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  • Grad School 101: Time Management Strategies


    Graduate school is full of exciting new experiences and challenges as you develop advanced skills and use them in new ways. Graduate school takes time, and finding the right way to balance your time is critical to accomplishing your goals. In this video, I give you some time management tips that will help you with prioritizing, setting goals, and creating a plan. Prefer to read the content of the video? The full transcription is below so you can access the material in the way that works best for you. 

    But first, why is time management so challenging in graduate school? During your undergraduate career, you probably had a full schedule of classes with a detailed syllabus for each course. In contrast, graduate work allows for more independence and time to devote to your interests and goals. You take fewer courses and there are fewer set deadlines. But there are also more demands on your time. During your degree, you might teach classes, contribute to a research group, present at conferences, do an internship, join a student organization, and much more. And then there’s family and friends and activities outside of school. You get the picture. All of these factors and more are important to keep in mind as you think about how to plan your time and prioritize your tasks.

    Before we get started, it is important to remember that time management is a highly personal skill. Some of the tips I have might work for you, while others might not work as well. I recommend trying a few of these techniques and then adapting them to fit your individual needs. One key element to managing your time is prioritizing. You need to determine which tasks require immediate attention, which tasks need planning, and which tasks you should try to avoid. The first step is to create a to-do list of all of the tasks that you need to accomplish. Depending on your needs, your to-do list could reflect the things you need to accomplish during the semester, during the week, or even during a particular day.

    The Covey Matrix: A Tool for Time Management

    Next, you need to divide these tasks based on their urgency and importance to your success. One way to do this is through the Covey Matrix, which is found in Stephen Covey’s book The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. In this matrix, tasks are organized based on their urgency and importance. Urgent tasks are tasks that require immediate action. If you don’t attend to them, there could be consequences. Important tasks are tasks that relate to your long-term goals and values. The matrix is divided into four quadrants and we will discuss each now. Tasks in the first quadrant are urgent and important. They are built on necessity, so they should be completed as soon as possible. A task that might appear here is: “study for tomorrow’s exam.” It is a necessity that you prepare for your exam and if you don’t, there could be consequences, such as failing your exam and impacting your overall grade in the class. In the second quadrant are tasks that are important but not urgent, so tasks that are not time-sensitive, but they are important to achieving your goals. Tasks in this quadrant might be “write my thesis” or “apply for a grant.” Both of these are goals that are extremely important to your career and goals, but they need focus and planning. We’ll talk more about this quadrant in a second.

    Quadrant 3 has tasks that are urgent but not important to your long-term goals, such as answering non-time sensitive emails or helping people who stop by your office unexpectedly. These tasks are deceptive – they could take up a lot of time if you are not careful. That’s why it is important to be cautious when addressing the tasks in this quadrant. The final quadrant is reserved for tasks that are not urgent and not important, essentially time-wasters that should be avoided. This includes things that disrupt or distract your form using our time productively, like surfing social media or watching lots of YouTube videos. As you are prioritizing and using the Covey Matrix, keep a few things in mind. First, by putting tasks in quadrant four, it doesn’t mean you should always avoid doing these things. It’s just important to think about your intentions before you start. For example, maybe you have blocked off time on your calendar to work on a paper. But rather than working, you have the urge to check the news, update Facebook, and then watch videos of pandas on YouTube. These tasks are disturbing your work and preventing productivity, so they belong in quadrant four. On the other hand, if you’ve taken a break from working, you might focus on some of these tasks to give your mind a rest.

    Next, make sure to keep as few tasks as possible in quadrant one. Focusing only on tasks when they become urgent and important can leave you stressed and burnout. This means you will need to regularly devote time to the tasks in quadrants two and three, because if you put them off for too long, they can move into quadrant one and become urgent and important tasks. Now that we’ve prioritized, let’s focus a little more closely on quadrant two. These are the tasks that are most important to your goals. But as you can see, these are tasks that require a little more planning and goal-setting. You can’t, for example, say “Tomorrow, I am going to write my entire thesis.” Instead, you need to break these tasks down into several small, manageable goals that you work on over a period of time. Let’s say that your goal is to write a semester paper. Think of some of the steps that you need to take in order to write the paper, such as choosing a topic, outlining, completing a draft, and making final edits. Then, assign each task a tentative deadline. These deadlines are meant to keep you on track and most of them should be relatively flexible. Maybe a task takes longer than you expected or maybe you catch a cold and miss a day of work or maybe an unavoidable situation comes up. If you create too many firm, tight deadlines and then miss one or two, it might prevent you from making meaningful progress.

