Life After Grad School

How Theme Days Can Support Your Professional Goals

The following article is a guest post by Dr. Leigh Hall of Teaching Academia. More details about Leigh and her platform can be found below the article.

Throughout my academic career, I have found that it's easy to get overwhelmed with a variety of tasks. And, honestly, most of these tasks are things I enjoy and want to do! But the more I say "yes" to things, and the higher the pile becomes, the greater stress I begin to feel and the less enjoyable everything is.

Sound familiar?

It's hard to focus on writing that manuscript when I know I have a pile of papers to grade.

It's hard to focus on grading papers when I know that manuscript needs revisions.

And it's hard to focus on planning for my classes when I know I need to be designing a study.

I realized that when I started doing one thing my mind skipped ahead to all of the other things I needed to do. Yet, when I got around to one of those other things, my brain started running through the laundry list of still more things I needed to do.

Yep. I had a focus problem.

How Theme Days can Support your Professional Goals | The Academic Society for grad students and academics

But all of that changed when I learned about the concept of theme days while reading the book Make Time: How To Focus on What Matters Every Day.

What Are Theme Days?

The idea behind theme days is simple. You begin by assigning a theme for your day. In my case, a theme would be research, teaching, or service. Each day then has specific goals and objectives that I am working towards as well as its own schedule.

The beautiful thing about theme days is that it helps manage the thoughts that creep into my head and attempt to distract me. For example, if I am writing a manuscript, and thoughts pop up about teaching, I know that I can (usually - barring an emergency) ignore them because I have a specific day and time set aside to contend with those issues.

How Do You Create Theme Days?

What your days look like will depend on your job description. My job breaks down as follows:

  • 60% research; this is things like writing grants and publications as well as collecting and analyzing data

  • 25% teaching; I teach one class each semester

  • 10% service; this is all the stuff you would expect

  • 5% advising; I advise masters and doctoral students

So, to start, find out what percentage of your job falls into research/teaching/service.

Next, convert your number of hours worked per week into percentages. I know we all work more than 40 hours per week. But, for this example, I'm going to stick to 40. You should adjust things as needed.

In a 40-hour work week, those percentages above translate into:

  • 24 hours per week (minimum) for research activities

  • 10 hours per week (minimum) for teaching activities

I left service out of the equation for now because I have found that it's not a set percentage that needs to be attended to in any given week. It fluctuates. More on that in a minute.

For a 40 day work week, this means that:

  • research activities, at 24 hours, should be assigned to three eight hour days

  • teaching activities can be split into two five hour days

Obviously you can configure this a number of ways. All of that adds up to 34 hours. This gives me six hours to plug in service and/or create content for my youtube channel which is directly tied to my job.

Setting Your Theme Days

Now that you know how your job breaks down, and how much time you are expected to devote to each category, you can assign each day a theme. For the upcoming academic year, I have done the following:

  • Research: Monday/Tuesday/Thursday

  • Teaching: Wednesday/Friday

  • Content Creation: Wednesday/Friday

Service is still missing from here, and I've added in a new theme: content creation. As much as possible, I try to schedule all my meetings on Wednesdays and Fridays. This includes committee meetings and advising meetings. I'm not always in control of when committee meetings get set. This means that, every so often, a research or teaching day might get interrupted with a one hour committee meeting. However, this is rare and, overall, not too disruptive.

Content creation, like service, fluctuates in terms of how much attention I need to give to this. Some weeks I can get by with very little time and other times it takes more. I put it with teaching because teaching also flexes in terms of how much time it demands. The start of the semester will be a bit slower. The middle and end are typically busier. The amount of time I need for both teaching and content creation activities is not as consistent as the time I need for research.

Now that you have your days set up let's drill down into what you do on a given one.

Creating Goals & Objectives For Your Theme Days

For any given day, you want to have one-three goals you are working towards accomplishing. Goals are going to give you the bigger picture. They can include:

  • Submitting a manuscript

  • Revising and resubmitting a manuscript

  • Writing a grant proposal

  • Writing a conference proposal

  • Revising a program

  • Creating an advising philosophy

You get the point. These are big ticket items that cannot be completed in a single sitting.

