Blog post

Plan Your Academic Year Early Using Systems Thinking

September 9, 2021
By GradProSkills
Source: GradProSkills

The new academic year is upon us, bringing with it a new projects, important deadlines, and deliverables. At first glance, the fall 2021 important dates for graduate students, your multiple course syllabi, and the thesis preparation guidelines may appear overwhelming. Do not fear! Here we unravel the secret of systems thinking to help you build a successful academic year without missing a single deadline. 

woman holding a photo of a light bulb on a doodled background

What is an academic plan? 

An academic plan is a set of realistic goals and strategies for success in grad school. Taking the time now, to set expectations, goals and a plan will allow you to focus on your studies and simplify your academic life. 

We acknowledge that academic life is not an undeviating thoroughfare. We have all experienced setting new goals and quickly failing at them; new year's resolutions are the perfect example of this. So what made the difference between those resolutions we suceed at and those that we don't? The difference to achieving long-lasting results is building a solid foundation - taking a systems approach to the problem, getting started early and creating habits. 

What is systems thinking?

Simply put, a system is a series of small actions working together to build a set of effective habits helping you to get real work done. In other words, a system is a repeatable behaviour, leading you toward achieving your long-term goals. Adopting a systems mindset for positive impact and designing a system for what you do is systems thinking in its most basic form. To see how this can be put into practice let’s elaborate it a bit further with some examples.

Let’s say you want better health. This can be achieved by building a habit of doing short exercises every day, rather than setting a goal of being able to run a marathon in four hours. Starting with just 15 to 20 minute stretches early morning or later in the evening is a better approach than a two hour heavy workout at the gym when you feel like it. Remember that consistency pays off in the long term.

In the same way, if you are planning to learn something new, make sure to develop a system that enables you to become wiser and more knowledgeable compared to your yesterday’s self. For instance, making consistant, quality time for reading, even for just 20 minutes a day, will help you create a foundation for improved learning habits. 

How does it help in formalizing an academic plan? 

We all know that planning is key to a smooth grad school experience. When creating your academic plan, keep in mind that “a consistent learning system that makes it easy to accumulate knowledge over time works better,” as Thomas Oppong reminds us in his article on personal growth

If your goal, as a graduate student, is to have a successful academic year, your system would be a studying schedule that you follow every day. If you are writing a thesis, your system is the writing schedule that you follow every week. 

Moreover, you may build and follow multiple subsystems to approach a single goal. Just keep in mind that each system contains a way of work unique to you and all subsystems together direct you toward accomplishing your main goal. In addition, you may want to employ systems thinking in conjunction with other development plans, such as an IDP, to upgrade the ways in which you evaluate your existing and missing skills.

wooden cubes that read step by step

A simple process for designing systems into your academic plan

  1. Start with the area of your graduate studies that requires a better or modified system.
    For example, it can be your habit of writing or learning new skills.
  2. Identify the bigger goal. What do you want to achieve? 
    Do you want to publish a paper? Do you want to get a degree for a better career? 
  3. Break that larger goal into smaller, realistic tasks (follow the SMART principles). 
    Include small habits or actions you need to take daily, weekly or monthly consistently. For example, you could keep a record of your maximum focus time or the frequencies of practicing certain actions during a week. Do you enjoy spending time on a specific task, or you just do it out of a feeling of guilt? If you get bored, transform tasks like writing into a less stressful and more fun activity.
  4. Measure your results every couple of weeks. 
    Modify, adjust or update your systems when necessary to achieve better results.

All and all, systems thinking helps you to articulate the complexities of grad school in new and different ways. It is a simple method to employ when you want to expand your options, build realistic habits and solve long-lasting problems. At the same time, systems thinking allows you to be mindful of the myth of a single ultimate solution. There is no perfect solution and every person needs a unique way of getting things done. The value lies in taking the time to reflect and map out your academic plan early – a sure step on your path to academic success. 


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