Research During the Academic Year: Tips for Time Management & Pursuing your Passions

A schedule board with a plethora of sticky notes containing writings on various obligations.
Whether you’re in a lab or working remotely, fitting in research during the academic year requires above all a willingness to prioritize yourself and good time management. Photo Credit: Jo Szczepanska.

Whether you’re trying to free up your summer to enjoy one of Princeton’s other fully-funded programs, or maybe pave the way for more advanced summer or independent research opportunities, it’s understandable why you might want to get a head start on research during the academic year. But, with jam-packed class schedules, multiple labs, essays to write, and hopefully squeezing in some time for yourself, it can feel impossible to do research on top of life at Princeton. So, how do students do it? Can you really spend 8-10 hours per week on research and still find work-life balance? In short, it depends. The number of classes you’re taking, extracurriculars, and your own unique circumstances all factor into whether research during the academic year is sustainable for your class schedule. For some, research can be a valuable addition to their academic schedules. But, like anything at Princeton, it requires careful planning, time management, and clarifying your own values. Here are three tips for striking balance with research during the academic year.

1. Set Realistic Expectations: 

When you’re first reaching out to different departments about research opportunities (see how to email here!), it’s not uncommon that professors will ask you to spend 8-10 hours a week in their lab. This is where you’ll want to take an honest look at your schedule and set realistic expectations with both yourself and others about what you can reasonably do. Maybe you’ll need to cut back on extracurriculars to fulfill your research responsibilities, or, maybe, this research position just can’t work with a five course semester. No one will hold it against you if you prioritize your classes, and likewise club members shouldn’t be upset if you take a semester off to pursue your academic interests. 

2. Set a Schedule

Depending on your research department, different professors will have different expectations. Some professors will expect you in the lab for a set number of hours per week. Even so, It’s likely that you’ll have some say as to what hours you’re working, and you’ll want to take this input seriously. Would you rather spend those three hours between classes in a lab, or working on a pset? Let’s say your classes and lab are on polar ends of the campus—are you willing to make the walk from Aaron Burr to PNI? What’s really important in constructing your schedule is evaluating when you work best and how your research will impact your academic/extracurricular schedules.

Other research departments, however, are much more flexible. Say you’re doing data analysis, archival research, or some other forms of remote work—it may be almost entirely up to you as to when and where you are working. In this case, it’s really important to set up your own routine in order to hold yourself accountable. Habit formation is key: you’ll want to set up a time/place each day where you know you can devote a good chunk of uninterrupted work to the project.

3. Relax

Princeton is tough, and most students have more than enough on their plate with academics and extracurriculars. Maybe you can’t commit to 10 hours in a lab this semester, and that’s alright. You don’t have to cram research into the academic year. There’s plenty of time (and opportunities) to get involved with research over the summer. Check out this PCUR article for a short list of all the ways you can get involved in summer research.

However, if you do choose to get involved with research this semester, give yourself grace as you adjust to the new schedule. You’re doing a lot, and, sometimes, situations may arise where you have to choose between classes and that week’s research schedule. Reach out ahead of time, and let your research advisor know what’s going on. Otherwise, take a deep breath and know that you’ve got this! Research can be a lot in addition to classes, but it is undoubtedly a rewarding experience. Regardless of your career path, engaging in research is one of the best ways to hone your problem-solving skills, learn the practical applications of your discipline, and deeply explore a topic that you’re passionate about. Pat yourself on the back. Whether you’re doing research in the summer or during the academic year, you’re setting yourself up for success. 

Amaya Dressler ’25, Social Sciences Correspondent