How to Write a Reverse Calendar

One of the biggest challenges facing a graduate student instructor is finding ways to balance your teaching responsibilities, the need to make progress on your dissertation, and the rest of that thing called your life. It is particularly tough because there might not be anyone waiting to hear about your dissertation on any given day, but you will definitely be in front of a classroom once, twice, and even three times each week. Your dissertation committee probably won’t know if you take one night off, but if you walk into a class without anything to say, your students probably will. One way to keep perspective is to write a ‘reverse calender,’ which you check regularly, to see if you are progressing according to your plan for yourself.

The core idea of a reverse calendar is that it can be hard to conceptualize the time and steps between ‘now’ and ‘defend my dissertation in two years.’ We all know that there are many steps involved, but it can be difficult to know intuitively when those steps need to be completed in order to achieve your larger goals. Before you write a reverse calendar, you must first decide on what your goals are and by when you want to achieve them. A simple example of this might be that you wish to graduate in May 2017.

The next step is to identify as many of the different steps this requires as you can (one thing you will likely find is that when you start to break down a project into steps, many smaller steps all of a sudden become clear). Obviously, the steps are going to be different depending upon your research, but here are a few examples of basic research structures and the steps required to complete them. It is important to remember that some steps have time constraints beyond just you (such as, you have to defend by a certain date in order to have a May graduation date). It is also likely that your department has specific timelines that they require as well. So, if for example, you expect to pass with revisions, you need to build 30 days for revisions into your calendar.

So your initial calendar might look something like this:

  • February 15, 2017 — Send final draft to advisor

  • March 1, 2017 — Circulate final draft to committee

  • March 15, 2017 — File diploma application

  • April 1, 2017 — Defend dissertation

  • April 30, 2017 — Submit revisions

  • May 16, 2017 — Graduate!

Once you’ve got the endgame lined up, it then becomes a matter of filling in from where you are at the moment to where you need to be. From this reverse calendar, you now realize that if you want to graduate in May 2017, you need to have a final draft by mid-February! Knowing that it is always hard to get things done at the start of a new semester (in this case, January 2017), it is also a good idea to build in some extra time to get things done. Say that right now, February 2016, you have drafts of 3 out of 6 chapters. That means that you will need to write three more chapters, get feedback from your committee, and do revisions/edits in the next 12 months. Below is an example of what that work plan (for a dissertation where the initial research is completed and writing is a substantial part of the work) might look like:

  • March 31, 2016 — Revise chapter 1

  • April 30, 2016 — Revise chapter 2

  • May 31, 2016 — Complete first draft of chapter 4, revise chapter 3

  • June 30, 2016 — Complete first draft of chapter 5, revise chapter 4

  • July 31, 2016 — Complete first draft of chapter 6, revise chapter 5

  • August 31, 2016 — Complete revised draft of entire dissertation, discuss w/ advisor

  • October 31, 2016 — Send edited chapters 2 & 3 to advisor

  • November 30, 2016 — Send edited chapters 4 & 5 to advisor

  • December 31, 2016 — Send edited drafts of introduction and conclusion (ch. 1 & 6) to advisor

  • January 31, 2017 — Complete revisions from advisor

  • February 15, 2017 — Send final draft to advisor

  • March 1, 2017 — Circulate final draft to committee

  • March 15, 2017 — File diploma application

  • April 1, 2017 — Defend dissertation

  • April 30, 2017 — Submit revisions

  • May 16, 2017 — Graduate!

This might change a thousand times before the actual graduation date—indeed, you might realize that you need to finish your first draft before you revise the earlier chapter, you might realize you need additional interviews, and you will have to spend a month barely writing anything at all! But what a reverse calendar does is it gives you a clear, visual timeline so that you don’t bury your head in your teaching and then look up four months later and realize that you have no idea how you can finish on time. One of the great challenges for many of us is that our work can be so largely self-directed, the key is to make sure you’re the one doing the directing.

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