A Guide to Tackling End of Semester Projects

Written by Sierra Maniates, Graduate Assistant to the Graduate School

The end of the semester often brings big projects with big deadlines. Whether it's because of a final paper to be written, a job search that needs to be tackled, or a research deadline to meet, most graduate students are feeling like there is too much to do and not enough time around this time of year. Below are some tips for managing those feelings and finishing out the semester strong.

Close-up shot of student hand holding pen and writing in notebook, working at home. E-learning

Define the Project 

You can't finish something you don't understand. The first step to finishing any big project is defining exactly what you're trying to get done. Is that paper you're putting off 10 pages or 15, and how many sources do you need? Do you want to apply to 1 job or 5 and what application materials do they require? 

For some projects, the tasks will be externally defined, like an assignment from a professor. In these cases, make sure to take time to read the syllabus or directions and ask any clarifying questions you need.

In other cases, you'll have to define the scope of the project yourself. In these cases, like a job search or an independent project, take some time to consider exactly what you want to, and what you think you can, get done. Consider your final goal as well as your time and resources in order to come up with an attainable outcome to work towards. 

Break it Down

If a big project is feeling overwhelming, it can lead to procrastination. Sometimes when we feel like the task is too big to accomplish, we never start. Creating smaller tasks can help getting started feel more manageable. If we finish a smaller step, it also can increase our confidence and motivation to keep going. 

For most projects, you can break down the task into preparation work, draft work, feedback, and revision. Prep work can include doing research, brainstorming lists, getting advice, and outlining. Draft work involves diving into the core of a project. Try breaking this down into smaller goals as well—write a single page or create a first draft of your resume. Getting feedback is an important part of most projects, and time for it should be built in. Consider who can give you constructive but honest feedback, and how much time they'll need to do that. Reach out early if you want someone to look over a substantial amount of work. Once you receive that feedback, revision begins, incorporating it into your draft work. 

Create a Timeline

Once you have your project broken down, you can assign yourself smaller deadlines. Once you do this, you no longer have one giant project, but multiple little ones. Try and create as reasonable a timeline as possible. Are you really going to work that weekend your friend is in town? Can you write 8 pages in a day? This timeline should be a living document. As you more deeply understand how long something is going to take you, or you inevitably miss a deadline, don't be afraid to adjust it.

Creating a timeline can help you with time management. If you plan a deadline for a certain day, remember to schedule time in your life to get that work done. Setting out specific chunks of time to work on a project can help you avoid procrastination and manage that feeling that you should always be working on it. Scheduling some break days to not think about your project can help keep you focused and motivated. 

Don't Do it Alone

Getting feedback is part of the process for a reason. Working on a big project on your own can feel stressful and isolating, but there is no reason not to bring in other perspectives. Often people think of showing their work to a mentor or friend in the proofreading stage, but consider bringing others in earlier. 

Consider "thinking out loud" with someone who knows the subject material or has worked on a similar project. Go to the Academic Writing Center with an outline. Have a friend read the introduction or the first paragraph of your cover letter. Have a professor give you feedback on your research question. This helps you work "smarter not harder" as it maximizes the feedback's benefit since there is a lot of project left to do, and catches your mistakes or misunderstandings early, before you've done significant work you have to undo. 

If you have a friend who also has a big project to do to (which, at this time of year, seems likely), you can also use the buddy system to keep each other accountable. Pick a time to go to the library or a coffee shop together, be clear about what you want to accomplish in that time, and motivate each other to do it. 

Create Rewards and Take Care of Yourself 

Conditioning is classic for a reason. If you only ever reward yourself for a job well done with more work, you're heading for burn out fast. Once you achieve one of your mini deadlines, reward yourself with a break, a fun activity, or an outing with a friend. This will help you feel like you're accomplishing something, rather than chipping away with no progress, and will train your brain that good things are around the corner if you don't procrastinate. 

Finally, remember that you need fuel to accomplish anything big. Make sure you are sleeping, feeding yourself, drinking water, and getting your social needs met. Sometimes you have to lock yourself in a room or stay up a little late working on something, but try not to make that your default or a pattern. If you're meeting your body's needs, it helps your brain work at its best. You'd fill up your car's tank before taking it on an important trip, so make sure you're doing the same for your body and mind. 

A Guide to Tackling End of Semester Projects

Even if you haven't tackled this exact project before, you've made it to grad school, so you've undoubtedly had this "it's never going to get done" feeling countless times before—and gotten it done. It's easy to think of the worst case scenario when working on something important. So, take a minute to breath, and remember that, most likely, that worst case scenario—that your project goes unfinished and is a complete disaster—hasn't come true in the past, and is unlikely to come true again. You've done this before, and in a few weeks' time, you'll be on the other side of it, feeling relieved. Taking a minute to picture that can help reduce your fear, and fear is one of the biggest fuels for procrastination ("if you don't start, you can't fail" is the procrastinating brain's motto). 

So, even if you ignore all of this, and do this project with no timeline, no feedback, and little sleep, it will still be okay. You'll still make it to the end of the semester and get to let out a sigh of relief, eventually.