Work Smarter, Not Harder


From the beginnings of considering a PhD, my mentality has been to finish the degree as fast as possible. For one, starting a PhD at the age of 30 definitely feels like I’m in the category of “better late than never”. I feel my mental capacity to remember things slipping through my proverbial fingers, and already am realizing that it’s going to take a little more effort to finish this degree than it did to get either a bachelor’s or a master’s, simply because I’m going to have to work a little harder to learn the material. Does this really happen at 30 years old? Am I really already talking about feeling “older”? Evidently, yes and yes.

Secondly, I want to do other things with my life besides get degrees, like have a family, and make a difference in my career and field. I know it’s not entirely true, but the thought of simultaneously pursuing a PhD and doing either of those things seems like something only a crazy person would do. I do know a few “crazy” people, and know that it can be done, but still—let’s just get through this thing before I turn 35. That seems like a reasonable goal.

Being a planner, and having this goal of finishing my degree in Education Policy in under four years, one of the main frustrations is that I’ve yet to nail down my advisor for a meeting. Having been a faculty member (of sorts—I just held the title of Lecturer) for the past four years, I understand the barrage of emails and requests to meet. That being said, I need a little guidance here. So, I’m kind of shooting from the hip, signed-up for random courses, and through some elementary math of my own, have come to the conclusion that I can probably do it—all with the help and approval of my advisor (insert *sigh*…he’s a nice man, he really is). As I signed-up for courses and started making a degree completion plan, the obvious choice for me was to take as many credit hours as possible during my first two years so that I would be freed up to write my dissertation at the end. 16 credit hours? Sure. Dare I squeeze in 20? I mean, I’m only working 67% in my job (former job, current assistantship) right now. It could be humanly possible, right? Maybe just 16 credit hours. Ok, that sounds reasonable. I also put in many, many volunteer hours for my church and service projects on the side, but hey—I’m single, no children, and what else am I doing with my time? Must. Finish. PhD. ASAP. And, not to be forgotten—Must. Avoid. Grad. Student. Poverty.

Enter a panel of experienced grad students in my field during an intro course. “Work smarter, not harder”. I don’t remember who said it, and I remember hearing it before, but I don’t remember ever being so ready to take a random piece of advice from someone I don’t know. I was already feeling overwhelmed to the point of breaking. Two of my four classes are being taught online, which is definitely not a mode of instruction I’m comfortable with. Teaching online is different than learning online. My professors can’t see my facial expressions. I can’t interject my verbal opinions, or easily ask a question to show that I’m engaged, interested, and dare I say—intelligent. Learning to learn online has been tough. My third class, Ethnography in Global Context, basically has us reading one book per week plus teaching the class (“leading class discussion”) once per week, as there were only seven students in the class. I also quickly realized that I didn’t really know what Ethnography was when I registered for the class, and now that I know what it is, I know that I don’t want to do it. Eeek.

On top of that, my department called me in to say that they would like for me to teach a regular, full semester course. They would pay me 67% both semesters, but I wouldn’t have to teach at all the second semester. This would be in addition to my administrative position of Cultural Engagement Coordinator (which involves heading-up an internship, coordinating a volunteer program, and fun things like schedule a picnic for 250 people two times in one month because both dates got rained out). This would also be on top of an online class I teach with a different university during the fall semester. I must have had the look of death on my face when they asked me, because I got a call the next day asking if I really was ok with that assignment, and did I want to back out. Anxiety, stress, fear of disappointing my boss, afraid that my backing out would mean a very busy semester for someone else…I was truly at a breaking point and wanted to say yes, but couldn’t because of the crack in my voice.

“Work smarter, not harder.” Someone said that taking many courses at the same time would only mean having to go back at a later point and re-read the things that I would have only had time to skim. Going faster through courses at the beginning did not mean checking off my requirements; it could and would probably mean that I would have to add some time on later devoted to re-reading the material from the courses. At that point, I started scribbling long-addition (is that even a thing?) on my notebook. Could I actually only take 12 credit hours this semester and still graduate in under four years? Did I remember any of the readings I had done for my courses last week, not to mention learn anything through them? I was already on my way to skimming through the first two years of the PhD program. I decided then and there, after re-working my terrible addition and multiplication about five times, that I would drop my Ethnography course and that I wouldn’t teach this semester.

Then and there, I realized the one thing that would have to be different about this degree than my previous ones: I would need to remember what I read for longer than the next paper or test, because the “final” paper or test would actually not be for four years.

Work smarter, not harder. Thanks for the advice, whoever you were. I’m testing it out.


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4 responses to “Work Smarter, Not Harder”

  1. Stephanie (Bennis) Shirley says :

    I remember the first time I was told to “work smarter, not harder” and it’s always stuck with me. Now owning my own business it’s more important than ever because time is so valuable. In college I remember figuring out that if I stacked my classes each semester with courses that were similar in content (for example one semester I did all public speaking courses), it greatly helped me with retention of content and made efficient use of my reading and studying time. No matter where you are in life or what your goals are, there’s always an opportunity to work smarter. Great post!

    • nataliem81 says :

      Stephanie, I LOVE the advice to take courses that are similar in content! I accidentally did that this semester, and you are RIGHT– it helped so much in remembering and applying that content. Great idea!

  2. Leena Trivedi-Grenier says :

    hey natalie! great post! very proud of you for getting your Phd…hard work, but you have the skills to do it. I am one of the crazies you spoke of. i have an 18 month old daughter and just applied to grad school to get my Phd in cultural studies with a focus on food. i am 31, won’t start school (if i get in) until i’m 32. And i plan on having 1-2 more kids during my Phd 🙂 but it is now or never, right? my goal is to have my phd finished and most if not all of my family birthed by the time I’m 40. yes, i am crazy. but i also know what it feels like to not have the job or career you dreamed of, so to me, it is worth it. best of luck. can’t wait to read more.

    • nataliem81 says :

      Leena, you ARE a crazy! Oh my goodness. But, I’m so excited for you, too! Go go go go! And hey– I see people here do it with kids all.the.time. I mean, they are crazy. But they do it :). And if they can, YOU can!

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