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CamGuides: Becoming a Graduate Student

Everyone needs time management

a calendar on a desk, with a clock and some other notesEvery Master's course comes with a heavy, demanding workload and a busy schedule, and so you'll need to manage your time. How you do this doesn't have to be complex - it should be sustainable and manageable, with enough time for reflection and rest. Things might feel overwhelming at points during your course: the ability to manage your time well, right from the start, will help you stay organised, keep to deadlines, be productive and avoid becoming too stressed or overwhelmed.


Work out what time of the day constitutes your most productive time, and don't berate yourself for not being in the library 24/7.

- MPhil Music student, 2017-18

Step 1: Being organised

Unless you're blessed with an exceptionally good memory, you're going to need a system to keep track of your course and your life while you're in Cambridge. This system does not have to be particularly fancy but it does have to be sustainable, and it does have to suit you. Before your course begins might be a good time to experiment with what your ideal system might look like.

Three things you can do now to make staying organised really simple:

  • Decide how you're going to keep track of deadlines, classes, social events. This might be a traditional paper diary, or a free or paid app for your phone.
  • Decide how you're going to keep track of the many things you have to do. Again, go analogue with a notebook or a bullet journal, or go digital with a to-do list app like Workflowy or Tewdo (but there are loads available)
  • Decide how you're going to back up your work. This might be Dropbox or Google Drive, or Scannable to turn your paper documents into PDFs. 

Details about all the apps mentioned here, and more, are available in the Software for Academic Use section.


You really need to have either an online calendar or a physical calendar.

- MPhil (Part III) Maths student, 2017-18

Step 2: Prioritise

Time management is mostly about how we prioritise the multitude of things we have to do, and what we take into account when we make those decisions e.g. deadlines, how long a task will take, or how much energy it will take.

The task below is an edited version of the Eisenhower method of sorting out priorities. It's an edited version because, unlike most graduate students, Dwight Eisenhower had people he could delegate to. It's definitely not the only way to prioritise work and there'll be times when it isn't suitable, but it does underline that we (sometimes) have control over our to-do list.

tick box

Write out a list of all the things you have to do: academic work, life admin, housework, professional activities, etc. Now divide the list into three groups:

(1) Urgent and important; (2) Important but not urgent; (3) Neither urgent nor important.

Precisely how you divide up the list is up to you. But in general you might find that those in Group 1 (Urgent and important) are time-focused and have close deadlines, while those in Group 2 (Important) are not necessarily time-focused but contribute to your long-term plans, or to your rest and well being.

According to this method of prioritising, if a task is urgent and important, you should do it now. It's your main priority. If it's important, but not urgent, decide when you'll do it, and set aside time later on. If it's neither urgent nor important, think about whether you really have to bother with it.

I just did the thing with the nearest deadline.

- MPhil (Part III) Applied Mathematics and Theoretical Physics student, 2017-18

Step 3: Planning

Planning in this context is really about two things:

  • Scheduling or blocking out specific time to complete a task
  • Understanding what the task entails

So, for example, imagine you have to give a presentation next week. You'll have to identify some time before next week to write the presentation, and you might choose a time of day where you're most productive. If you're organised this will be straightforward. Good planning means understanding the task - how long the presentation should be, whether you need to produce a handout or slide deck. Not knowing this will hinder your ability to complete the task.

Planning can be both short- and long-term: effective planning can mean setting goals for a single afternoon in the library, and knowing that your first assignment is due in eight weeks time.

tick box

Identify and make note of next year's milestones or key dates.

Using the information you've been sent by the university, or what you can find online in the course directory, try to map out the milestones and key dates over the duration of your course. Can you identify rough dates for when placements might start and end, when assignments or projects will be due, when your main teaching begins and ends? If you're planning to apply for a PhD, or for funding, look at the application deadlines.

Spending time now identifying these dates will really help your short-term planning. And make sure you have a look at the Cambridge term dates so that you know what's happening in the rest of the university too. 

Step 4: Getting stuff done

Part of time management is working effectively, productively and - sometimes, efficiently. Things like setting up a study routine or attempting to eliminate distractions (e.g. blocking the wifi on your computer) can be helpful here. If you don't feel as though you're being as productive as you want to be, you could consider monitoring how you're spending your time. But bear in mind that amidst all of this productivity, it's vital that you respect time set aside for thinking, for hobbies, or for resting. 

The internet, though, is full of strategies for switching up the way you study and for changing your methods. Here are two tried-and tested favourites:

an egg timer

  • Pomodoro technique: here you study in short, concentrated bursts (25 minutes, or 50 minutes), and then take a short break, before repeating the cycle. This is particularly effective for subjects that require a lot of academic reading or writing. More information here.
  • Shut up and write: this works particularly well when you're writing, but it can be useful as a group tactic too, even if your group are all doing different subjects or working to different deadlines. Set a time, collectively, when you'll take a break, and then turn off anything that might distract you, and write, and write, and keep writing, until that time. (You will not want to be the person who breaks the silence.) More here.


There's so much happening, so many people around, they don't leave you with that amount of personal space so you can sit and reflect, you sort of have to take that time out for yourself.

- MPhil Education student, 2017-18


With thanks to:

#1 and #5 Tooshan Srivastava (MPhil Education)

#2 Mansi Gupta (LLM Law)

#3 Jiri Guth-Jarkovsky (MPhil Applied Mathematics and Theoretical Physics)

#4 Anya Melkina (MPhil Japanese Studies)

Image credits: CC0 by rawpixel via Pixabay; CC0 by yummymoon via Pixabay