    Now that you’ve determined your priorities, it’s time to record them in your calendar. In this calendar example, I’ve color-coded some of my tasks based on where they fit in the Covey Matrix, and I’ve chosen colors that correspond with a stoplight. This strategy could be helpful to you so that you can see where your priorities lie for the week. For example, the urgent and important tasks (such as taking my exam and going to class) are in red, which alerts me to their importance. I recommend setting aside time in your calendar to complete these tasks first, since it is crucial that you address them.  I’ve devoted quite a bit of time for quadrant two – including outlining my paper, going to the library, and creating a to-do list, which I’ve marked in green. Finally, I’ve set aside an hour each day to address the tasks in Quadrant 3 – the urgent but not important tasks. I’ve put them in yellow so that I remember to be cautious.

    Assign Goals for Each Session

    One good trick is to assign yourself a goal for each session – for example, I’ve decided to outline my paper on Tuesday morning, and on Wednesday I am going to read two articles. By incorporating your goals into each study session, it will help you focus and stay on track. Another tip to consider as you fill out your calendar is to determine what time of day you are most productive and regularly block off time then to work. If you work better in the morning after a cup of coffee, block off time each morning for focused work (that’s what I’ve done here). If you work better later in the day, you might reserve some time after lunch.

    Take Time to Relax

    Devoting time to self-care is crucial to time management, but these tasks don’t always fit nicely into the Covey Matrix. You can see that in purple I’ve blocked off time away from work—time to relax, have fun, and practice self-care. In addition to blocking off time for lunch, the gym, spending time with friends, and other activities, you’ll also want to set aside time within each study session to take a break. Remember, time away from work can be just as valuable as time spent working because it allows your mind time to recharge and relax.  

    Learning to Say No

    An important dimension to time management is knowing when to say “no” to a task, especially if it doesn’t fit in your schedule, causes stress, or keeps you from accomplishing your goals. Before you say no to an opportunity, there are a few things to consider. First, think about what this opportunity means to you and if it relates to your goals. Sometimes when we are asked to take part in a task, it can feel like an honor or a boost to our ego. And while that can feel great, that doesn’t necessarily mean that completing the task will be beneficial to you in the long run. Think about what it means to say yes. How much time will you need to devote to this task? Where will you need to work and will others be involved? Is there a deadline? Do you foresee being stressed or overwhelmed with the task? It might help you to reach out to a friend, mentor, or family member for advice. Sometimes getting another’s perspective and talking through the pros and cons of a situation will help you see if taking on another task is the right decision.

    If the opportunity is something you think you want to participate in but you are concerned about committing to the entire task, consider if there are other ways you might be involved. Could you do part of the task or share duties with someone else? Maybe you could mentor or provide advice to another person who is interested. Can you recommend someone else who would be a good fit? If the task isn’t time sensitive, maybe you could request to work on it at a later date. Finally, if you have decided to say “no” to a task, don’t wait too long; procrastination won’t make saying no any easier. In your communication, be firm with your intentions but also be gracious and thankful to be given the opportunity.


    The University of Illinois has many campus resources that can help you manage academic and personal expectation during your time as a graduate student. For information, consider reaching out to the Health Education team at McKinley Health Center, the Counseling Center, and the Graduate College.


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    Emily Wuchner is the Thesis Coordinator at the Graduate College. She holds a PhD in musicology from the University of Illinois, and her work focuses on music and social welfare in eighteenth-century Austria. In her free time, she enjoys playing the bassoon, watching sports, and hanging out with her calico cat, Gracie Sue.

  • Making the Most of Summer: Developing Skills Employers Want

    As you move into your first summer as a graduate student at Illinois, now is a perfect milestone to take time to reflect on your progress as a student and scholar. Over the past year, you’ve gained new skills and knowledge in your field, but success beyond graduate school requires taking a comprehensive approach to your professional development. It requires more than technical skills and field-specific knowledge.

    The National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE) is a professional association dedicated to connecting colleges with employers to better serve students as they move into their professional careers. In its Job Outlook 2019 report, NACE asked employers to identify the skills they look for most when recruiting graduates. Notably, the attributes employers want the most are those commonly categorized as “soft” skills or qualities not directly associated with technical abilities. Employers describe a significant need for these skills that far surpasses the level of proficiency observed in new hires.

