Wednesday, October 25, 2017

Time Management: When Undergraduate Research and Midterms Collide

This week, PVL undergraduate Brittney Cooper reflects on the hectic schedule of students, especially those who participate in research in addition to their regular studies. The image above is a snapshot of her desk. It might look a little busy, but research has shown that a cluttered workspace might not be as much of a disadvantage as you might think.

by Brittney Cooper

I’ve been a part of PVL for a while now (before we were even known as “PVL”!) and I began as a volunteer for a couple years during the school year, applying for grants to be a summer student, and then eventually I became a contract RAY (Research at York) student. I’m in my 5th and final year of my undergrad and I feel incredibly lucky and really happy to have as much experience in research and academia as I do now, it’s been a learning experience on many fronts.
One massively beneficial thing I’ve learned from this experience (that seems to dominate my life currently) is time-management. I don’t just mean the concept of it, I mean legitimately sorting out my weeks, days, even hours when times are tough (i.e. midterm season in your final year of undergrad, when you’re applying for grad school).
I kid you not, having a full course load and a part-time research gig has taught me to never underestimate what can be done in an hour, and in the madness of everything, scheduling my time is paramount. It is exhausting, but it is also exhilarating in a really kind of embarrassing way. Being productive and getting things done on my commute, during a break between classes, or just before attending to the remnants of my school-year social-life allows me time to enjoy my weekends. I am aware that this jam-packed lifestyle is not unique to undergraduate students; in fact I feel it is probably akin to what a great deal of post-grads experience in their respective fields, so I feel assured that this is a useful skill to hone.

I typically schedule my time for classes, studying, assignments and research on a weekly basis, and then I typically plan what specific times I’m going to get things done on a daily basis. I know this may sound completely crazy, but it works. I can guarantee that I have not stumbled on something new, I’m sure that this is something done by many, and I get why – it’s addicting. Checking off boxes on to-do lists and getting things done gives you a kick of adrenaline (which is hilarious but awesome). By the end of a productive day, I’m feeling good about myself. I may be getting a little off-track here, but the point is that this is a great skill that I could have developed without being a research assistant, but it’s not something that I developed until I was.
I have always enjoyed academics, but I (like most of the population) can also be prone to laziness and procrastination in subjects I do not enjoy, and that can lead to a lack of motivation and then a grade beneath what you know you are capable of, often snowballing from there. When this happened to me a few years ago, it became clear that in order to keep doing the research and work that was really meaningful to me, I would also have to have the academics to match. I had to get myself back up to par so that I could continue with this research opportunity I enjoyed, and that meant getting organized and doing things properly. This meant ensuring that enough time was devoted to everything, as opposed to favouring my work and more interesting classes.
Eventually it all came together, and I developed a pretty good routine that allowed me to succeed in my courses, while doing the work I enjoy in research, and still even enjoy some weekends (which is pretty rare during the school year). That being said, no week is perfect and there are definitely days where I just forego things all together, to take a break so I can continue functioning like a regular human being.
The main point I’m trying to make is that there is always enough time to get what I have to get done, it’s just a matter of how I organize my time from the get-go that determines how it affects my life. Even in cases where I have very little control and very little warning, it’s all about adapting (which is so much easier said than done!). It’s been all about determining what works for me (i.e. doing things in stages vs. bingeing), and what that means for how I budget my time. I was able to learn about the circumstances in which I work the best, and in doing so, got a sense of how much time would be required for work the future.
 It may sound like I have this all figured out, but regardless of how well my time is managed on my best days, I still get spurts of laziness and lack motivation. Life doesn’t always go according to plan, but at least in trying to adhere to this strategy I’ve developed for myself, I feel mildly confident that things won’t spiral out of control as they once did. I also feel confident these experiences will help me in the years ahead, and I’m thankful that I’ve been able to learn these lessons now and am already applying them to my advantage.

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