If you are thinking about starting a PhD, you may be wondering what a PhD student does all day. This isn’t really a career move that many people talk about. Most people when they finish undergraduate move on to a career in their field and many programs at colleges and universities are geared towards preparing students for that life step. Often grad school is talked about in an “abstract” way and students are given the sense that they are more or less continuing on as a student and guided through the process by the university. This is partially true for a Masters degree, but far less true for a PhD. PhD programs, as has been discussed elsewhere in this blog, are much more free form after the coursework and comps phase and the direction depends greatly on the scope and direction of your research project. This means the daily routine of a PhD student can vary widely depending on their project and also on what stage they are in during their PhD. Do you want to take a quiz to find out if a PhD is for you? (It was crowd-sourced from our community of PhDs.
This post is going to explore the more or less typical daily (or recurring) activities in the life of PhD students in the beginning of the PhD post comps and in the later stages of a PhD edging towards thesis submission. There is no set daily routine for most PhD students and their days often vary, but their days usually focus around the same set of activities. The daily routine of a PhD student changes over the course of their PhD, as the demands and expectations change. Daily routines are also different depending on if a PhD student is full or part time. The daily life discussed here is more applicable to a full time PhD student. The topics and activities discussed below may not occur everyday, but they are the typical activities of PhD students. To understand the daily life of a PhD it is best to view it as almost an apprenticeship in academia. Much of the daily work and expectations of a PhD student is similar to those of a professor, but often on a smaller scale.
Professors generally split their time between research (40%-100%), teaching (20%-80%), and administrative duties (20%-80%). PhD students do the same only with a different split, much more of their time is allocated to research, but they often have teaching and administrative duties as well. The focus of their daily routine can also change depending on the needs of the given day and program. For example, PhD students will spend more time on teaching related tasks, if they are a Teaching Assistant, during midterms and finals, but in the summer, they may spend most of their time on research.
Are you a current PhD student, professor, or knowledgeable potential PhD student? We can really use your help! Can you add your institution to this crowd-sourced PhD Program index? It will greatly help future PhD students.
Full-disclosure: This post was written by an anonymous PhD student so they can speak freely, but based on this video:
Beginning Stages of a PhD Post Comps
So, you passed your coursework and comps with flying colors, and you are ready to finally dig into your project. On a typical day getting into this project is now your focus, so what does that entail?
If you want to learn more about comprehensive exams, here is a good video:
Reading – So Much Reading
It is important to understand the current state of your field before getting heavily into your own research. Your overall goal as a PhD student is to make a unique contribution to your field through your research. In order to do that you need to know where everything stands in your field. The typical early stage PhD student spends a lot of time reading academic articles and books. They are synthesizing the current state of their field and determining what the gaps are and how their own research can fill them. During the early days of my PhD, I spent entire days reading, highlighting, and taking notes in order to gain a full picture of the current research field. Much of my first year post comps was allocated to making sure I was up on all the latest research and not duplicating anyone else’s project.
Also, you might find this blog post on how PhD students are evaluated very useful.
The typical early stage PhD spends time collecting data. Depending on the field your data collection can vary widely. Data collection might mean conducting interviews, experimenting in a lab, mining large open source datasets, or digging into an archive for documents. Whatever your data is, this is the time it is usually collected, and you start examining it for preliminary results, patterns, unexpected outcomes, etc. Data makes up the base of your project whatever it is, so the early stages is when data is collected and organized.
During the early stages of a PhD writing takes a back seat to reading and data collection. It is still an important component of a PhD’s day, and it is useful to develop regular writing habits early, but more of the day will be dedicated to other activities. Writing at this stage in the PhD usually consists of very focused assignments, plans, and synthesizing your reading and research. For instance my first piece of written work after comps was a formal project proposal in which I stated my preliminary thesis, wrote a historiography of my proposed subject, displayed some of the gaps in the current research my project could fill, and of course an extensive bibliography of works I would utilize in my coming research. Other types of writing in this stage are research plans, formulating hypothesis, literature reviews, and the occasional conference paper. At this stage writing is more about focusing your reading and setting the direction of your research rather than producing “write-ups” with your findings. At this stage, you will really need some feedback on your writing (this is when a community-based writing software like R3ciprocity comes in handy).
Teaching Assistant or Research Assistant Duties
Many PhD students take on Teaching Assistantships (TA) or Research Assistantships (RA) at their universities. TAs assist a professor at their university teaching a specific course. They may guest lecture occasionally, but they often do not teach the classes themselves. TA duties can include facilitating student seminars, guest lecturing, holding office hours to help students with the class, and grading exams and essays. Grading is usually the main duty of a TA so PhD students with TA duties will find themselves busiest with these tasks around midterms and finals.
RAs assist a professor with their often already established and ongoing research project. RA duties are directed by the professor for whom you are working and can include helping with many stages of the research project such as collecting data, transcribing information, and proofreading written works. RAships can vary in length and intensity depending on the needs of the professor and the project.
Here is some more detailed information about RAs in this video:
University Service or University Involvement
University Service is often a requirement for professors, but more of an option for PhD students. However, many PhD students choose to get involved in the university in some way as the university is their workplace and their community. There are a variety of ways that PhD students can get involved at their university such as becoming a board member of their graduate student association or participating in peer help groups on campus. PhD students often either volunteer or are nominated by their department to represent graduate students and their needs to larger department or university committees. For example, I was briefly the graduate student representative at department meetings. I was responsible for bringing the concerns or issues of graduate students to the department. University Service for PhD students is often geared towards advocating for the needs of graduate students and providing a sense of community for them at the university. This is again not a mandatory requirement, but if you are interested in a career in academia it is a good idea to become acquainted with the needs of University Service.
