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An Average PhD Week

by Dr Nathalie Mather-L’Huillier

In my line of work I get to meet a lot of students who are about to start their PhD. If you are one of them, first of all, well done! No doubt you will have a lot of questions but there seems to be one which pops up over and over again. How many hours will I have to do and will I have to be on campus every day? Well, as the Brits say, how long is a piece of string?

Work patterns

The reality is that there is no such thing as an “average PhD week” and how you arrange your week will depend on a number of factors:

  • Subject area (very different work patterns will emerge if you have to be in a lab for example).
  • Your learning style.
  • The stage of your PhD: your week will be structured very differently when you are writing up and there will be peak times in activity.
  • What you have agreed with your supervisor.
  • University regulations.
  • Your personal preferences.

Number of hours

If you ask current PhD students, you will get a range of estimates from 35 to 70 hours. A PhD is indeed hard work and there will be different demands on your time, especially if you undertake teaching or other university-related activities. However, as with all things, there is a balance to be struck. Peer pressure, overbearing supervisors or excessive but perceived expectations can all contribute to feeling that you must do lots of hours. Some students do want to put in 70 hours a week whilst they are able to sustain a high-level of motivation, and that’s great, but what is not great is to feel pressured into it. Also remember that physical presence does not necessarily mean productivity.
On the other hand, your supervisor’s aim is for a successful PhD completed in no more than four years (ideally three). The best approach is, therefore, to discuss this with your supervisor and/or your graduate school as early as possible in your degree so that you can agree on something that suits everyone.
There are examples of researchers/academics who successfully and with dedication are 9 to 5 workers. Many believe it IS possible to achieve a work-life balance even when doing a PhD. There are students for whom 9 to 5 is all they get because they have family commitments, for example. And they still manage to get their PhD.

Attendance

Are there core hours your supervisor wants you in the office? Are you and your supervisor content with meeting at regular intervals without the need to “clock in”? Were you allocated a desk in the department? Do you prefer working from home/at the library/in a local café?
Of course, these arrangements will and should evolve as you go through your PhD. If there are some concerns about your progress (from you or your supervisors) then you may be asked to be in more often.
For PhD students, universities rarely impose a number or pattern of work hours. The closest I have seen to a strict requirement is in relation to “a full working week”, “full-time” or working “as you would a full-time job”. Most of the time, attendance is to do with regular meetings, set departmental deadlines and timely submission of written work.
In the social sciences, arts and humanities, there is much variation. Most students will adopt a flexible approach with time spent at home, in the department, at the library and some in other research sites (museums, interviewing, archives, etc.).
As for you science PhDs, you’ll most likely be in the lab every day, except when you are writing up. I must admit, in a previous life as a PhD biology student, I did work at weekends (sometimes) and I did stay in the lab a few evenings (I remember with much distress one fateful night when the deep freeze failed and I was on my own to deal with it, until 2am).

Taught courses

Coursework requirement is likely to be higher at the beginning of your PhD and, while not really measured in hours, this will dictate how often you are on campus. In the UK, you will have some requirements in terms of “transferable” skills training and your university may have a minimum number of hours of such courses you must take. In continental European universities, such as Belgium (LINK TO WHEN LIVE) or France, requirements are expressed in terms of credits, i.e. attendance is defined as the number of taught courses and activities for which your PhD will receive credits. In the United States and Canada, your first year will be mostly about taught courses so your attendance will be defined by that timetable.

Responsibilities

Interestingly, most of the regulations I have read talk about the frequency of meetings (i.e. documented meetings) and about maintaining contact with the supervisory team. This is particularly relevant to students who are likely to work outside their department.
What all regulations have in common is that ultimate responsibility for good academic conduct and for successful completion of the PhD lies with the student. In a way this means that there are no fixed times or minimum number of hours that the students should be in. So, is it always a question of trust? Is your personal experience always going to be shaped by expectations and informal agreement with your supervisor? A balance of the two is likely. Perhaps at start of your PhD, you will be in more often to benefit for supervisory support and to demonstrate that you have good time and project management skills and to show that you are dedicated.
A slightly different situation arises if you are a member of research staff, as is common in the Netherlands, France, Sweden or Norway. In those cases, employment regulations will come into play as you should have an employment contract. Similarly, if you are doing an “industrial” PhD, or if your funder has specific rules, you should make sure that you find out whether there is a strict pattern of work you should adhere to.

Other duties

A common complaint is that excessive hours of work are brought upon not by the PhD work itself but by other duties you have been asked to undertake and that you feel you have to do, for financial reasons for example.
PhD students often get involved in teaching, tutoring, demonstrating or marking, but also in administrative duties (open days, committee work, etc.). The nature of the PhD is changing and PhD students are, more and more, asked to undertake a variety of duties. As with all jobs, a balance should be achieved and it is recommended that you don’t take too much on. This is not always easy to address when you feel forced to do teaching, or if you need the money. However, make sure that none of these activities are to the detriment of your PhD. There is a reason why some universities prescribe a maximum number of academic-related work, as low as six hours a week (you’ll often see 12-16 hours max) and why off-campus work sometimes require special permission (fairly rare but it happens).

Annual leave

You may hear that PhD students never get holidays. It is true that the long summer breaks you enjoyed as an undergrad are now a thing of the past. It is also true that there will be times in your PhD when you will find it harder to remove yourself from your work. While it can be difficult to stop thinking about your PhD, you are nonetheless entitled to some holidays. The amount will depend on your university and local arrangements in your department and with your supervisors. A quick trawl of university websites reveals that many universities have a minimum period of annual leave from 20 days to eight weeks. Remember, we all need to recharge our batteries at some point and a rested student is more likely to enjoy their PhD. You do need to sustain a high level of motivation, but that doesn’t mean you can’t have a break from time to time.

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