PhDiary #2: “What is Normal Anyway?” – My Average Work Week |
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Posted on 14 Dec '20

PhDiary #2: “What is Normal Anyway?” – My Average Work Week

There are all sorts of horrors you’ll hear about the work schedule of a PhD student. But the truth is, it varies. I know people who work an 80-hour week and I know others who work under 30. When I started my own PhD, I found myself constantly worrying whether I was putting in enough hours.

By the time I found a schedule that worked for me, lockdown hit. Back to square one. Naturally, my hours fluctuated (and sometimes they still do) but I’ve finally got a good routine down.

You have to go with the flow

Truth is, there’s no such thing as an average work week when doing a PhD. Some weeks will just be busier than others. Maybe you have a conference paper to write, or a deadline coming up. Other weeks you might struggle to find the motivation. This is usually a sign you need a few days’ holiday.

Alternatively, the world might get hit by a pandemic and then ‘normal’ becomes a foreign concept anyway!

My work week is very reflective of my personal circumstances. If you read my first PhDiary, then you’ll know I’m a self-funded second year History student with a part-time job. University work therefore has to fit around other commitments if I’m going to pay rent.

Getting used to the grind

Monday to Wednesday I work a full eight-hour day, 8am to 4pm. I personally prefer to start earlier so I can have more downtime in the evening. Also, with university buildings being closed, I don’t have any commute time (there have to be some positives, right!). Lunch is one hour, though I have been known to accidently extend this.

The first year is a funny one because you’re unlikely to have teaching, nor will you present at many conferences. You’ll therefore have more time to dedicate to your research. But, you might not be used to a full-time working week yet (I know I wasn’t), or know how to research efficiently.

Before I got the hang of working a full-time week, I spoke to a couple of third years about how their schedule changed over time. Unsurprisingly they found themselves a lot more productive in their final year. This was because they got used to the workload, had a larger variety of tasks to do, and were just generally more efficient.

One mentioned that during his first year he often took two-hour lunches. Taking longer breaks allowed him to switch off properly, otherwise he found himself burning out before the end of the day.

Learning to manage burnout

I still sometimes don’t make it until 4pm, finding myself unable to concentrate with a headache slowly encroaching. That's how I know it’s time to stop. This feeling usually hits me when I’ve been reading all day. However, if the day was filled with a greater variety of tasks then I might work past 4pm.

Don’t spend the whole day working though, it’s important to have some personal time in order to reset for the next day. Remember, a PhD is at least three years.

As I work a job Thursday and Friday, Saturday is my designated catch up day. Usually this will be another 8-4, but (as always) it’s dependant. I like to set a to-do list with my favourite activities to keep Saturday interesting. I then work until it’s completed. If there’s still time to spare, I’ll watch a documentary or listen to a podcast. Wider reading (or listening) is still work and can be extremely beneficial. It’s also much more enjoyable than reading a dense 800-page book.

Let’s look at the stats

According to a new report by The Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI), the average PhD student works 47 hours per week (about 50% more than undergraduates). I work less than the average student totalling around 32 hours. Though if you take into account my part-time job then I average out at 48.

But like I’ve already said, each week is different. Sometimes you slump and decide it’s more beneficial to take the week off, which it often is. Other times you might have the incredibly motivating fear of a deadline approaching and work longer hours.

Your hours will always be dependent on your personal work rate and subject demands. Remember, don’t compare your work habits to others. Talk with your supervisor if you don't feel you’re being productive enough. They will let you know and help you figure out an action plan to get back on track.

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Last Updated: 14 December 2020