Once you have your goal, let's use writing and submitting a manuscript as the example, you then want to set a deadline. For each day, you want to have specific objectives that move you towards completing your goal and meeting your deadline. I might do the following in starting a new manuscript:

If I'm starting a new manuscript, I might say that I'll be ready to submit it by December 15th. How will I accomplish this?I know that on Monday/Wednesday/Thursday I will, for some of that time, be working on writing it. There's a number of ways I can create objectives for each of those times. Here are some examples:

  • Draft the methods section

  • Revise the methods and findings sections

  • Read the literature that will support my theoretical framework

Notice that I didn't just say, "Write for two hours." While I will have set aside a specific block of time for my writing, I will also have specific things I am going to focus on during that time. I always know what I'm going to do when I sit down to write. When the time is up, I assess what I did/did not get done and write my objective(s) for the next session.

For example, drafting the methods section might take me three days. I don't assume that I will meet the objective in one sitting. However, having that objective gives me a purpose for my writing and allows me to hone in on what I am doing. If it is not completed I will roll it over.

Managing Your Time On a Given Day

Finally, map out how you will structure your time on a given day. For example, recently my research themed days went like this:

  • 7:00-11:00 am (writing)

  • 11:00-3:30: Data collection/analysis/research team meetings

I can break that down even further:

  • 7:00-9:00: Working on manuscript

    • Draft methods section

  • 9:00-10:00: Grant proposal

    • Read feedback and start revisions

  • 10:00-11:00: Conference proposal

    • Review the call, identify proposal type, and sketch out an outline

  • 11:00-11:30: Break

  • 11:30-12:30: Research Team Meeting

    • Each meeting will have an agenda based on where we are with the project

  • 12:30-2:30: Data analysis

    • Continue coding surveys

  • 2:30-3:30: Analysis Write Up

    • Write up what I have learned from the coding, questions I have, things I noticed, and next steps

The Benefits of Theme Days

I love using the concept of theme days in my work. It has helped keep me focused and made life more manageable. When thoughts creep in about other work I should be doing, I know that time has already been accounted for it so I can relax. It's easy to push the thought of, "You should be grading," aside when I know I have time specifically set up for that.

Finally, keep in mind that you can adjust this approach as needed. For example, you could have Monday mornings be about research and your afternoons might be devoted to teaching. The entire day doesn't need to be assigned a theme, and you may find that doing so won't work for you. But having large blocks of time devoted to a theme, and then goals/objectives and a schedule in place, will help keep your attention directed at what needs to be done.

Want a handout that will support you in designing theme days? Get it here.

Did you find this blog post extremely helpful? Then you will love other articles by Dr. Leigh Hall from Teaching Academia.

Leigh Hall received her PhD in Curriculum and Instruction, with an emphasis on literacy, from Michigan State University in 2005. She’s now a Professor and Endowed Chair of Adolescent literacy. .Teaching Academia focuses on helping you navigate academia to make your best impact. On this site, you will learn how to elevate your scholarship, teaching, and service activities in ways that help you have the career you want. You will learn specific tools and techniques you can use right now that will allow you to make an immediate impact.

Professor on Vacation: Miami Girls’ Trip Guide

In The Academic Society, we believe that hard work should be celebrated.  And what better way to celebrate a successful semester than with a vacation with my girls?  This year, my high school besties and I turned 30 so of course we had to plan a Flirty Thirty getaway!  We choose to celebrate in Miami and it was an amazing time.

Like the academics we are (we all went to the Mississippi School for Math and Science for high school or as I like to refer to it “nerd school”), we decided that our vacation should have a theme.  So we thought about what we really wanted from this girls’ trip and that was to relax, refocus, and rebuild. Which is exactly what we did.

When I told my mom about our vacation theme, Relax. Refocus. Rebuild. she laughed and said, “of course, even your vacations sound like a conference!”

Related Video: Day in the Life of a Professor

In this post, I’ll share exactly how we relaxed, refocused, and rebuilt during our vacation so that if you decide to travel to Miami with your friends, you have a little guidance.  I’ve also filmed a video guide, vlog style, if you prefer to watch instead of read.

