Unlike traditional college courses, undergraduate research is a relatively unstructured experience. You will find that you have a great deal of freedom and flexibility in terms of what you do and when you choose to do it. This can be both a good or a bad thing depending on how effectively you are able to manage your time. Here we offer some tips on time management that will help you get the most out of your undergraduate research experience.
Suggestions on How to Get Off to a Good Start on Your Research Project
- Make sure that you know what the goals, objectives, and deadlines, if any, are for your research project and establish a project timeline. Good time management begins with an appropriate appreciation for the “big picture.” If you don’t know where you are going then you will never get there. At the same time it is important to establish a deadline for accomplishing the goal even if the deadline is artificial. Most people work more effectively when they must meet a deadline. It is also important to take time at the outset to plan how you are going to achieve the goal. The individual, bite-size tasks you will need to accomplish in order to achieve your goal are what we refer to as the objectives. Next you will need to figure out how much time you will need in order to accomplish each objective. It is also a wise idea to think about whether or not each objective must be accomplished sequentially or whether any of the objectives can be tackled independent of the rest. This will give you flexibility. With the project outlined as suggested above, you will find it much easier to accomplish your project on time.
- Take time at the start to research your project to orient yourself with respect to your project and the laboratory. What project will you be working on? What information is already known about the scientific problem, materials with which you will work, etc. Be sure to do the necessary background work on your laboratory and facilities. Good questions include: How do things get done in your lab? For example, how does one order chemicals, reagents, and/or supplies? How do new group members get trained on any specialized equipment or instrumentation? How is the lab organized, i.e., where are the chemicals, instruments, etc. located in the laboratory?
- Use an organizer or day planner. If you don’t already use a day planner or agenda, consider purchasing a simple one and beginning to learn to use it to track appointments, telephone conversations, e-mail and any written correspondence, etc. related to your research project Day planners can be extremely powerful tools when used reflectively. They can help you see how you spend your time which can in turn can help you learn how to better prioritize your time which will give you more time to do the things you really want to do.
- Adopt a regular work schedule. Establish for yourself a regular work schedule that you will be able to sustain and you strive to keep to that schedule. To do this it is best to begin by identifying all of the regular activities including time spent commuting, lecture and lab sections, part-time jobs, clubs, sports, etc. Then block out, i.e., set aside time for your research each week. Last comment related to this the schedule you create isn’t magical. It won’t work unless you keep to it.
- Prioritize. If you aren’t used to long term or short term planning, you might want to begin by keeping “to do” lists for each day. Prioritize the tasks listed for the day and then work through them in the order of their priority. At the end of the day, evaluate your progress and prepare a new list for the next day.
- Know yourself. Know your limitations – time and abilities. Don’t take on more than you think you can accomplish.
- Communicate regularly with your advisor. If you find yourself unable to move forward on any task related to your project, meet with your advisor as soon as possible to discuss possible options and/or solutions. Don’t get in the mistaken mindset of thinking that you can only meet with your advisor when you have obtained positive results on your project. You will make stronger and more consistent progress on your project if you discuss difficulties as well as accomplishments with your advisor. Remember their role isn’t to judge you but to teach you.
- Learn how to stay focused and on task. Until you are confident in your ability, put all your effort into doing one thing at a time. Learn how to say “no” when necessary to requests from your advisor, friends, family, etc. that will divert needed energies from the task at hand.
- Experiments usually take time to do well – usually more time than you think. This is often the case when you are mastering a new experimental protocol, learning to use a different instrument, etc. Be sure to schedule blocks of time in order to make progress on your project.
- Understand what you are doing before you try to do anything in the lab. If you don’t understand ask. If you still don’t understand, ask again or ask someone else. It may not seem like this is a time-saving tool but this really is a time saver. If you understand what you are doing when you set about to do it you are more likely to do it right the first time.
Question: I have an examination and need to spend my time preparing for the exam. I really want to just forget about going to the laboratory this week. What should I do?
Answer: Make an appointment to speak with your advisor. I can’t guarantee their response but every research advisor wants to see his/her undergraduate researchers succeed both in the classroom and in the research laboratory. It is important to touch base with your advisor as he/she may have deadlines to meet. It is also simply the mature, responsible thing to do. I can’t guarantee that your advisor won’t be disappointed. However, if you don’t tell him/her about the exam and if you simply don’t show up to lab then I can guarantee that he/she won’t be very happy.
- Managing Your Time (Dartmouth Academic Skills Center). http://www.dartmouth.edu/~acskills/success/time.html
- Time Management Tips (George Mason University Counseling Center). http://www.gmu.edu/departments/csdc/time.htm