What PhD students do [real-life case studies and examples]

Pursuing a PhD degree is a challenging experience. For many, it is a continuation of their academic journey that started with an undergraduate degree and continued with a master’s program.

A PhD takes academic study to the next level, demanding a heightened level of knowledge and dedication. It is a lengthy and intense process that requires a significant amount of research, analysis, and writing.

But what exactly do PhD students do? What about if you are about to start a PhD? Is it the same for all PhDs?

Well, the answer to that question varies depending on their field of study, research interests, and the requirements of their specific program.

This article will help you understand exactly what a doctoral PhD student does on a typical day to produce original research and survive.  

What does a PhD student do?

Typically, a PhD students works primarily on a research project in their subject area under the guidance of a faculty member.

In addition to conducting research, PhD research students may also have teaching or working as assistants’ duties such as assisting with lectures or tutorials. 

They may also have the opportunity to deliver their own lectures or tutorials and help undergraduate students in their studies.

In the US some students spend the first three years of their course doing coursework before getting to the main research part.

Here are some of the key tasks a PhD student is likely to do during a typical PhD.

Key Tasks of a PhD StudentDescription
Performing experimentsCollecting data and testing hypotheses in a lab or using computational methods.
Analyzing dataProcessing and interpreting the results of experiments to draw conclusions and determine the next steps.
Writing and presentationsCreating reports, writing the thesis, and preparing presentations to communicate research findings.
Administration and organizationManaging paperwork, ordering reagents, and handling other administrative tasks associated with the research.
Collaborating with lab groupWorking as part of a team and contributing to the overall research goals of the group.
Attending conferencesPresenting research, networking with other scientists, and staying up-to-date on the latest findings in the field.
Teaching (optional)Instructing younger students, improving communication skills, and building confidence through teaching.
Communication and public speakingPresenting research findings to different audiences, including peers, supervisors, and at conferences.
Professional developmentContinuously learning and developing new skills related to the research area, as well as transferable skills such as project management and communication.

PhD students are expected to be highly self-motivated, independent, and disciplined in their work.

They need to be able to manage their time effectively to balance multiple responsibilities, including coursework, research, and teaching or assisting duties.

The overall goal of a PhD student is to make a significant contribution to the field and become an expert in their chosen area of study.

What is the schedule like for many PhD students?

The primary job of a PhD student is to undertake a research project in their field of study under the guidance and supervision of a faculty member.

PhD students work long hours to:

  • gather and analyze data,
  • conduct experiments, and
  • publish papers related to their research.

On top of that, some may work as assistants to professors, assisting with lectures or tutorials, marking papers or exams, and helping guide undergraduates in their respective areas of study.

This very much depends on the field of study, for example here is a case study from a PhD student in cancer research:

Case Study 1

Morning Routine: The researcher’s day starts early at 7:30 am, as they prepare to go to work. They make their lunch and prepare snacks. Their workplace is conveniently located only a 10-minute walk from their home, which saves time and provides an opportunity for some light exercise.

Workday Activities: Upon arrival at the lab, the PhD researcher checks on their cell cultures and makes a to-do list for the day, which includes tasks like checking emails, planning experiments, and attending meetings. They prioritize tasks by importance and try to manage their time efficiently.

Throughout the day, the researcher works on a variety of tasks, such as staining tissues, analyzing data, and monitoring animal models. They also collaborate with colleagues on experiments and take breaks to socialize and enjoy hot chocolate.

Evening Routine: After a busy day at the lab, the researcher wraps up work around 5 pm and heads home. Although they initially planned to go to the gym, they decide to take it easy and rest due to their early start the following day. Instead, they opt for a low-key evening, picking up a vegetarian pizza and enjoying a leisurely stroll around their neighbourhood before turning in for an early night.

Here is another PhD student at MIT in the field of quantum algorithms in MIT:

Case Study 2

His daily routine revolves around research, coursework, and maintaining a balance between work and personal life. This case study provides insights into a typical day in Samuel’s life at MIT.

Morning Routine: Samuel wakes up at 8:00 AM and starts his day with a few push-ups. Before leaving for MIT, Samuel works on his research from home, checks Instagram for messages, and has breakfast.

Commute: Living close to Harvard University, Samuel enjoys a short bike ride along the Charles River to reach MIT. This scenic commute provides him with a taste of the Cambridge experience. During his ride, he passes iconic landmarks, such as the John Harvard statue and Winthrop House.