Top Three Tips for Traveling to Miami

We actually made some pretty good decisions about our trip and made very few missteps.  There were three main decisions that we made that really enhanced our Miami vacation experience.

Travel Rewards Credit Cards.  ⅘ of my friend group have the Chase Sapphire Preferred Card so we were able to use our points to travel.  I think this is the perfect card for new professionals interested in traveling. I booked my flight completely with my points and paid $0 so I felt that I could splurge on checking my luggage so that I could fit in a few extra outfits.  One of the best parts about the Chase Sapphire Preferred Card is that there is a signing bonus of 60,000 points if you spend $4,000 in the first 3 months of having your card. Note: my flight to Miami only cost me ~30,000 points. Here are some major benefits of the card:

  • Car Rental Insurance (helpful for my next tip)

  • Lost Luggage Reimbursement

  • No Foreign Transaction Fees

  • Roadside Assistance

  • Sharing Points with Friends

If you are interested in a Chase Sapphire Preferred Card of your own, you can learn more here!

Renting a Car.  We are so glad we made the decision to rent a car for our trip.  Miami attractions are located in multiple different neighborhoods that are miles apart.  We saved so much money by renting a car instead of using Uber or Lyft. At first, we were concerned about parking fees and gas but in the end we each only spent $10 to park and $5 for gas per person (there were 5 of us).

AirBnB.  Since there were five of us we decided to get a three bedroom AirBnB in North Miami.  It was so great to have the space to relax and decompress after each day. We had many girls’ nights with snacks and rom-coms on Netflix. Here’s the place where we stayed!

Miami Day 1

We actually flew into Fort Lauderdale and made sure to arrive within two hours of each other (we came from 5 different states).  Then we rented a standard SUV (which was a Chevy Equinox) from the airport and went shopping in the area based on a suggestion from our rental car agent.  She suggested we check out Sawgrass Mills which is the largest outlet and retail destination in the United States (their words).

If you are a shopper, you will love Sawgrass Mills.  There was a wide range of stores from high end designer shops to bargain shopping.


After shopping the day away, we finally made drove to our AirBnB in North Miami.  And decided to do some grocery shopping and pick up dinner to-go. We wanted to try Cuban food so we went to Little Havana Restaurant.  It was soooo delicious. The meals my crew and I recommend are the Palomilla Steak, Ropa Vieja, Chunks of Chicken, and Chunks of Pork. Each meal comes with the most delicious rice and beans and plantains.

Miami Day 2

On our second day we were rested enough from our travels to have a full day of exploring.  We stayed in North Miami for breakfast at Cafe Creme. We loved the atmosphere and the food was delicious!  The place was also very cute and Instagram pic worthy.


After breakfast, we headed to the neighborhood of Wynwood which is the art district.  There were beautiful murals on the side of almost every village. This was picture day for us!  There were so many cute backgrounds. We went to a park called Wynwood Walls. This is the perfect place to take a lot of pictures.  I recommend wearing solid colors so that you don’t clash with the background in your pictures.


Then we headed to a neighborhood called Little River with the most amazing place for food and good vibes, The Citadel.  The Citadel was probably my favorite place in Miami. On their website they describe it as, “a daily destination offering local artisanal foods, handcrafted cocktails, maker-driven retail, and culturally immersive experiences.” 


The food was delicious and I would have loved to go back if we had time in our schedules.  There are multiple little restaurants inside with food truck style menus. I ate from the Caribbean place and got gelato for dessert.  I highly recommend this place! I think they also have a rooftop and occasionally have live music.

And finally, for more dessert, we went to Cindy Lou’s Cookie bakery.  I didn’t personally get cookies but my friends enjoyed them.

Miami Day 3

We had the best weather on the third day of our trip so we decided to go to South Beach.  Once we got to the neighborhood, we went to the popular diner, Big Pink. Everything there is big and pink.  Even the windows of the restaurant were pink so everything had a pink glow and looked like an Instagram filter.  The most popular item on the menu was definitely the chicken and waffles. A couple of my friends got it and loved it!