    In particular, recent trends show increased interest for candidates who are problem-solvers, communicate effectively, work well in teams, and demonstrate a strong work ethic.

    Despite sometimes being called “soft,” these skills are in fact pretty hard to develop. Demonstrating your ability in these areas necessitates knowing what they are and how to talk about them – and how you’ve used them – to potential employers, no matter what career path you are pursuing. (When we ask faculty what makes them successful in their careers, they often talk about skills similar to the ones highlighted in the NACE report.)

    Summer is a great time to strengthen these skills because it typically means having new experiences outside of the classroom. For some, that involves long hours in a research lab or library, working a summer job, or doing an internship. But no matter where your summer plans take you, any setting will provide ample opportunities to work on your professional development. Below I will explain these four in-demand skills in greater detail and offer tips (including a* course) on how to focus on your “softer” side.

    Become a Problem Solver

    Problem-solving is the most essential career competency reported by employers to NACE. Problem-solving is about how you choose to arrange, combine, and utilize all your abilities as a specific response to a unique challenge. Fortunately, you are already likely to encounter tasks that test these skills in your professional and academic roles. The next step is to think about your individual approach to problem-solving in a strategic way and figure out how to get better at it.

    So, what can you do to improve your problem-solving skills this summer? Start by assessing what you already do on a regular basis. Whether you are troubleshooting a research hiccup or navigating an obstacle at an internship, incorporate time for reflection after overcoming a problem. Create a step-by-step breakdown of your actions and an inventory of what skills you applied. Determine which strategies were most and least useful. Was your approach successful? If so, why did it work? And if not, what would you do differently? Then when the next problem arises, pay attention to your process and how you apply all your skills to get to a solution. Then reflect again.

    Check out the following course on improving your problem-solving skills.

    Communicate Effectively

    Verbal and written communication are ubiquitous skills, demonstrated in every interaction you have. Yet, employers say less than half of their new hires are proficient communicators. Expressing ideas and complex concepts effectively remains a highly desired, but difficult skill, so make sure you’re not taking it for granted.

    A critical element of communication skills is understanding your audience. Graduate work can be hyper-focused in both your field and on a specific topic area where most conversation is amongst experts with extensive foundational knowledge. This summer, you’ll likely meet new people – such as at conferences, during an internship, or even on vacation – who are not familiar with your work in graduate school. Use these opportunities to practice your communication skills by describing what you do as a graduate student, with extra attention devoted to connecting with your audience on their terms. What are ways you can explain your work that connects to their experience? Every occasion for small talk is a chance to refine your ability to communicate complex topics while connecting with a new audience. And as with problem-solving, reflect after each interaction to identify what worked and what didn’t.

    Check out the following course on making meaningful first impressions.

    Become a Team Player

    Teamwork is about integrating your strengths and skills with others in a collaborative process to achieve a mutual goal. Leadership focuses on organizing and prioritizing the work to be done while empowering and motivating others in a team setting. Teamwork and leadership can occur in both formal and informal situations, so you don’t have to wait to be appointed to an official role to think about developing these skills.

    If you are part of a new team this summer, whether in a lab, job, or other setting, pay specific attention to how work is delegated. Is the team organized in a way that makes sense? You might think of ways to change who does what, even for seemingly small tasks, to better correspond to individual strengths, even if it means relinquishing some of your preferred responsibilities. Minor adjustments can have a major impact in fostering a more harmonious and coordinated team effort.

    If you’re not already going to be in a team this summer, consider finding ways to collaborate in less formal settings. Seek out local volunteer opportunities through organizations in your community, including registered student organizations if you are remaining on the Champaign-Urbana campus. Whether you end up tutoring kids or unpacking boxes at a food pantry, you will have a chance to observe teams in action and develop your skills in this area.

    Check out the following course on fostering collaboration.

    Show Your Strong Work Ethic

    Work ethic, also sometimes called initiative, is demonstrated by how you take on responsibilities both large and small and whether you make efficient progress on goals. Initiative is garnering increased attention, recently surpassing quantitative skills in the list of attributes employers seek out in a resume. But how do you convince somebody you have a good work ethic? Does taking initiative require saying “yes” anytime someone asks you to do something?

