Workback Plans: Planning for Success in Graduate School

If you are considering an advanced degree or want to know how to make the most of your time each semester (without missing important due dates!), knowing how to design and implement a workback plan will be a tremendous advantage for you. The purpose of a work-back plan is to figure out where it is you want to end up at the end of the road, and then work your way backwards towards the beginning of the project establishing key milestones along the way.

A project plan may have different names depending on the industry you go into after graduation. Some call it project planning, workback plans, or some combination of the key words work, project, and plan. If you have never heard these terms before, that’s ok! This is a great time to learn about them and how to use them to your advantage throughout graduate studies and well into your career.

What is a workback plan?

A workback plan starts with the due date, the deliverable, and all the components that are needed to create the deliverable. For the graduate student (or even the studious undergraduate), practice creating, implementing, and closing out these plans starts with reading through a course syllabus at the beginning of the semester. [Cue the audible groans.] Yes, you must read the syllabus. Please read the syllabus. Over 90% of the time, this document includes literally everything you need to pass the class.

The course syllabus is a living document that includes a bunch of technical information (often required by the department/college/university), but many will include what is called a scheduled list of assignments. This list will provide all of the required chapter readings, assignments, quizzes, and exams dates. By reading through this document, the student will know what is expected of them throughout the entire semester for the course. As a student, a syllabus is an excellent guide that you can use to create your very own workback plan designed to help you succeed (i.e., pass the class).

Before we get into the nuts and bolts of what a workback plan includes, let’s take a quick detour to talk about software. Creating a workback plan doesn’t require fancy project management software, though if you do go that route there are several options available. I never personally used any of them so I cannot vouch for one over another. Digital alternatives include Excel, OneNote, and even an online calendar. However, no matter what method you choose, the only way a workback plan is going to actually help is if you put in the time and energy at the beginning of the semester and really think through what each course you are enrolled in is going to need.

A word of caution: The method you start with may not be the one that works the best for you, and some experimenting might need to happen. For example, I’ve tried using calendars, MS Project, OneNote, and Excel. For me, though, a pen-and-paper planner that spans the entire semester is a tried-and-true method that just works well. I use a combination of workback plans I’ve adapted over the years, to-do lists, and the everything journal method. Keep trying until you find one that fits you well and is adaptive enough to meet your personal needs.  It doesn’t need to be perfect; it just needs to be good enough to get the job done. In the end, you’re looking for something that spans the entire semester, has enough room to write objectives for each class on each weekday, and can be easily referenced throughout the week.

Creating a Workback Plan to Succeed in a Graduate Course

Once you settle on which format you want to adopt, knowing that you may go through one or two formats before settling on one that fits you, it’s time to start laying out all of the pieces needed for your workback plan. In the case of a graduate class, you’ll need your course syllabus to plan time for required readings, assignments, quizzes, and exams.

The quizzes and exams are fairly straightforward. You just need to add them to the correct calendar date. Exams may need a “reminder” note a few days prior, just so you can quickly glance back through the material that will be covered.

Chapter Readings

Class readings are a little trickier, but start by placing them at the beginning of the week prior to the day the chapter will be covered in class. For most people, the beginning of a week will be Monday, and we plan the chapter reading for the week prior because you want to attend class prepared with questions about the material. The tricky part of chapter readings is that you can’t just sit down to read the entire chapter in one go and expect to learn all of that material. Instead, chapters need to be broken into reading “chunks” so you can process the material little-by-little over the course of a week.

Let’s say in one class, you are assigned two 30-page chapters assigned each week. That may seem like a ton of reading materials, but let’s break that down into smaller pieces. In total, there are 60 pages that need to be covered over the course of 5 days. Some of the material will be covered in class, but again you’re expected to read the material prior to attending class. If you break 60 pages over the course of 5 days, you should expect to read about 12 pages per day. This will vary slightly as you find natural reading chunks, but to start out with try planning for an even split across days.

On average, a person can expect to spend about 10-15 minutes reading 12 pages. But I want to call out that reading to learn is not the same as reading for enjoyment. Reading to learn also includes taking notes, filling in a chapter outline, answering the quiz questions throughout the pages, looking up definitions, etc. As a graduate student, you are building a body of knowledge that you can draw from throughout your career. Having organized notes that can be easily referenced again and again in the future will help you create that solid foundation of knowledge. (A companion article about building this knowledge base is currently in the works. Check back soon!) Therefore, consider allotting yourself 20 minutes per 12 pages just to make sure you are planning in time for that note taking.

