How to Complete an MA/PhD in 4 Years Part 3

In this post I would like to discuss some of the work habits that helped me finish my combined degree in four years.

First and foremost, it was important for me not to make research and writing my entire life. I had friends in grad school who would never come to dinners or happy hours, or who would come to a party for an hour, drink a glass of water, then go back to work. You might think these people would have finished as quickly as I did and became superstars in their field. They didn’t. Of the two I have in mind, one finished the doctorate after me then chose an entirely different career, and the other simply left the program.

That being said, it is of course important to work really hard and work at times when many people like to take breaks. While I was taking classes, a normal weekday for me consisted of waking up at 5:30, hitting the gym from 6-7:10 or so, then being on campus working by 8:30. I generally worked on campus until 3 or 4, went home and ate dinner, and then worked again until 7 or 8. If I was tutoring at the Writing Center at night, I would often just stay on campus until 8P so that I did not waste time going back home. I generally ended my day by watching an episode or two of The Wire or The West Wing, two of the greatest shows ever made.

One of the most important aspects of my academic and professional success was (and still is) my workout routine. Monday thru Friday I did 30 minutes of intense cardio and then lifted weights for another 30-40 minutes. Some days I’d top this off with 10 minutes of suicides on the basketball court. This helped me feel good physically, gave me a lot of energy, and also helped me discipline myself in other areas of my life, like sitting down to write.

Something else that was really important was always working on weekends and “vacations.” Again, this does not mean I gave up my social life. I often went out with friends on Friday night, but even if I was out until 1A, I woke up by 7A on Saturday and got to work. I could get in a good 8-10 hours before hanging with friends Saturday night as well. It was on vacations where I did have to make a big sacrifice. During my first Christmas break in graduate school, I had to disappoint my mom and tell her I would not be home for Christmas. I simply had too much research to do, and I was determined to finish the degree in the time frame I had set for myself. When I did travel up to New York for Spring Break a few months later, I arrived with four books to read for the week. Generally I would just wake up at 5 and read for 3-4 hours in the morning, spending the rest of the day with the family.

I also never took more than a couple days off during the summers. This was really important because most funding agencies will not award you a research fellowship before going ABD, so if you want to finish in 4 years you need to take advantage of your first couple summers in grad school. I was somewhat lucky in that my family lived an hour commute away from some really important archives so I just stayed with them and worked in Boston most summers. But even if that is not the case, I highly suggest using this time to get archival research done, even if you have to pay for it out of pocket.

Finally, as Ben Franklin noted in his autobiography, it is not just important to work hard, you must also appear to work hard in order to be successful. But you want to do this in subtle ways. Nobody likes that person who is always going on about how hard they work. So when a professor has you post something online for a class, make sure you are always the first person in your class to post. When you are on Christmas break, wake up at 5A on Christmas day and send your advisor an email with a research question or requesting a latter of recommendation for a grant. If a friend asks you to read and comment on a paper, get it back to them the next day. The trick is to show both your colleagues and professors that you are one of the hardest working people they know. This will definitely pay off when you come to your job search, which I will discuss in my last post as the final key ingredient to finishing in four years.

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Chris Cameron

Chris Cameron is an Associate Professor of History at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. His research and teaching interests are in African American and early American history, especially abolitionist thought, liberal religion, and secularism. His first book is entitled To Plead Our Own Cause: African Americans in Massachusetts and the Making of the Antislavery Movement (Kent State University Press, 2014). Follow him on Twitter @ccamrun2.