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On Urgency and Importance in Doctoral Studies

In his “The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People” bestseller, Stephen R. Covey defines the third habit as “Put First Things First.” There are two insights behind this habit: (1) all the tasks that we have on our plate possess different degrees of urgency and importance. Urgency is the metrics that defines how strict the deadline is for completing a task. Importance is the metrics that defines how much impact the task’s completion will have toward achieving our long term goals. (2) effective people make sure that urgent but unimportant tasks do not take precedence over important but non-urgent tasks.

I often witness how this habit is playing out in the lives of doctoral students. The following diagram gives examples of the tasks typically performed by Ph.D. students and how these tasks rank in terms of their respective urgency and importance.

In essence, all the multiple tasks performed by doctoral students roughly fall into one of the four groups: (1) not urgent and and not important, (2) urgent but not important, (3) urgent and important, and (4) not urgent but important.

Groups 1 and 3 present clear cut cases. Graduate students take care of urgent and important tasks right away, and they are likely to postpone not urgent and not important tasks indefinitely. For example, because the Ph.D. qualifying exam commonly must be taken within a certain deadline, doctoral students typically take great care to pass this important and urgent milestone as early as possible. Publishing one’s research is universally considered the most important and urgent task for any researcher. As a result, students rarely postpone publishing their research.

I had difficulties deciding which tasks can be safely considered as not urgent and not important for doctoral students. Some students like to print and bind their dissertation documents. I think that in the age of electronic publishing this is unnecessary. It is considered customary to print and bind one’s final dissertation manuscript, but no harm will be done even if this task is never completed.

The biggest issue for graduate students I have observed are the difficulties of properly distinguishing between urgent and not important vs. not urgent and important tasks. Case in point, completing course assignments and passing one’s Ph.D. proposal exam. Because the goal of Ph.D. training is to expand knowledge in one’s area of concentration, taking classes is universally considered an auxiliary activity at best. Nevertheless, courses have assignments with strict deadlines. I see students spending an inordinate amount of their time and effort working on class assignments, often neglecting their research. Because most graduate students used to be superb undergraduates, they cannot simply fathom how it is possible not to excel in classes. Sometimes a student must choose whether to work on a course assignment or try to make a research paper submission deadline. Oftentimes, I am appalled hearing a graduate student complaining: “Because of this difficult class, I missed this important paper submission deadline.” It is hard for some graduate students to realize that it is their research publications rather than their grades that will determine their success after graduation.

The ultimate example of an extremely important but not urgent task that I witnessed being mistreated in academia is the Ph.D. proposal exam. I have seen it many times: a Ph.D. student passes his qualifying exam, starts publishing, and keeps postponing the tedious task of putting together a proposal document. “Yes, I know I must pass the proposal exam to get my Ph.D., but now is just not the right time.” Because doctoral program rarely impose strict deadlines on Ph.D. proposals, this milestone often gets a short shrift. Back when I was in grad school, we called this condition “a proposal trap.” I have seen graduate students postponing their Ph.D. proposal almost until the last year of their studies. Oftentimes proposing that late added unexpected extra years to their studies.

A Ph.D. proposal is more-or-less a contract between a doctoral candidate and her Ph.D. committee. In this contract, the candidate defines the scope of the work she proposes to do , and the committee agrees that if this work is indeed completed, the candidates should be granted her Ph.D. Before the proposal is accepted, no doctoral student can be sure how long it will take them to get their Ph.D.

With my own students, I have found an effective formula with respect to Ph.D. proposals. I like to tie Ph.D. proposals to publication submission deadlines. I usually reach an agreement with a student: let’s submit a paper to this venue, and while we are waiting for the reviews, you’ll put together your proposal manuscript and schedule your proposal exam. So I am solving the problem of procrastinating with an important but not urgent task by tying it to an important and urgent task. I am curious about how others manage this issue.

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Categories: academic enterprise
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