Arrival at MIT: Upon arrival, Samuel greets his colleagues and discusses their research progress. Occasionally, he faces technical issues with the servers and needs to troubleshoot them in person. After resolving any issues, he runs simulations that typically take a couple of hours to complete.

Coursework: Samuel attends a three-hour course on the design and analysis of quantum algorithms. The class is challenging, and he often collaborates with his peers to better understand the material. They also enjoy a snack break halfway through the class.

Collaboration and Socializing: Throughout the day, Samuel interacts with his fellow researchers and engages in lighthearted conversations. They discuss their hobbies, such as knitting, and share their thoughts on various topics. Samuel’s peers come from diverse backgrounds and contribute to a stimulating environment.

Fitness: After a long day, Samuel heads to the MIT gym for a workout session. Exercise helps him stay fit and provides a break from his academic routine. He often meets up with his gym buddies, and they encourage each other during their workouts.

Evening Routine: Samuel returns home around 11:00 PM, prepares a protein-rich meal, and unwinds after a long day. He is cautious about making noise to not disturb his roommates who are already asleep.

What to expect as a first-year full-time student pursuing a doctorate

As a first-year PhD student, you can expect a challenging yet fulfilling experience.

In the US your first year will involve rigorous coursework, often covering core topics in your field, and it might not be significantly more difficult than your senior year of undergrad.

However, grades become less important compared to your research and dissertation progress.

In addition to coursework, you may have to take comprehensive exams to assess your understanding of the material covered in the first year.

You may be given multiple attempts to pass these exams, and their structure will vary depending on your field and institution.

In other countries such as the UK, AUS and Europe it is unlikely you will have coursework or exams and may get started with the research and dissertation right away.

Also, teaching or research assistantships are common in the first year, providing you with funding and valuable experience

. You may be responsible for leading discussion groups, grading assignments, or conducting quizzes, which can help you develop your communication skills and prepare you for future presentations or dissertation defense.

While you may not begin your dissertation research immediately, it’s essential to start thinking about potential topics and seeking advisers early on.

Establishing relationships with professors, peers, and other research professionals will help you build a supportive community throughout your academic journey.

It’s important to recognize that every PhD program and individual experience will vary, and some students may struggle initially with feelings of inadequacy.

Remember that if you were admitted to a PhD program, you belong there. Be prepared to face challenges, but also be kind to yourself and allow time for growth and learning.

By staying diligent, focused, and well-organized, you can successfully navigate your first year.

Work-Life Balance of a PhD Student – whats its like to be a PhD student

The importance of work-life balance in a PhD cannot be overstated, as it plays a crucial role in maintaining overall well-being and productivity.

Pursuing a PhD can be an intense and demanding experience, often requiring long hours and dedication.

However, striking a balance between work, hobbies, and social life is vital to prevent burnout and ensure a fulfilling academic journey.

PhD students often face varying work hours, with some working 24 to 36 hours per week, while others may clock in 50 to 60 hours or more, depending on the research and deadlines.

It is common for students to work on weekends or evenings, especially when approaching submission dates. Despite the demanding schedule, it is essential to make time for personal interests, sports, and social activities to maintain a healthy state of mind.

Examples of work-life balance in a PhD include allocating specific time for hobbies or sports, ensuring regular social interactions, and taking breaks when needed.

By being intentional about maintaining a balanced lifestyle, students can experience increased productivity, emotional well-being, and a more enjoyable PhD journey.

Wrapping up – what time as a PhD student is really like

Pursuing a PhD is a challenging yet rewarding experience that requires dedication, self-motivation, and discipline.

PhD students engage in research projects under faculty guidance, perform experiments, analyze data, and publish their findings. They may also have teaching or assistant duties, which provide valuable experience and develop their communication skills.

Balancing coursework, research, and teaching responsibilities is crucial for success in a PhD program.

First-year PhD students should expect rigorous coursework, comprehensive exams, and the opportunity to develop relationships with professors and peers.

Work-life balance is vital for maintaining overall well-being and productivity throughout the PhD journey.

By allocating time for hobbies, sports, and social activities, students can prevent burnout and ensure a fulfilling academic experience.

Each PhD program and individual experience will vary, but by staying diligent, focused, and well-organized, students can successfully navigate the challenges and make significant contributions to their chosen field of study.

The Author

Dr Andrew Stapleton has a Masters and PhD in Chemistry from the UK and Australia. He has many years of research experience and has worked as a Postdoctoral Fellow and Associate at a number of Universities. Although having secured funding for his own research, he left academia to help others with his YouTube channel all about the inner workings of academia and how to make it work for you.