Example Reading Schedule
Example Reading Schedule

Here is an example planner snippet that shows how to break up each chapter reading. As you can see, the planner is split into five days for Course A.

The table includes the assignment section, how much time is expected, the actual time spent on that section, and a column to check it off when complete (because who doesn’t love checking off boxes?). This Done column will be really beneficial on days you feel like you didn’t accomplished anything because you can look back through your planner and see literally everything you’ve planned out and accomplished.

If you are a typical graduate student, you are likely enrolled in 3-4 courses per semester, which will require roughly 2 chapters of reading per week each. Following this method, you will spend about two hours per day reading course materials and taking notes.

Writing Assignments

Writing assignments take a lot more planning that chapter readings and quizzes. For undergraduates, class time will be spent covering the basics of what is required in the assignment, the writing style required (typically APA or MLA), and all of the core components that are needed to earn a passing grade. For the graduate student, these basics may or may not be covered in class. You may receive a PDF with instructions and possibly a grading rubric, but ultimately the assignment is up to you to manage.

Graduate students are expected to operate with more independence than undergraduates. This is when workback planning become an invaluable tool because these plans enable steady completion of small chunks of work that culminate in a major paper or assignment. As an aside, if there is any way to use your course materials to advance your personal research or scholarly interests, do it! Double dipping in this regard is a fantastic use of time!

An example writing assignment may be a research synthesis and analysis, covering at least 10-12 scholarly or peer-reviewed articles, with sections of what was learned as well as identifying the gaps left. This means you will need to plan time to:

      • read at least 12 articles (plus a few extra because you never know if the articles you pick will actually end up being the ones you use),
      • think through how they all fit together,
      • write the synthesis,
      • and finally edit,
      • then edit again.

Knowing how much time it takes you to read a chapter is really useful at point because you can use that estimation to figure out how long the reading portion of this assignment will take. During this time, you will also be taking notes and making mental connections among the materials you’ve already read. This will help tremendously when it comes time to actually write your report. Writing the report will always take twice as long as you expect because it involves combining all of those notes you took, along with your own interpretation of the materials. Let’s use this current article that you’re reading as an example.

I wanted to write a piece about workback plans and how they help graduate students accomplish a lot in a little bit of time. I sat down one morning and started writing this piece based on everything I’ve read about project management, my own experience, and all the tips I’ve picked up along the way. It took about 2 hours to get the bulk of my thoughts down on paper. The next day, I read some more articles about project planning, graduate studies, and reread everything I wrote. At this point you may expect me to make some changes, but instead I make an effort to NOT edit anything for at least a day. I want to take in my work without rewriting or rethinking individual sentences so I walk away with the gist of my paper instead of the annoying details (like mismatched tenses or missing transitions).

The next day, I spent a few hours editing and reworking a few sections. A few days later, because you absolutely need to put it down and walk away for a few days, I came back with fresh eyes and read the report one more time. This resulted in one last round of edits before scheduling to post.

In total, the writing process for this particular article took me roughly a week. However, I drew on a knowledge base that I built over the course of 10+ years, with both research and personal experience to back it. In graduate school, a piece this long would have taken me 4-5 weeks (or more) to write and edit before submission. Knowing this, make sure you plan some “buffer time” so you don’t end up with your back to a deadline and only half your report written.

Example Writing Schedule
Example Writing Schedule

Planning A Semester::Planning a Career

Sitting down with your course syllabus at the beginning of the semester will help you create a workback plan to cover all of the course materials with hopefully a little time to spare. Once you’ve created each course plan, you can start weaving them together to create a master semester schedule for yourself that you can refer to each day to see everything you’ve accomplished, as well as provide the roadmap for where you want to get to at the end of the class.

I’m not saying this schedule will be perfect. There will absolutely be bumps and changes along the way. But putting in the time and effort at the beginning of the semester will help you navigate those bumps and changes more gracefully than if you didn’t have a plan. 

As you start to incorporate these practices into your daily life, you’ll find that the time you spend in the lab may decrease. You don’t need to dedicate 80 hours per week to graduate school if you know how to manage your time well. Although work-life balance is another topic for another post, workback plans are one of the many tools you’ll pick up during graduate school that will help you create strong boundaries between your work and personal life. Getting good at estimating how long projects take will also benefit you long after you finish your degree and move on to the job market. Every company wants an employee who is productive, efficient, and requires little hand-holding. Getting good at creating, implementing, and closing out workback plans in graduate school can give you a leg up on the competition.

If you need help creating your first plan or modifying it after unexpected changes (in the project, materials, or just life in general), jump over to Coffee Chats to schedule some one-on-one time with me.