Angus Ferraro

A tiny soapbox for a climate researcher.

Work-life balance of a PhD student: an experiment

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EDIT: Results here.

I have been meaning to write a post about work-life balance since I started this blog. I hear many PhD students say they feel stressed because they can’t switch off. They are constantly ‘working’, because they are not contracted to work a certain number of hours like proper members of staff. This constant worrying about work is unlikely to make you more productive. The solution is to realise that you have done enough work.

Alternatively, you could cultivate such warmth towards your work that it no longer stresses you. I enjoy my work so much that even when I work late into the evening I don’t tend to feel stressed. Tired, yes. Frustrated, of course, because its usually a troublesome piece of computer code that’s keeping me there. But I try to divorce that temporary frustration from my contentment that I have a life in which I get paid to learn. Could anything be better?

It is very hard to constantly have warm feelings towards your PhD project. Sometimes you will hate it. You will feel like you are not progressing and that you never will. This is normal, and this is why PhDs take years to complete. I think it’s valuable training to learn to deal with that frustration, to notice it, but to let it pass you by. Sometimes, when you are feeling fed up with it all, it’s best to stop. Continuing in this frame of mind will only accomplish two things: you will make little progress because of your stress and frustration, or you will produce sub-standard work because you are tired and just want to get it done. Best to take a break. Sometimes you can come back to it that day. Sometimes you’ll need to sleep on it.

It’s OK to stop. You have time.

It’s all very well saying that there’s plenty of time, but as a scientist I thought I should find out how much time. How many hours does a successful PhD student put in and what do they do during those hours?

I thought I would do a little experiment on myself. I am, perhaps hubristically, defining myself as a ‘successful PhD student’. I don’t mean that I’m outstanding. I just mean that my project is going OK and I plan to submit within three and a half years and I anticipate being able to call myself ‘Doctor’ not too long after that. I am going to record the number of hours per day that I spend at work and what I do during those hours.

I am recording time in half-hour chunks, which I think is a reasonable time resolution. I decided one-hour chunks were too limiting, because quite often I change what I am doing during the course of an hour. Plus, my procrastination rarely eats up a whole hour, but it does quite regularly devour 30 minutes at once. After a couple of days trialling, I have settled on a number of ‘activity tags’ to define what I am doing. They are:

  • understanding – active research, including reading, to find out specific things
  • reading – reading papers and other articles without a clearly-defined purpose
  • writing – thesis or other smaller piece of writing; blog posts; note-making
  • coding – making plots or setting up models
  • meeting – formal supervisor meetings, generally chatting to other scientists about work, going to seminars
  • nowork – procrastination, or taking a break

The data will go into a spreadsheet which tots up the number of hours I’m spending on different things. As you can see the timeline only goes to 7pm. I never work later than that. I plan to record my activities for the whole of January, which should be a long enough period to capture some interesting features (including transition from holiday to work period to undergraduate term-time). The results should be out in February.


Author: Angus Ferraro

Trainee secondary physics teacher and former climate research scientist.

One thought on “Work-life balance of a PhD student: an experiment

  1. Pingback: The working day of a PhD student | Angus Ferraro

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