How PhD students actually do their research, writing, teaching, changing diapers, cooking, babysitting, etc.

In the ideal PhD world, the week lies before you like a calm and tranquil river, upon which you can set out rowing at a strong and steady pace, smelling the cool autumn air as your arms pulls evenly at the oars and your legs push with confident exertion. It’s smooth and efficient and well-paced.

But in reality, only a few Phd students can actually work that way. Not because they don’t want to, but many of us have to balance other priorities with our research, including family duties, teaching seminars, attending seminars, meetings and more. It’s a busy life, and we’re not even getting paid for (most of) it.

So I asked a few of my other Phd friends how they manage their time. Now keep in mind that the general rule is 40 hours a week of research in order to finish the thesis in 3 years (I speak here for the British system, and this was the recommended amount from my supervisor himself). Here’s what a few of these people had to say when I asked them the following question:

how many hours of actual research time do you actually get in per week (estimate), on average?

(NB: I have not indicated which responses are from students at British or American universities)

PhD student 1:

Hard to say… varies between weeks and phases of research. But a rough average could be around 30 hours. One thing is how you view work with languages. If the language work is directly related to the research (translating texts relevant to research) then I would count that in and get more hours per week, but if not, then it’s extra.

PhD student 2:

Right now. 9am to 5:30, with between 45 minutes and an hour for lunch, five days a week. So, 37.5 or so total, with half writing and half research. There are definitely weeks when I do more than this, but this is typical right now.

I do German and Greek over breakfast by reading Paul’s letters in German (Luther Bible) and then in Greek. So, that might add 30 – 45 minutes most days.

PhD student 3 (this reply is my personal favourite):

I almost laughed out loud when I saw your question—cos for me, sad to say, there’s no such thing as a typical week when it comes to research and writing!:) I think I’d make an excellent subject for statistical regression analysis! On a good day, I get 10 hrs+ of solid work done; on a bad day, next to none. And I’m embarrassed to confess that bad days seem to come my way rather often! Today’s a sort of in-between kinda day. I read some of my Greek NT and then did some housework in the morning and then spent a happy 2-3 hrs in the garden—weeding, clearing dead plants and putting in new spring bulbs. The afternoon sort of disappeared (argh!). I’m doing some work this evening though. Total expected real work done today = 3 hrs (maybe)? But when writing deadlines/supervisory meetings . . . approach—my amazing productivity can surprise even me!  Sorry, I don’t think this is helpful? I guess everyone is different haha. You’re talking to Mr Perfectionistic Procrastinator here 🙂

PhD Student 4

I really try to keep my schedule in a tight routine. Regrettably, I have to say no to a lot of things in order to keep at the grind. My hour blocks of study are something of the following; some weeks more, some weeks are less. I try to follow this pattern fairly religiously. I try to keep my evenings free for my family and I always have an “open door” policy with my family. If [my wife and kid] need me for something, they are always free to do so. Also, this is my allotted time for study, but it doesn’t reflect my time fully devoted to concentrated study. Some of this is writing and reading. Some of this gets interrupted with other pressing items. Sometimes, I accidentally sleep in or call it an early day.

  • Monday (7 hours) : 5:00am–11:00am; 3:00pm–7:00pm

  • Tuesday (2–4 hours): 5:00am–7:00am; Scattered evenings

  • Wednesday (4–7 hours): 5:00am–7:00am; 11:00am–1:00pm; Scattered evenings

  • Thursday (7 hours): 7:00am–10:30am; 3:30pm–7:00pm

  • Friday (2–4 hours): 5:00am–7:00am; Scattered evenings

  • Saturday (12 hours): 7:00am–7:00pm

  • Sunday (5 hours): 7:00am–10:00am; 5:00pm–7:00pm

PhD Student 5 (part-time, doing a British PhD but living in the USA):

10-15 [hours per week], it’s taken me 150-200hrs per chapter to research and write the first draft before submitting for first review. I still have to revise each chapter per feedback from my advisor.  I’m guessing revision will take 20-50hrs per chapter.

PhD Student 6:

I was doing 12+ hours [7 days a week] because I was single and was always in my office.

PhD Student 7:

It is difficult to give a ‘one size fits all answer’ to your question because different phases of life call for different investments of time. In the throes of my dissertation I worked from about 9AM-6PM on my dissertation each day. At several points I took some time off to work on other things (sometimes that was a good idea; sometimes it wasn’t). Currently, having finished my dissertation, I’m researching about 25 hours per week on my new project and using the remaining hours of the week for other responsibilities.

PhD Student 8:

I try to be in the office by 7AM and typically work until sometime between 3PM and 5PM.  So, 40–50 hours in the office per week, and then I do [other related work] on Saturdays.

PhD Student 9:

Hm, as a quick estimate, i would probably say 30-40 hours.  Probably most weeks somewhere in the mid-thirties, depending on the week, less depending on “busy weeks” (weeks with TA responsibilities, leading seminars, going to PG reading groups, etc.).  I think that’s still probably a bit generous though, because not all of that time is “hard work” time, some of it is making coffee, checking email, admin, etc.  So the amount of solid working time will be less, but I just see it as all the time I spend at my desk, and try to make it as productive as possible when I’m there.  I’m not a work-aholic, so I leave my work at the office and try to realax and do other things when I’m home.

I also do some “bonus” (not related to phd) stuff on some evenings, not much, 30 min to 1.5 hours, depending, of practicing Greek or doing other reading not related to my phd.  Right now I’m reading a history of the classical world to get some background.  There are a lot of nights when I just don’t feel like doing anything in the evening, etc. that’s why it’s “bonus” time.

PhD Student 10:

Last year I filled in a survey that included as one of its questions how many hours per week I spend studying. At the time I calculated between 50 and 60 hours per week of study time on my own (not including seminars or German class), although that would include individual language study, etc., that is not thesis research in the most direct sense. In the summer, with a physically tiring job taking 35 hours a week plus walking commute and time to wash up, it dropped to closer to 20 hours per week. Right now I am not putting in quite as much time as last year, but it may still be more than 40.

That being said, I think, at least last year, I was on the high end among my colleagues. We were told during orientation that a PhD here is suppose to be like a full-time job, so to expect 40 hours a week, which I think includes all of the peripheral PhD activity aside from strictly thesis research.

I hope this brief survey has been helpful to those of you currently engaged in Phd studies, or planning to enter the fray. For those of us already ‘on the water’, and for those looking out at the river contemplating getting into the boat, it’s important to be very wise with your time, continually evaluating your progress. Whatever your mode of working as an independent researcher, it can always be refined, just as it should always be adjusted when other more important priorities (family, for example) place unexpected demands on those priceless hours.

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2 comments

  1. […] How PhD students actually do their research, writing, teaching, changing diapers, cooking, babysitti… […]

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  2. […] I should also mention that he was kind enough to include one of my former posts about how PhD students are able (or not) to juggle all the other duties of life while enduring the rigours of writing a thesis. You can find that post here. […]

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