by Dr Catherine Armstrong
Finding time to complete research projects is an ever-present challenge for academics with full time posts as well as temporary lecturers. Unless you have a research post which gives you time to pursue your goals, most other academics have to fit research around a number of other job roles. Even a PhD student may not have the luxury of being able to devote themselves fully to research, as they may have to juggle teaching commitments, perhaps an admin role and even paid work outside academia. Here are some tips for finding time to do some research.
1. Plan ahead and create order
The secret to fitting research into your schedule is to plan well. You must make use of any spare time that you have and be prepared to change into ‘research mode’ at short notice. Many academics find this incredibly difficult to do. For example, if you have a fairly heavy teaching load but have assigned yourself one day per week as a research day, you have to plan very carefully to ensure that the research day is maximised. If you do not do so, you could easily find that the time has passed and nothing has been achieved.
Start by working out what your goals are. There are several ways of doing this; I like to work out short, medium and long-term goals and print them out and have them displayed visibly at my desk. The next task is to decide how much time you can devote to research in a particular week or month. A regular time slot is easy to manage, whereas snatching random hours here and there is not conducive to good work.
Also, think about the practical layout of your office, desk at home, laboratory, or wherever you are doing your research work. It must be arranged in such a way that you can lay your hands on the work you have done previously and start again with the minimum of fuss. So, keep your notes or any other papers in good order and contained in a discrete folder or box. If using electronic records, store them logically and safely. Spending a bit of time creating order at the start of a research project can really help you later on.
Closely related to point 1, it is important to be able to prioritise your research tasks if you have a number of deadlines that you are working to. You might have a larger book project, be planning a conference or some sort of other collaboration and completing several smaller pieces such as articles. These will have varying deadlines and be at different stages of completion. It is vital that you manage your time efficiently so that each task is completed within its deadline.
If you think that this is not possible, inform those involved in commissioning the work as soon as possible. It is very unprofessional to be perennially late in submitting work. You lose the respect of publishers and other collaborators, whereas if you keep people informed and are honest from the start when unable to meet a deadline, then others will work with you to change the submission dates if possible.
3. Be strict with yourself, and others!
Fitting research around other commitments does require a large degree of mental discipline; it can sometimes be really challenging to pick up research or writing when you know you haven’t got very long to work on it. Many scholars say that they do their best work when given a large period of time to devote to the project, devoid of other distractions. However, that is not the reality of the work schedule of many academics. Unless you are prepared to abandon your research and writing completely during term time, then you’ll have to be strong-minded and snatch a few hours wherever you can.
This also means preventing others from disturbing you in your crucial research moments. Depending on where you work, students, colleagues or family ‘dropping in’ on you could unwittingly act as a distraction and before you know it, your research day has been ruined. If you work in a lab or office at your university you might find that meetings are scheduled for your research day. If this happens regularly, try to negotiate with your Head of Department and other colleagues to see whether you might be allowed to miss other commitments to focus on your research. Doing research is a key part of your job so you must allow time for it. Don’t let other people ruin your plans unless in an emergency.
4. Don’t be too hard on yourself
Although it is important to be disciplined as described in point 3 above, it is also important to be flexible in your research practice and not overly rigid. The writing process is especially fraught with personal difficulties. If you are not in the mood for writing on a particular day, then you’ll probably find yourself unable to produce anything and no amount of internal discipline will solve that problem. If that happens to you, try to be well organised so that you have another smaller, alternative task to turn to so that your time is not completely wasted. And allow yourself plenty of time to achieve deadlines so that you are not under too much pressure in terms of time. If you are struggling to achieve anything through overwork or tiredness, then it is worth allowing yourself a breather to ‘recharge your batteries’. No one does their best work when exhausted. You can, however, come back to it another day with more focus and enthusiasm.