When you go to South Beach, I recommend parking in a lot next to Big Pink.  There is street parking everywhere that you have to pay by the hour. But the valet parking next to Big Pink is only $10 for the whole day (June 2019).

After brunch, we headed to the beach across the street and went through the Marriot entrance.  There we rented a cabana bed thing that fit all five of us for $100 ($20/person). I highly recommend some type of cabana or umbrella if you want to enjoy your beach day in the heat.  Also, make sure that you bring water and snacks!


We stayed there for a couple hours and then went to the neighborhood of Coral Gables for a refreshing treat.  We got paletas (ice pops) from Morelia Gourmet Paletas. I got the strawberry paleta half dipped in chocolate and hazelnuts.  It was sooooo good!


Miami Day 4

On our final day, we went to multiple neighborhoods.  We started in Bayside which kind of has a boardwalk vibe.  There is a shopping center that overlooks the water and we went to the Hard Rock Cafe for lunch.


Then we went back to Wynwood for a day party called Afro Beats.  There was music, drinks, and food. We hung out there for a while before finally going to Little Havana.

Little Havana had been on our list of must-see neighborhoods for our trip.  It was smaller than expected but pack a lot of Cuban culture in those few city blocks.  We went to Domino Park to watch the older people play dominos, watched someone make cigars, got churros, and went to the Ball and Chain.

The Ball and Chain is a restaurant/lounge that plays cuban music and on Thursdays at 9pm they offer free salsa lessons.  We got appetizers and drinks there. We ordered mint lemonade, cuban sandwich, wings, corn on the cob, chicken sliders. It was a really fun hangout spot that I would highly recommend to anyone visiting Little Havana.

And then we went back to our AirBnB to pack and prepare for our early morning flights.

I hope that this blog post helped you plan your next vacation!  Any suggestions on where we should go for our next girls’ trip?

Productivity Hack: Why you Should Keep a Journal as a Grad Student or New Faculty Member

I know what you may be thinking.  Isn’t journaling for preteen girls to write their current crush’s name inside of a hand-drawn heart?  Well, yeah.  But it’s also for graduate students who want to succeed and progress in their programs feeling less overwhelmed and manage time more efficiently!  It’s a great way to keep your productivity waaaay up!

I started keeping a journal last summer when I was planning my blog launch (my second blogging attempt....).  In it, I kept my daily to-do lists, my long and short-term goals, as well as ideas for the future.  The specific type of journal I kept is called a Bullet Journal, and let me tell you, it was so fun!  If you want to learn more about the Bullet Journal, or as us journalers call it, the BuJo, check out this super official website as well as these really pretty ones on Pinterest.

In today’s, post, I am giving you a list of reasons why keeping a journal is especially important for productivity while in graduate school.

Productivity hack for new faculty members and graduate students | The Academic Society


Keeping a journal can give you a safe place to reflect on the thoughts and emotions you have about your career.  Maybe you had a wonderful day at teaching or at work.  It’s good to acknowledge what you did that day and what made it so great.  Or maybe your day wasn’t the best.  Writing about it can be a nice release of those negative feelings and can help you to not dwell on it longer than necessary so that you can move forward.


Journaling is great for motivation.  Something that I love to add to my journal is a to-do list.  Checking something off of my to-do list is so satisfying and it helps me to celebrate each little win.  In an article in the Harvard Business Review called The Power of Smalls Wins, the authors’ research proved that making progress in meaningful work boosts emotions, motivation, and perceptions during a workday.  Writing in a journal can give you a place to keep track of that progress.

Keeping Track of Accomplishments

It’s also nice to keep a running list of all of your achievements.  If you do something awesome or get complimented on your work, write it down.  You’ll need to have these things on hand when it’s time for to start applying for jobs and funding opportunities!


Speaking of job applications, do you know everything that is expected of you to apply for jobs in academia?  If not, find out immediately.  You can get a checklist here.  Then you can write down all of these things in your journal.  And now that you know where you are going, you just need to make a plan to get there.  For example, being innovative in teaching is a part of my promotion requirements.  So each week I try to do something new in the classroom to see how my students react to it along with how well they grasp the material.

