The big picture (more details and specifics below):
Have an organization system
Keep your backups backed up
Manage Your Time
Keep track of long-term goals
Keep track of time spent working
Keep track of the different projects
Determine what you need to research
Ask for feedback from faculty
Ask for feedback from peers
Actually Work on Your Portfolio
Find great places to work
Find great times to work
Keep your backups backed up: Because nothing is perfect and we should always be prepared, it’s so important that you backup your work in more than one place. For instance, keep a hard drive that you backup your work onto every few days or so, and work from a cloud-based drive (such as Dropbox or Google Drive). Having both of these backup systems will hopefully keep anything dire from happening (like you losing all of your work). It can be easy to overlook these kinds of things, until you get hacked or your computers fritzes out. And if that does happen, you’ll thank yourself later. But for now, better safe than sorry.
Managing Your Time
By keeping track of all of these goals in one place, I felt like my initial portfolio project time was spent wisely without getting bogged down by my other responsibilities. Of course, organize these early stages in a way that makes most sense for you. And be honest about how much work you can complete during certain times! For instance, when I was away at conferences, I tried to only work on reading necessary articles/books, rather than trying to write. I did this because I know that conferences are far busier than I ever anticipate, and reading doesn’t drain me in the same ways writing does. Be honest with yourself about what’s possible—and don’t be afraid to adjust accordingly. Early on, though, I highly suggest creating a more regimented schedule, especially when the bulk of your work will simply be reading and outlining. It can be easy to push that work off, but dedicating time to conducting that necessary work can make all the difference.
Once you start keeping track of the time you spend writing and working, you may learn something different. Maybe you need more time to work, or maybe you work during certain days of the week better than others. Whatever pattern of writing you may prefer, you can’t learn it until you start keeping track of it in some way. Having some kind of dedicated writing journal, even if it’s as informal as a post-it note on your computer, can help you learn your habits. Not to mention, there’s serious satisfaction in being able to look over all the time and work you’ve put into your portfolio project.
While you may not use this exact method, it is a good idea to come up with a method to keep track of your different projects and how they are shifting as you work on them. Make this method something you can easily adjust as you need, and be sure to include reasonable goals. For example, don’t include just the goals “Finish draft,” and “Turn in final project to committee.” There will most certainly be some work to do between those two phases - use a system that allows you to reflect those different phases between starting and finishing so that you can be realistic about the work you need to do and the time it’s going to take to get there.
Ask for feedback from peers: In my experience, the most generative ideas I got when writing my portfolio came when talking about research projects with my peers. Not only is talking with your peers a good way to practice the ever-dreaded research project “elevator pitch,” but it can also be a useful break from being inside your head all day. Stuck wondering if an idea you’re conveying in your paper is making sense? Ask one of your friends to read through it (or better yet, see if you’re able to explain it to them). Feeling unable to get your ideas together cohesively? Reach out to a peer and ask to talk through it with them. Chances are your peers will be able to get you thinking about things differently and can likely empathize with the frustration you’re going through.
Actually working on your portfolio
- Your on-campus office: I provide this example with some hesitation. It’s great that we’re offered offices to work in on campus, but I have rarely seen folks actually able to work in their office. We’re a chatty department, which is excellent for when you want someone to distract you, but not great when you actually need to buckle down and work. If you want to work in your office but can’t keep yourself focused because every other person who walks by likes to poke their head in and talk for 45 minutes, try to figure out when the department is empty. Oftentimes, early mornings and early evenings are good quiet times to work in your office. There may be the occasional interruption, but you’ll likely be able to get a few solid hours of work in. Also, feel free to close your office door when you’re working - it tells those around you that you’re hard at work and they’ll be less likely to stop in for a conversation.
- A dedicated working space at home: Your home will likely be the place you spend most of your time during grad school. Because of that, it’s so important that you have a dedicated space in your house to work on not just your portfolio, but your other grad school responsibilities. Of course, being grad students, many of us can’t afford a two-, or three-bedroom home. Because of this, you may have to get creative when it comes to your working space. Consider putting a desk in your bedroom. Maybe you could work at your kitchen table. Or perhaps you can get a cheap lapdesk and work in your bed. Either way, ensure that there is a dedicated space in your home for you to be comfortable and do your work.
- A library: Maybe you have rowdy roommates and want some peace and quiet. Libraries can be great spaces to go when you want some quiet. Be aware of your library’s hours, though; many public library close around 5–6pm, and some of the floors of MSU’s libraries close after 10–11pm. Be sure that you aren’t going end up kicked out, or worse, locked in the library because you got too in the zone and forgot about closing time.
- A coffee shop: Coffee shops are full of people wearing their headphones and browsing Facebook while they pretend to work. Join the club and get your work-on. All coffee shops are a little different, so don’t be afraid to try out different ones around the area. Find your perfect spot(s) and give yourself a change of scenery (and maybe a baked-goodie).
- A late-night diner: Look, I get it: grad school life is weird and hard, and sometimes you forget to eat a meal, or two, or three and you have four papers due next week. That’s the beauty of late-night diners. Many of them have wi-fi and a cheap menu. If you’re in a pinch and need a meal and to do some work, or you just love eating pancakes while you slam out those final paragraphs to your paper, a late-night diner is a perfect place to check out. Sure, the drunk/hungover undergrads might be a bit weirded out by you, but they’ll forget you even existed the next day. If you’re going to check out the late-night diner scene, though, always double check the hours and bring a charged laptop (or ask for a seat by an outlet).
Remember, though, our preferences can always change! If you thought you were a morning worker, but find yourself in a slump when waking up early to work, consider changing things up. Maybe you needed a change of pace, or maybe your preferences just changed. Noticing these changes early and often and adjusting to them can be useful when working on your portfolio because these changes in working habits can cut down on frustration and writer’s block later on.