Many PhDs also attend special events periodically such as on campus speakers series. These types of events are sometimes required by universities or departments. Other special events include conferences and workshops. At this early stage PhD students may have something to present at conferences, but there are also a variety of conferences that PhD attend for networking reasons. Most fields have large yearly international conferences and early stage PhD students will sometimes attend those to get a sense of the field, the quality of research, and to network with others. There are also many skill building workshops that PhDs can attend both at conferences and independently as their own events. For example, there are several skill building workshops in the field of Digital Humanities every summer that PhDs can often get scholarships to attend and learn new skills such as programming or digital story telling. These types of events enhance a PhD student’s skill set and allow them to further their research.
Later Stage PhD ( Doctorate Candidates )
At some point during the PhD, the balance shifts from learning and synthesis to writing and creating your own research. You become the captain of your ship. When this happens the typical daily routine of a PhD student also shifts and the priorities and the demands on their time change.
Writing is probably one of the biggest changes from early to late stage PhD. Now you have read enough and gathered all your data and have started to write your dissertation. Writing is now a much bigger chunk of your day and depending on the nearness of your deadline, it could be your whole day. When writing your dissertation your writing objectives shift. You are no longer concerned with synthesizing information that has come before you, but rather you are now focused on analysis and articulating the results of your own research (with reference to other research still of course). Much of your time is centered on producing your research to disseminate to your field. This also means that in addition to writing your dissertation, you may also be writing articles and conferences papers to share your brilliant ideas and original research. You might like this blog post about how to prevent depression when writing your dissertation – it provides great details into the writing process.
I did a poll on the R3ciprocity YouTube community in August, 2021 on how much time researchers spend writing N=109). I was not surprised with these results. The modal time spent writing was 3-4 hours a day.
Despite the shift to much more writing focused than reading focused days, there is still always some reading to do. New research comes out all the time, and it is best to stay on top of that to keep your own research competitive. Furthermore, your dissertation may take a turn you did not originally expect and so you need to read up on a topic in order to understand your results. For instance, my own research on late medieval Europe took a turn and I had to spend a few days reading up on what constituted treason in late medieval Europe in order to understand the ramifications of a political murder. So, there is always going to be reading to do, but this will become a much smaller part of your everyday.
Later in the PhD process, data collection also becomes a much smaller portion of your time. Most of the heavy data collection is done in the early stages and while you will often revisit your data, likely large collections of it are not going to be repeated at this stage. However, you may have to collect some smaller sets of data, particularly again if your research has taken an unexpected turn. For instance, I had to revisit the archives to find a separate set of historical documents when my research took an unexpected turn. Unexpected turns happen in research projects so if you are in the late stages of your PhD and something does come up that you need to gather a little bit of data on that is not unusual.
I did a poll on the R3ciprocity YouTube community in August, 2021 on how much time researchers spend analyzing data. Here are the results:
Many PhD students continue to have TA and RA duties throughout their PhDs. However, later stage PhD students sometimes also take on Adjunct Professor roles at their own or nearby universities. This means they will teach a class or two by themselves. They will do everything that needs to be done for that class from syllabus preparation to lecture writing to marking the assignments. This additional responsibility can prove challenging because teaching takes up a lot of time particularly when teaching a class you have not taught before. Designing and implementing a class is a lot of work and it continues to be a lot of work as the semester progresses. I have had particularly difficult lectures take all day to write. A lot of PhD students underestimate how much time preparing and teaching a class takes since their TA duties did not consume a huge amount of time. If you go the adjunct route be prepared for it to put a huge time demand on your day.
The R3ciprocity Project started out as a side-project, where David Maslach created an App to help others get feedback on their work (r3ciprocity.com – it is seriously inexpensive and easy to use. You have to try it!), but it is beginning to grow into a real movement. Check out the YouTube channel, or some of these posts if you want to understand more:
In addition to University Service, some PhD students in their later stage also begin to take on what is known as Professional Service. Like University Service, Professional Service is an activity that in some way serves the greater academic community, usually in some way related to your field. This again can be a variety of things. For instance, many PhD students become involved in their professional organizations as graduate representatives. PhD students also can become involved in the editorial committees of academic journals. They may serve on committees for the advancement of their field or organize conferences. Again, like University Service, these positions are often not huge parts of their everyday routine, but they are again some of the expectations they must meet.
In the later stages of a PhD, it is more common for PhD students to present at conferences. They now have results and a thesis to advance so they apply to and present to their wider community at conferences. Conferences are also great places to stay up on current research and to network. PhD students may also find themselves presenting their research at their university showcases or in public lectures. Late stage PhD students still attend public lectures and workshops, but the emphasis begins to shift to presenting their own research instead of listening to someone else’s research.
These are the activities that make up the typical day of your average PhD student. The responsibilities do ebb and flow with the needs of the day. If you decide to start a PhD be prepared to spend a lot of time reading, writing, thinking, and working with your larger university community. You will need to get good at time management and scheduling in order to get it all done, but it is possible and a very rewarding experience.
This is all part of the r3ciprocity project, where the goal is simple: We are real people helping other people in academia. Academia is hard. We need to share our stories. Be real. Be nice. Help others. Science benefits.
The r3ciprocity project started out as a side-project, where David Maslach created an App to help others get feedback on their work, but it is beginning to grow into a real movement. Check out the YouTube Channel, or some of these posts if you want to understand more: