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The Daily Life of a PhD Student

The daily life of a PhD student can be quite a departure from what you’ve experienced as an undergraduate or Masters student, with much more independence and little to no ‘taught’ elements. Your average week will likely involve a similar amount of PhD study hours to a full-time job, including some teaching and administrative responsibilities.

This page will give you an idea of what to expect from your routine as a PhD student, explaining how your daily life will look at you progress through a doctoral degree.

What does the daily life of a PhD student look like?

It might seem like a cliché, but the reality is that isn’t really a typical day for a PhD student. Your daily routine will depend on several different factors, from your research area and the stage of your PhD to what you’ve agreed with your supervisor and your own learning style. We’ve covered the main aspects that will affect how you spend your PhD below.

Subject area

If you’re doing a PhD in the Arts and Humanities, you probably won’t be surprised to learn that you’ll spend a fair chunk of your time reading texts or in the library. This is where the bulk of your research will be done, although depending on the nature of your topic you may visit special collections and archives to view rare books and papers elsewhere.

In the Social Sciences, you’re also likely to spend plenty of time reading. However, you might also find yourself conducting research via surveys or interviews, as well as handling large amounts of data.

STEM PhDs usually involve lots of time in the laboratory, performing experiments and testing out hypotheses. You’ll probably also help supervise undergraduate and Masters students while they conduct work in the laboratory, making sure they’re using the right techniques.

Learning style

Your learning style will also have an effect on your daily routine as a PhD student. The independence afforded by a PhD means that you’ll have plenty of freedom to choose your own ‘working’ hours – as well as where they take place.

Some people value the regularity of a 9-5 schedule, while others may find that they’re more productive early in the morning or later in the evening (or a mixture of all three!). Similarly, you may have the freedom to choose where you want to study – whether that’s at home, in the library, a local café or a shared workspace with other PhD students.

The stage of your PhD

How far you are into your PhD is another big factor in your daily routine. Your first year will largely involve you getting to grips with your research area, familiarising yourself with the literature and beginning to lay the groundwork for what will become your PhD thesis.

Second year will see you taking on extra responsibilities, such as teaching or laboratory supervision, as well as undertaking the bulk of your research.

Your third and fourth years will usually be dedicating to writing up your research and producing your thesis, culminating in your PhD viva. This is typically the busiest – and most important! – period of a PhD.

Supervisor meetings

Meetings with your PhD supervisor will take place on a regular basis and are an excellent opportunity to provide updates, ask for advice and get their opinion on drafts. The frequency of these meeting will largely be up to you and your supervisor to agree on, but you can expect them to form an important part of your routine as and when they happen.

How many hours of study is a PhD?

As a general rule, you should expect a full-time PhD to account for 35 hours of work a week – the equivalent of a full-time, 9-5 job. It’s likely that during especially busy periods – such as when you’re writing up – you may work considerably longer hours.

If you’re studying a part-time PhD, your workload will be halved, at around 17 and a half hours per week. Depending on your schedule, this might be across a full week or a few days.

Universities rarely impose a number or pattern of work hours on PhD students, so it’ll be up to you to manage your time effectively. Most of the time, attendance is to do with regular meetings, set departmental deadlines and timely submission of written work.

Whatever your mode of study, it’s important to strike a healthy work-life balance. Peer pressure, demanding supervisors and extreme expectations may make you feel like you have to put in lots of hours, but you should remember that over-exerting yourself won’t necessarily lead to gains in productivity. This is 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).

PhD student workloads and holidays

The 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 transferrable skills training (in teaching, professional development and academic skills, for example) and your university may have a minimum number of hours of such courses you must take.

As you progress in your PhD, your workload will become progressively heavier, culminating in the period where you write up your research.

PhD annual leave

Funded PhD students at UK universities are usually entitled to annual leave during their studies, as stipulated in the conditions for their studentship. The exact amount differs from institution to institution (and according to how you’re funded), but generally speaking you can expect between 25 and 30 days of annual leave if you’re a full-time PhD student, in addition to public holidays. Part-time funded students will receive half of this allocation. If you’re a self-funded PhD student, you won’t have annual leave per se, but you also won’t be beholden to the same conditions attached to a studentship.

You’ll need to give an appropriate amount of notice to your supervisor and / or colleagues, as well as using the university’s booking system for annual leave.

PhD responsibilities

The ultimate responsibility for good academic conduct and for successful completion of the PhD lies with you.

However, it’s a slightly different situation if you’re studying a PhD in a country where students are usually treated as a member of research staff (common in the Netherlands, France, Sweden and Norway, to give a few examples).

In these cases, you’ll have an employment contract and will be subject to the same regulations as a member of staff. 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.

Last updated 16/12/2020

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