PhD student office [Everything you need to know]

Throughout my 15 years in academia, I have seen several PhD student office configurations. There have been dedicated PhD rooms, private shared offices, and full open-plan offices to accommodate PhD students. Typically, the PhD students are located near their primary supervisor and head of the research group. However, this is not always the case.

A PhD student of this is typically a shared office space or open plan office that contains anywhere between two and 20 PhD students. PhD students do not get a private office and their typical office hours vary dramatically depending on the culture of the research group.

This article will go through everything you need to know about a typical PhD student office and the typical experiences of PhD students in a university and research setting.

Do PhD students get an office?

When you first get admitted to a PhD program you will likely be assigned a desk in a shared office space. Along with this desk you will also receive a laptop or desktop, and whatever other items you need to conduct your research.

For example, in the science space you are likely to receive all of your personal protective equipment (lab coat, safety glasses, et cetera).

PhD students often share an office space with other PhD students and, commonly have dedicated spaces for them to perform their written work in quiet.

PhD student offices

Shared office

The most common configuration of PhD student offices is where PhD students share a small office space with up to 5 other students.

Ultimately, it depends on how big the office space is and how many desks they can fit into the room comfortably.

For older buildings, this is the most common way of housing PhD students.

The office space is often located near the main office of the primary research group leader so that they can have quick access to their researchers and it also helps improve incidental interactions between supervisor and student.

Open plan office

In newer buildings, architects have been pushing the idea of open-plan offices.

Pretty much every PhD student and researcher that I have known that worked in an open-plan office hate the design.

Open-plan offices are noisy, impersonal, and full of distractions.

Despite these setbacks, open-plan offices are becoming as popular as ever with new building builds and upgrades.

Interestingly, I noticed that while the researchers (Masters students, PhD students, postdocs) had to work in the open plan area, the academics all had their own private offices (with lockable doors) around the perimeter of the open plan area. Clearly, they understand the benefit of having a private space to perform their work but it has not yet filtered down to their subordinates.

I hope we will less and fewer open plan offices for PhD students and researchers. They are not conducive to deep work and optimal concentration.

Dedicated spaces

Universities often also have postgraduate study areas in libraries and other parts of the department.

I wrote all of my Masters thesis and my PhD thesis in the postgraduate areas of the University I was studying in.

I found them a welcome change to my PhD office.

Having a dedicated space means that I was able to train my mind into working deeper and longer by changing my environment. I found the best places to work in the University postgraduate areas and would sit for hours writing my theses and dissertations.

I highly recommend that you explore the different areas available to you as a postgraduate student and find an area that allows you to work at your best.

Even though my PhD office was adequate for writing – the dedicated postgraduate space was even better.

Hot desk

Some PhD students work across multiple departments or institutions. In this instance PhD student offices often include hot desks that can be shared by the graduate researchers.

Hot desks can also be used by visiting researchers and scholars at an institution.

Hot desks include an empty desk, power points, office chairs and little more. It is a place for you to set up quickly and get to work. Sometimes the hot desks also include a monitor and other peripherals such as a keyboard and a mouse.

Hot desks are perfect for those who need space across multiple areas of the University.

Typical desks in a PhD students office

Do PhD students get a private office?

It is very rare that a PhD student gets a private office. It is more likely that they will reside in a shared office space or in an open-plan office.

In my experience, the people who get a private office include:

  • senior postdocs
  • lecturers/professors
  • University admin staff
  • senior research assistants

Everyone else is placed in a communal working area.

Do you need to be in your office to do your PhD?

How much time someone spends in their PhD office varies depending on their research field and the department in which they are performing their research.

In general, it is expected that a PhD student attends their office in person for departmental meetings, group meetings, supervisor meetings, presentations, and other important administrative tasks.

If your PhD research requires you to attend your university in person, it is likely that you will be expected to maintain “normal working hours” at a minimum. That is between 9 AM to 5 PM.

In reality, the hours that a PhD student will be in the office are much longer.

Some of my friends who were pursuing mathematical, physics, and applied physics PhDs were able to do the majority of their research via distance. One of my friends who did a medical physics PhD did all of his research at home.

He only went into the office for meetings.

In consultation with him, I found that this was a recipe for isolation and loneliness.

Therefore, I would encourage PhD students to attend their office as often as possible. Interacting with your fellow PhD students and academics is a large part of a successful and fulfilling PhD.

So, no you do not need to be in your office to do a PhD but it certainly enriches the experience.

Typical PhD office hours

Typical PhD office hours vary wildly from field to field.

I would say that the majority of PhD students are expected to be in the lab five days a week from 9 AM until 5 PM at an absolute minimum.

However, there are supervisors that require PhD students to be in the lab 12 hours a day and up to 6 days a week. One supervisor in my department required students to be in the lab on Saturdays and would schedule group meetings on Saturday mornings to ensure that everyone was in the office on the weekend.

The culture of the group and the expectations of your supervisor will dictate how long you need to be present. In worst-case scenarios supervisors can be very demanding of your time.

10 PhD student office essentials

Maintaining a fantastic PhD student office means making the office comfortable and productive for work.

Throughout my 15 years in academia, I have seen a wide variety of different PhD student offices. Some are adorned with many plants and wallcoverings of mementos picked up during a PhD. Others are very minimalist and sparsely populated with only the essential research items.

Here are all of the PhD student office essentials and some things that take a standard office from good to great.

LaptopPlantsComfortable sofaNotebookDesk lamp
Multiple screensOffice chairCoffee machineWaterproof pensCoffee machine

1. Laptop

Having a reliable laptop that can handle the tests that you need to do is essential.