Related Post:  When to Start Applying for Jobs in Academia


A journal is a great place to write down all of your ideas for research or teaching, big or small.  Maybe there are colleagues that you want to collaborate with or service projects that you want to put together or be a part of.  Maybe there is new research in your field and you want to apply the results in your project.  The sky’s the limit!  I try to keep a running list of new activities for my students to work on in groups.  So far, the biggest hit was Derivative Sudoku.  Today, I’m trying a matching game with graphs of functions and their derivatives.  I’ll let you know how it goes.

How I use my Journal Daily

  1. I like to take 5-10 minutes either in the morning or the night before work to plan my day.  This typically consists of a To-Do list.  See my pro tip below.

  2. Throughout the day, I will write down any new ideas or goals that I think of.

  3. At the end of the day, I reflect on everything I’ve done and evaluate what’s working for me and what is not.

Pro Tip:  Try to keep your To-Do list short.  3-4 items is about all that one can manage without becoming overwhelmed.

I hope that you have enjoyed this post.  Using my journal helps me to stay focused at work and keep my productivity at 100%.  Do you currently keep a journal?  What type of things do you write in it?  If you don’t keep a journal, are thinking about keeping one now?

How to Prepare for the First Day of Class for Grad Students and New Faculty Nervous about Teaching for the First Time

I remember being told that I had to teach in my 3rd year of grad school.  I was terrified.  I’m quite shy and hate speaking in front of people.  I felt instantly overwhelmed.  I had never taught a class before.  I was not an education major in undergrad.  And my GTA Teacher Training happened 2 years prior and was not discipline specific.


I had so many fears and questions about that first day of class:


What if my students don’t listen to me?


What if I’m a horrible teacher? Poor students.


What if I make a mistake?


How to Prepare for the First Day of Classes as a Graduate Student Nervous about Teaching | The Academic Society | for graduate students in Math and STEM

You’ve probably had these same questions.  And that’s why I’m here.  I survived my first day of class and discovered that teaching was my passion.  So I want to give you some tips, tricks, and encouragement for your first day of class.


Who is this article for?

This post is for any graduate student or new faculty member preparing for the first day of classes.  It will be particularly helpful for students who have never taught before.  I hope to relieve some of your fears.  This post is also for graduate students who have taught before and want to check that they have everything set for the first day of class.



In my opinion, it all starts with coming into class on the first day with the right mindset.  Have you heard the saying, “Hope for the best, prepare for the worst”?  While it’s good to be prepared, I think that quote sends a negative message.  I like to go into my first day of class with a positive attitude, expecting that it will be the best class I’ve ever taught.  And if it is your first time teaching…it will be!  So no pressure!


It’s not about you

All of those fears and questions I mentioned at the beginning of this post were all about me.  But when you are teaching a class, it’s not about you at all.  It’s about the students.  You are there to help them learn.


Yes, you are busy and have other, more important things to focus on.  But those things are only important to you.  They are not important to your students.  They have no idea what it means to be in grad school.  But they do deserve your best effort.


Be clear and understandable

You should always try to speak clearly and be understandable.  This is especially important for teaching in a STEM field, math in particular.  Many students come in thinking that the class will be difficult so you want to ease some of their fears by, at least, being easy to understand.  If you know you have a soft voice or people have difficulty understanding you, reiterate important things you say by writing them down for your students.


Course evaluations

At the end of the semester, your students will be submitting course evaluations for you and your class.  It may not seem like a big deal now, but these evaluations can become very important for your future in academia.  If you plan to apply for jobs in academia where you will have teaching responsibilities, your course evaluations will be a part of your application materials.


Related Post:  How to Improve Your Teaching Evaluations


As you start thinking about walking into your class on the first day of class, set a positive mindset.  Come into the experience with a positive attitude and try to make your class a good experience for your students.



Download the First Day Checklist!



Prepare, prepare, prepare

It is so important to prepare for your class before you enter the classroom.  Yes, you will be teaching a class that you could do the material in your sleep.  But if you are unprepared, you will stumble and possibly make things more confusing for your students.  This is not good.  You will lose all credibility to them and they will stop listening to you.


