moment for me to acknowledge that the dissertation phase involves just as much learning as the coursework phase (if not more). Then I gave myself permission to screw up, revise, watch Toddlers and Tiaras instead of write, take mid-day Target trip b/c IAMADISSERTATORYOUCANTCONTROLMYTIME, then reflect on how that's unsustainable for my goals:)

    We got this.

    1. We SO got this. You raise a good point though: one can't roll the dissertation to the bottom all the time. It always has to be somewhere near(ish) the top. My problem was/is crises of consciousness whenever I did something that was NOT dissertating: "can't grade! must write!" etc. Permission to screw up and learn from it and screw up again is so key, as is experimenting with what works and doesn't work.

      And gosh I love mid-day Target trips. Sometimes feel like I'm being judged (the only person in there under 60/without a baby) but I don't even care!


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