An average day in the life of a PhD student?

Avatar for sarah_lou

Hi all, I have just recently submitted an application to study a PhD which has been successful and am now awaiting the result of an application for funding from a research council. Even though I am really passionate about the subject I have chosen to research, I am still weighing up the pros and cons of doing a PhD and it would really help me if I could gain a bit of insight into the life of a typical PhD student and what the usual University requirements are on how you spend your time? For example, does the University ask that you are present at the Uni for a certain number of days a week or hours or can you undertake research from home? What is the best kind of study-life balance for a PhD student do you think? Considering the University I have applied to is about a 45 minute journey from home, this is an important consideration for me.


What field are you in (broadly)? Arts/Humanities students will probably give different answers to Sci/Engineering etc

Avatar for sarah_lou

It would be in Human Geography so humanities/social science.


My university had an 'official' amount of hours you were supposed to be on campus but to be honest I didn't really pay attention to them. We didn't have our own office - rather something called a research 'space' which I found too loud and to distracting to be of any real use. I spent most of my working time either at home or at the library or the public record office. My supervisor had no problem with this at all. In my experience if you make no fuss and do all training/paperwork that is asked of you on time there is no reason for the research office to look into your attendance nor contact you about it. Like I have said this is my experience. I know of another student who complained about her supervisor and was met with questions about her lack of hours on campus.


Firstly, I should point out that I am in the sciences, so some of this may be slightly different in the humanities, but I'll try to give general advice!!
I found that, to start with, it was important for me to be on campus as much as I could, if not every day then at least twice a week or so. This was the best way to get to know other students in the department (this will become more important as time goes on, as you will probably need their help/advice/support at some point!), and it was also important to build up a relationship with my supervisors. This is particularly important if you are doing your PhD in a new uni or different department to where you were previously; if you already know your supervisors you might not need to spend as much time with them.
Also, at the beginning there are lots of admin type things to be doing, and it really helps to make yourself known to the admin staff (again, this WILL be useful later on, believe me!) and it is much easier to get these things sorted face to face. You may also be required to have very frequent meeting with your supervisors (I think I was required to have a monthly meeting with them for the first six months, and after each meeting we had to fill in a form, signed by me and my supervisors, and hand this in to the department).
However, as time goes on, and your supervisor learns to trust you, I don't see any reason why you can;t spend more time at home/in the library/wherever suits you best. My project was almost completely computer-based, so I could have done it all from home if I'd wanted to. I did make the effort to attend department meetings, talks by other students etc from time to time, just to make sure they didn't forget who I was! I maintained regular email contact with my supervisors, and made sure we physically met up once every few months or so.
This wouldn't work for everybody, but I enjoyed having the freedom to get on with things by myself, and by keeping in contact with my sups they knew my progress and trusted that I wasn't just sitting at home doing nothing. Like you, I lived about 45 mins from the uni, and it was a total pain commuting in regularly. I think it depends on the supervisors, but if they see you are proactive then in theory they should agree, after perhaps the first 6 months or so, to allow you to spend more and more time out of the department.


I am doing a Humanities PhD.

7% of my time is spent at home, reading and writing. The other 20% is spent conducting research in archives, mostly in London, while the remaining 10% is spent at university. Since I've started teaching this term, I'm now at Uni once a week (long day - first lecture at 9am, last one at 5pm).

It takes me 2 hours to get to the university, and 1.30hrs to London, so this is the main reason I spend most of my time at home doing my work.

This allows me to have a very accommodating and flexible work/life balance, which means that, if necessary, I don't have to do any PhD related work if I wake up one morning and can't be bothered / rather spend time with my wife / have a non-academic activity planned. However it also allows me to maximise my working opportunities. For instance if I'm working on something special, or have a deadline, etc, I can work from 7am right through to 9pm.

PhDs really are what we make of them. Many of my friends/colleagues prefer to be 'on campus', even if they don't need to be. But then many of them live by the University or still embrace the student lifestyle which compels them to be part of the 'scene', so to speak.

I however have a mortgage, a wife, and a baby on the way, so the format of my work-day is obviously geared more towards my home life.

So to give you an idea, my general week right now is: Teaching all day monday, working at home tues & wed, visit to the archives thurs, and working from home friday, and also at least half a day at the weekend. On average, my PhD work consists of about 30 - 35 hours, teaching about 10 hours, and research about 10 hours. So a respectable work week, if I do say so myself!

Avatar for sarah_lou

Thanks for your replies everyone, it has really helped me to imagine what life might be like as a PhD student. Interesting to hear about your work/life balance HaloChanter. I am soon to be married myself and it won't be long until we might want to try and start a family, and given that I would be at least 31 by the time I finish my PhD I'll need to have a think about these choices!


Hi sarah_lou

I'm been treating mine as a full tine job as best as I can. I'm in science/engineering, and I've come back into academia from industry, so I'm still in the mind-set of that I guess. I've only had positive feedback so far (hopefully it'll continue!), and I think it helps that I'm a mature student (or at least that's what I've been told).

Anyway, all I would say is people eventually fall into a swing of what works for you. Everybody is different!


It's really difficult to say. I also have husband, kids, mortgage etc and commute into uni so I have to be flexible. I have been spending about 2/3 days at uni a week involved with reading groups, research outreach etc. I'm half way through year 2 and just finishing data collection. I want to cut my time at uni right down for data analysis now and 3rd year write up because I work best alone uninterrupted. Knowing your learning and working style helps. I'm a binge worker. I'll do nothing for days then I can type up 10k worth of reflective notes in 4 hours - no break, lunch toilet - straight through typed. Not the Pomodoro style I know but that's how I work best. Sometimes it worries me that I feel like I'm not doing enough but I'm on track and possible even a little ahead.