Once you’ve shown your students that you know what you are doing and what you are talking about, they will recognize your authority.  Then, a mistake here or there isn’t a big deal.  It will serve to make you more human to your students.


How to prepare

  • I suggest writing out all of your notes ahead of time. Then 30-60 minutes before class, go back over your notes.

  • It’s helpful to point out “interesting” things. Try showing them something that they have never seen before. Maybe you will inspire a student or two to declare your subject as their major.

  • I also like to mark, in my personal notes, where I want student feedback or to get them to work on a problem themselves.

  • Try to estimate how much time each section of your lecture will take. This will get better with time. It’s important to respect your students’ time and end class when you should. You also don’t want to have to rush through examples because you are running out of time.


Enjoying this so far?  Feel free to pin this image!

How to prepare for the first day of class for grad students and new faculty who are nervous about teaching for the first time


Presentation Style

It’s important to decide how you will present your lecture and what materials you will need.  Are you going to write on the board?  Will it be chalk or dry-erase?  Are you going to make slides and present using a projector?


Personally, I like to use a document camera.  When I use a doc cam, I’m always facing my students and I can gage their reactions and interest level as I teach.


In introductory level math courses (precalculus), I like to prepare notes as handouts for my students ahead of time.  When I have those prepared for the students (they are responsible for printing them and bringing them to class), I don’t have to spend time in class writing long questions and definitions.  Also, it reduces the chance that students write incorrect notes.  (This happens more than you would expect.)


Download the First Day Checklist!



The First Day of Class

Materials to bring on the first day

  • Chalk/markers/erasers just in case your technology doesn’t work or isn’t what you expected

  • Roll: Go ahead and print out a class roll for your students so that you know who was there and who wasn’t

  • Syllabus: You are probably teaching freshman and they have no idea how college actually works. So it is important to print out physical syllabi for them and highlight the important parts.


What to do when you get in the classroom

Write your name on the board along with your email address, course title, and meeting time.  In fact, you should write your name on the board for the first 2 weeks of class.  It’s amazing but students will go through a whole semester and not know their instructor’s name, despite the fact that you sign all of your emails and will send at least one email per week.


Another reason to include the course title and meeting time on the board before class is to give students in the wrong place a chance to leave and make it to their actual class on time.


I also like to give the class something to work on at the beginning of class while you all wait for class to start.  Everyone gets to class super early on the first day and this time can be super awkward if they are just staring at you being nervous.  And you are trying not to make eye contact with them.


My tip:  Create some type of icebreaker worksheet.  Or you can give them notecards to write their information on for you.  This can be helpful for students who are not yet on your roll.  You can have a way to contact them.


How to begin class

When class starts, introduce yourself and tell your students about the class and what you expect from them.  This is a good time to go over the syllabus.  I wouldn’t read the whole thing but I would highlight key points.  Sometimes I actually bring a highlighter to emphasize the most important parts of the syllabus.


Then I like to do some kind of icebreaker to loosen everyone up.  During the icebreaker, I get to know the students, they get to know each other, and they get to know me.  If you are interested in more details about my icebreaker activity and how I encourage engagement and participation in my classes, check out the Student Engagement Email Course.


Related Email Course:  Student Engagement for Graduate Students


After class

After class, I send my students a follow up email to remind them what was discussed in class and list any homework assignments they have.  If you are interested in that email, check out 22 Email Templates


Related Post:  How to Write an Email


You should also use this time to check to see if your class roll has been updated.  It’s good to check this until the last day to add/drop a class.  You may even get new student in your class once word gets out about how great you were on the first day!


Tips and Tricks

  • Practice your teacher voice (it’s louder and stronger than your normal voice)

  • Don’t tell your students that this is your first time teaching. If they ask, you probably shouldn’t lie. But they probably won’t ask.

  • Remain professional with students but don’t be afraid to bring out your personality.

  • Tell them why you enjoy the subject that you are teaching. You may convert some majors.


If you enjoyed this post and found it helpful, feel free to share it with your friends.  Also, for quick access to some of my suggestions, download the 1st day of class checklist.

Download the First Day Checklist!