How much work is a PhD?

PhD students are in a fuzzy area; officially students but working full-time with academic staff as colleagues. I get a lot of questions about how my day is structured as a PhD student because it can be very different to undergraduate. The most obvious question is how many hours does a PhD student work per week?

PhD Structure

The structure of PhDs vary considerably but it’s fair to say that often working hours are similar or higher than a regular job. During my induction at Imperial it was stated that the expectation was basically to work hard enough carry out world leading research: no pressure!

I figure the easiest illustration of the workload is to show a month of my calendar, giving a glimpse of how my time is divided. One of the best things about a PhD is the variety, which meant that showing just a single day, or week wouldn’t be particularly representative: hence I kept a rough diary for the month of January. I am currently in my second year, and this diary represents the 15th month of my PhD. In case you just want a summary, feel free to skip down the page. Clicking on each week’s calendar will open up a high-res image which may be easier to read. I included my commute to give a sense of how much non-work time I had. At the time I was commuting an hour each way, which has now been halved. I covered housing in this post: How Much it Costs to Live in London as a Student.

My January 2018 Calendar (Month 15 of PhD)

For higher-resolution copies, you can click on each week!

Calendar week 1
Calendar Week 3
Calendar Week 2
Calendar Week 4
Weekly summary of hours worked
Month Summary. Average of 43 hours per week.

Discussion

Putting this together I realise that I do lots of office work! Over half my time is sitting at my desk, twice as much as in the lab. This very much varies depending on your project. Mine has a decent mix of lab work and computing time and it takes longer to process my experimental data than to collect it, hence the split in my time. Some of my peers work on projects that don’t require nearly as much time analysing data and so almost all of their time is in the lab, whereas the opposite is true of others running complex computer simulations.

Despite spending so long in the office, every day is quite different. Many days may look similar from how I categorised the calendar, but I didn’t break down the categories in to the actual tasks which for the most part are varied. The great thing with a PhD is having freedom to manage your own time. Usually there aren’t extremely urgent tasks so you can mix and match and keep your days varied.

I work similar, or longer, hours to most office jobs. There are certainly times when I work longer hours than shown in this example month, but for the most part it’s representative. I believe I work similar hours to my peers but I don’t know how it compares to other research groups or universities: feel free to let me know!

I didn’t include time for any lunches. I’m often pretty bad and eat at my desk, usually while continuing to work. I do take frequent breaks to go and grab a drink, or more recently to go and tend to a garden nearby which I manage.

As much as possible I try and avoid working at the weekends. There can be a big difference between working long hours and working efficiently. It is sometimes problematic to switch off because there is constantly the opportunity to do more and more work. Finding that balance can certainly be a challenge and perhaps something I should make a separate post about. I’d rather not spend seven days a week at work!

Summary

A PhD is a marathon and not a sprint: it’s important to work smart. By that I mean, if you’re struggling to focus on a particular day, go and take a break. Add in some easy or fun tasks to make yourself content with your productivity. Or if you’re having a particularly bad day, take the rest of the day off. You’re in control of your own time and it’s not always smart to force work if you’re not feeling it. A PhD isn’t a piece of coursework in undergrad where you can pull an all-nighter and get it completed. I don’t know how my working hours compare to other PhD students but I know that it’s important to work at a sustainable pace. There are some great opportunities to seize when you’re a PhD student which I think are worth making time for. Not only can having a good work-life balance help your sanity and wellbeing, you never know where the opportunities could lead.

I hope this has been useful in dispelling the myth that PhD students must spend every waking hour at work. The main thing I find important is being smart with your time. Let me know your thoughts too in the comments! You can subscribe for more content here:

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