Tips for Grads: Creating a semester plan

By Emily Azevedo-Casey, PhD student

A semester plan is a useful tool for graduate students because much of the writing and research we do lacks the built-in accountability that typically comes with classes and jobs. A semester plan can keep you grounded through the ebbs and flows of the semester and combats a consistent challenge: managing unstructured time. Try these tips to set yourself up for success this semester.

Choose one to three goals to prioritize for the semester. Imagine it is December 15 and you’re looking back at your progress over the semester. What would make you feel most proud of achieving? For me, that would be progressing towards dissertator status and improving my overall health. Deepen the chance these goals become reality by making them SMART (specific, measurable, attainable, relevant, and time-bound). Within the SMART framework, my goals become: successfully pass my PhD qualifying exam this November, consistently meditate for at least five minutes each morning, and walk 10,000 steps Monday through Friday. Our fall workshop on Creating Your Individual Development Plan will dive further into SMART goals. Watch GradConnections for more information on the workshop in the coming weeks.

Break down each of your goals into the steps needed to get it done. Work backward from your goal. Back to my exam example, the steps I would break this into include: scheduling the exam, clarifying the structure and expectations with my advisors and committee, organizing my reading list, studying each week, and checking in with my writing mentor for accountability. What steps are needed for you to achieve your biggest goals this semester? Try this template from Harvard University on setting and breaking down your SMART goals.

Connect your plan with your calendar and weekly planner. I suggest using Outlook or Google Calendar since they seem to integrate best with the UW system. Add in important dates and deadlines like semester breaks, classes, assignments, and exam dates over the next 15 weeks. Consider when you will fit in the daily and weekly tasks needed to achieve your semester goals and block them off in your calendar with the same importance of external dates and deadlines.

Revise and update your plan. Treat your plan as a living document. Keep it in an accessible place like your desktop or starred on Google Drive. Dedicate time in your calendar to check in with your plan a few times during the semester. And, use your weekly planner to track your progress as you go. Jot down what’s working and how long tasks tend to actually take versus what you planned. Seeing your progress is a great reminder of how far you’ve come!

For a full walkthrough on creating your semester plan, check out the webinar “Every Semester Needs a Plan” from the National Center for Faculty Development and Diversity (NCFDD). This is free for all UW grad students and offers many other resources geared towards your success in graduate school and beyond.

By following these tips, graduate students can create a well-structured semester plan that enhances their productivity, reduces stress, and maximizes their chances of achieving their academic and personal goals.

Tips for Grads is a professional and academic advice column written by graduate students for graduate students at UW­–Madison. It is published in the student newsletter, GradConnections Weekly.