For most PhD students having a laptop that can handle word processing is all they need. For others, it is important that they buy a laptop that is strong enough to run the computational processes that will keep that PhD moving forward quickly.

When I was doing my Master’s thesis I was running very simple theoretical chemistry calculations on my entry-level laptop. It took a few hours but the results were kicked out overnight.

Ensure that your laptop is future proof for the next three years and that you buy a laptop is a little bit more powerful than you need – I’ve found that I always want that extra bit of power regardless of the amount I think I’m going to need.

2. Multiple (screens)

Once you go to 2 or more monitors or screens you’ll never go back.

Consider looking for an extra monitor for your desk so that you can handle multiple applications and windows open at once.

For example, I have code/documents open on one screen whilst having web browsers open on the other. Pressing the Windows key and an arrow will move a window to half of the screen – a fantastic quick trick for making the most of your monitors.

3. Chair

You will be set down for many hours during your PhD studies.

It is important that your chair is comfortable and support you in all the right areas. Your university will have an ergonomic assessment tool available for you to use to make sure that your chair is the right one for you.

Consider purchasing your own chair if the one supplied by the University are not able to provide you with a comfortable work environment.

In my experience, there are plenty of chairs floating around the department for you to take your pick of your favourite.

4. Notebook

A notebook will be invaluable throughout your PhD, and it should be carried with you everywhere you go.

One lecturer that I worked under always carried a small notebook in his pocket. Whenever you have an idea, question, brain wave – write it down in this notebook. Do not use your brain to store information – it needs to be kept free of information to be as creative as possible.

Make sure that you lock up your PhD notebook in a safe place at night. I have heard of some horrible stories of sabotage and stealing of ideas.

5. Waterproof pens

Ensure that you have some waterproof pens.

Desks are full of liquids such as coffee and water that can easily destroy and wash away ink upon spillage.

Therefore, it is important that your ink and ideas are kept safe from any little water accidents.

6. Plants

Plants are a fantastic thing to have in your PhD student office.

Having plants in the office help increase concentration levels and improves the perceived air quality of your space – as demonstrated by a 2014 study in Australia, the UK, and the Netherlands.

Some of the nicest PhD offices that I have ever seen had a good number of indoor plants.

Get a plant that is interesting to you and is robust enough to survive the indoor environment in which it will live.

7. Desk lamp

Having a good amount of light on whatever you are reading will help reduce your eyestrain and keep you focused.

Unless you have a massive window nearby, I would recommend purchasing a dimmable desk lamp so that you can be in control of the amount of light that your desk gets.

With a solar simulator bulb it can help with seasonal affective disorder and help brighten up the dingiest and darkest of PhD cubicles.

8. Headphones

A good set of headphones will help keep you focused.

I like to have a pair of active noise cancellation headphones to cut down the chatter and other distracting aspects of working in a shared office space for an open plan office.

I like to listen to white noise while I am working because it helps take away the annoying background noise even better than music, in my opinion.

9. Mini lounge, couch or armchairs

If your office allows, it is always fantastic to have an area to relax.

Consider purchasing a small couch, comfy armchairs, or a mini lounge for sitting back with a paper or two. I find that having a little place to sit that isn’t a formal and upright office desk can help improve my concentration and get me away from the distractions of my computer screen.

I love looking for bargains on secondhand marketplaces – you may be defined the perfect mini lounge for your office!

A sneaky pillow for a great nap is also a great addition.

10. Coffeemaker

Lastly, you can consider purchasing a coffeemaker for your PhD student office.

Academic departments quite often have a tearoom but, in my experience, the coffee quality has always been relatively poor.

Having your own favourite coffee available at all times will help you get over that afternoon lull that kicks in on Wednesday and Friday afternoons in particular.

PhD student office in Universities

University sometimes have a dedicated PhD student office in which they provide support, offer training, mediation for issues and also perform research on PhD students.

Check to see if your university has a PhD student office or a research office. They can be a fantastic resource for you especially in the early days of your PhD.

Provide support

A graduate or research office often provide support to PhD students when they are struggling. The PhD student office can provide you with tailored advice for whatever issues you face during your PhD.

They often have resources that can help you and will also speak to the right people on your behalf at the University should they need to.

Offer training

I’ve delivered a number of workshops for the research office at Flinders University. I have been approached by their research office to deliver workshops on communicating PhD research.

Keep in contact with the research office will provide you with the opportunity to undergo different workshops and training that isn’t officially offered by the University.

Mediation

If you have issues throughout your PhD, particularly with your research supervisors, the PhD student office may be able to help you mediate that relationship.

It can be very hard to speak openly with your PhD supervisor and having someone in your corner will help you feel more empowered and able to say what you need to say.

Do research on PhD students

Lastly, the PhD student office also does research on PhD students.

By understanding the experience of PhD students in their university they are able to change the course and offer recommendations to different departments to make it a better experience for graduates.

It’s a great way to have your say about your experience at your university.

Wrapping up

This article has been through everything you need to know about PhD student offices and office times.

A PhD student office is where you will spend a lot of your time and you must try your best to make it comfortable by ensuring you have all of the essentials.

PhD students do not often get a dedicated student office and will often have a shared office with multiple other PhD students or share a large open-plan office in more modern buildings.

Check out other areas of your university where you can do focused work such as the library and other graduate student study areas. It is where I got the majority of my PhD thesis written and I loved having the ability to go to an area dedicated to PhD graduate students.