A typical PhD student schedule [Free template download]

A PhD student’s schedule is very different to anything that people have experienced in undergraduate or masters level education. Depending on the country that you are doing your PhD in, you may have classes alongside your dedicated research time. It is likely that you will work many hours more than a typical full-time job and may have some other administrative or teaching duties alongside your research.

A typical PhD student schedule involves turning up to the Department between 8 AM and 9 PM, and performing research activities during the day such as reading, writing, analyzing and reporting on literature and experiments.

The schedule of a PhD student also changes depending on the culture in your research group. Some supervisors require PhD students to turn up 6 to 7 days a week and spend up to 12 hours a day doing research. In my experience, this is very rare but a horror story that often gets passed around.

Most PhD supervisors are much more moderate when it comes to the commitments of their students and this article will cover the typical PhD student schedule and what you can expect if you enter a PhD.

A typical PhD daily schedule

A typical PhD student’s daily schedule will vary depending on the subject area, supervisor, and stage of your PhD. However, there are some things that are done consistently throughout the process of a PhD.

Here is a typical daily schedule of a PhD student.

TimeTypical activities
8 AM – 9 AMTurn up to the Department/school/office/University
9 AM – 10 AMCheck emails, plan the day, have a supervisor meeting
11 AM – 1 PMPerform research activities (reading literature, writing reports, analysing data, performing experiments) or attend postgraduate classes
1 PM – 2 PMLunch
2 PM – 4 PMPerform research activities (reading literature, writing reports, analysing data, performing experiments) or attend postgraduate classes
4 PM – 5 PMrespond to emails, perform admin tasks, write up activities for the next day.
5 PM – 6 PMLeave the office

The above timetable can also include:

  • teaching activities
  • group meetings
  • departmental meetings
  • other administrative tasks
  • training, and much more

There are so many facets to a PhD students daily schedule that it changes almost every day depending on the demands of the research and the supervisor.

Here are some of the activities that a typical PhD student schedule contains. I have also looked at some of the specifics of different subject fields.

Common PhD student activities

A PhD is a training ground for academia.

Throughout a PhD, you will learn to perform the tasks of an academic such as reading literature, writing reports, analysing data, reporting and communicating your results, and presenting or attending different scientific talks and presentations.

PhD student daily schedule

Reading

Reading is the cornerstone of a PhD.

Learning to find the appropriate literature for your research and coming up with a method for reading, taking notes, and synthesising conclusions will be what sets out the top 10% of PhD students from the rest.

Many PhD students forget to set aside enough time for reading and it can severely impact their progress.

Reading wasn’t my favourite part of doing a PhD and I probably ignored it more than I should have. Nonetheless, ensuring you read regularly in and around your subject area will keep you up-to-date with the latest advancements in your field.

Supervisor meetings

Meeting regularly with your supervisor will keep your PhD on track.

Open communication between a PhD supervisor and the student ensures timely completion and help when things aren’t going so well.

My favourite frequency for supervisor meetings was fortnightly.

Every two weeks means I had enough time to plan, execute, and analyse data based on our previous meeting.

During supervisor meetings, you should share everything that has happened since the previous meeting. Importantly, you should share what has gone right, and wrong, and where you are going next. Head into supervisor meetings with solutions to problems and be sure to take criticism with an open mind.

Depending on your research area it may be more appropriate to meet up with your supervisor weekly to report your progress.

Writing

Writing during a PhD is often left until the last year but it is important to write regularly throughout your PhD.

Regular writing (even if it is just methods) will help you when you come to write your thesis or peer-reviewed paper.

During a PhD there are often different writing milestones that you need to achieve including:

  • literature reviews
  • conference abstracts
  • technical reports for collaborators
  • progress reports for grant funders
  • peer review paper writing
  • thesis or dissertation writing

As you can see, there are lots of different times when a PhD student will be set at their desk writing up results for a variety of audiences.

Analysis

Formulating your own ideas and contributing to an academic field means analysing data and literature.

Many hours of PhD student time are dedicated to the analysis of other people’s ideas, data collected in the lab, and stress testing their own hypotheses.

Analysis is another cornerstone of a PhD.

Reporting

Reporting your research findings is incredibly important. Communication is what keeps research rolling.

There are several ways that PhD students have to report their results. They may be reporting to their supervisor, collaborators, others in their field, all the general public.

One thing I loved about my PhD was the ability to communicate my research to a general and broad audience.

Writing reports, producing presentations, and writing performance reports for grant funding bodies are all important parts of a PhD student’s typical schedule.

Group/department meetings

After starting my PhD I was amazed at the amount of group and departmental meetings that I was expected to attend.

They seem to always be scheduled at a really inappropriate time and can cut your working day in half. Nonetheless, they are an important part of the PhD process.

Group meetings are for people in the same research group to share their findings and help each other with their work.

Departmental meetings may have an external presenter (from another university or Department) and so they must be well attended to give the appearance of an active and vibrant research community. You’ll get loads of emails reminding you about a meeting if there is a guest lecturer.

Topic-specific activities

Depending on the topic of your PhD you may have some other regular activities.

Humanities

Humanities students will spend a fair amount of time in the library and reading academic texts. Looking for rare books, papers, and collections in the deepest darkest areas of the library are where you will find many humanity PhD’s.

STEM

Science, technology, engineering and maths PhD students will spend a lot of time performing experiments in a laboratory environment.

They will also help train masters and undergraduate students on particular instruments or techniques and be responsible for Occupational Health & Safety in the labs.

Because of the nature of a stem PhD, a science, technology, engineering or maths PhD student will spend many hours alone working in the depths of a university lab.

Social Sciences

Social sciences are likely to be conducting research using surveys or interviews and handling large amounts of data.

Making sure that they have ethical approval for their research can take a bit of time too.

Collecting enough data through questionnaires and surveys is always an issue for social science PhD students so they will be out collecting data as often as possible. They may have research assistants and undergraduates that can help them with their work.

Number of hours that PhD students work

There is no one answer to the number of hours that PhD students work. The number of hours is determined by the culture of the lab and the stage of the PhD.

On average a PhD student will work 40 – 60 hours per week.

Most will try to keep a regular 9 – 5 schedule whilst others will work when they are at their most productive. I know of one PhD student who would come into the lab at 5 PM and stay until one or two in the morning.

The great thing about doing a PhD is that you quite often get to choose your schedule. You may want to work early in the morning or late at night depending on when you feel most awake.

Also, you get to choose where you perform your PhD studies, as long as you do not need to be in a lab or present in the department.

What does a great PhD schedule look like?

A PhD student’s schedule can easily become unproductive if they go with the flow.

I believe that a strong daily schedule and commitment to at least two hours of focused work every single day will lead you to a much more rewarding and efficient.

I released a YouTube video that talks about the components of a failproof PhD daily schedule and you can watch it here:

I also include links to my daily schedule template that you can also get for free by clicking the image below:

PhD student daily planner
The perfect daily PhD student schedule

 

Wrapping up

This article has been through everything you need to know about the typical PhD student schedule and how many hours you are expected to be in your office or department.

Having a frank conversation with your PhD supervisor will allow you to understand their expectations of their PhD students. It varies wildly from supervisor to supervisor – so it’s very good to be on the same page as soon as you start.

Remember to download my free daily schedule template to boost your productivity!