    Sometimes it is about saying yes – but saying yes wisely. It’s easy to conflate initiative with the need to simply increase the number of things you’re doing. Doing more things, just for the sake of doing them, can be counterproductive to succeeding in your current endeavors. Developing initiative as a skill is about taking ownership of your approach to your work, identifying preemptive actions, and following through on those steps to ensure it gets done.

    Show your work ethic through establishing concrete strategies for your long-term projects. Schedule specific times each week dedicated to your tasks and group similar activities together for efficiency. Set milestones and progress markers while checking-in at set intervals to assess and adjust your process. Mapping out the work to be done is useful in developing foresight to take steps on proactive measures that ensure success.

    Check out the following course on building project schedules.

    Once you get a head start on developing these skills over the summer, keep it up! No matter whether your graduate education is near the end or just beginning or whether you plan to pursue a career in academia, industry, government, or have no idea what path is ahead – demonstrating and describing these skills effectively can make a meaningful impression on employers across all professions.

    * ( is an online learning platform with a diverse and extensive catalogue of professional development courses. Access to this tool is free for University of Illinois students by using your Illinois login credentials.


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    Mike Firmand is the Assistant Director for Employer Outreach in the Graduate College. He works with employers to connect University of Illinois graduate students to new opportunities and promote the value of graduate education. He previously worked for the College of Business at Illinois State University and has held positions in insurance, marketing, banking, and retail and event management. Mike holds a B.S. in Recreation, Sport and Tourism from the University of Illinois and an M.S. in Communication from Illinois State University.

  • Bringing the Magic of Iranian Music to the Heartland

    This is the second article of a two-part series on students’ involvement in music and performances organized at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign campus. Read part one here.

    The University of Illinois, Urbana Champaign is home to a highly diverse student body and their respective student associations, which aim to cultivate and share with each other their music, food, art and traditions.

    In this piece, we feature an event organized by the Iranian Cultural Association (ICA) on our campus during the Spring 2019 semester. ICE hosted Kayhan Kalhor, a globally recognized musician from Iran known for his transcendental music and for his ensemble collaborations with other musicians across the globe. Kalhor is known to play several instruments in particular the Kamancheh and the Setar. This event was made possible by the ICA along with support from Center for South Asian & Middle Eastern Studies and several other units on campus. 

    Photo by Mohammad Babaeizadeh


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    ICA president and PhD student Atyeh Ashtari and ICA board member Kasra Tabatabaei spearheaded the effort to bring Kalhor to campus. Atyeh studies Urban & Regional Planning has a background in Architecture and Landscape Design and is interested to work on topics related to urbanization and feminism. Through her work with ICA and the event with Kalhor, she hoped to showcase the beautiful culture of Iran and its people through music.

    In a time of much political upheaval and the current travel ban, Atiyeh and the ICA community at large wanted to bring together people from different cultures and musical tastes together. The unimaginable challenge of not being able to travel to their home country of Iran due to the ban poses a unique burden on not just the Iranian community in Urbana-Champaign and in the US overall but also others from nations that are on the banned list. Atyeh says this political move causes pressure, restriction and feeling of loneliness in the lives of the students and community members who have not been able to see their close family and friends.

    The political climate and travel ban meant bringing in Kayhan was even more of a challenge but due to the combined efforts of all the wonderful units on campus this event was made possible. The sold out concert drew students, community members, and staff to Gregory Hall.

    Kayhan Kaylor was accompanied by his student Kiya Tabassian. Kayhan chose to play the Setar for this occasion and mesmerized the crowd. What followed was a night of ethereal music which filled the auditorium and the hearts of everyone present. I noticed several audience members sitting around me were deeply touched by the music and some even cried! One can only imagine the range of emotions that must have been evoked by the beautiful music! The musicians played non-stop for an hour and forty five minutes. Atyeh says the duo’s performance was completely impromptu and based on the reactions of the audience.

    Interested in learning more about Iranian culture? Check out the ICA website to stay up to date on upcoming cultural events. 


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    Sulagna Chakraborty is a third year PhD student pursuing the program in Infectious Diseases Epidemiology from the Department of Kinesiology & Community Health. She is a current member of SAGE. Her research is focused on vector borne diseases globally. She wants to combine her backgrounds in microbiology, social media, and public health towards a future career as both a chronic disease and infectious disease epidemiologist. She is an avid traveler and an amateur poet and writer, and she loves to sample different cuisines, dance, and make meaningful connections with people.