How Many Hours, or How Few?

Because timing is everything, someone raised this issue over on the How To Survive Your PhD edX course, and I figured, since I answered it there, I’d answer it here.

I’ve encountered more than a few PhD students from various universities/departments who are given guidelines when they first start. Things like: ‘you should be working 15 hours a week’ (part-time), or ‘this is a full-time job, and the hours should be as such’.

The thing is, a PhD is not a job. Yes, you might be one of those lucky ones that gets paid for it (plenty of us actually pay to do a PhD, rather than get paid for one), but that does not mean that it’s the 9-5 job your parents had. This is academia. In a nutshell, that means there are no set working hours. If it takes you 56 hours a week to do the work you need to do that week then…you have a 56 hours working week. If it only takes you 20 hours to do it, fantastic.

So when your university department tells you how many hours a week they expect you to work on your PhD, treat it as a guideline, rather than a rule. Everyone works differently. In undergrad, I had friends who researched and wrote their papers over the course of one day (the day before it was due) and still got an A. I usually spent about two weeks writing my papers. That does not mean my paper was better than theirs, because I had spent more time on it. Writing, like most creative pursuits, really has nothing to do with time.

[Though practice does make perfect, if you are struggling to develop the writing technique.]

I found that, some weeks, I worked barely 10 hours on my PhD. Sometimes it was because I had work outside my thesis. Other times it was because there was a conference. Sometimes I had duties in my department or on campus that took several days. These things happen. I spent most of my PhD stressed and feeling guilty for not doing 40+ hours of work on it a week. Which is ridiculous, of course, but guilt doesn’t really care about what’s reasonable. It took me until into my 3rd year before I stopped worrying about it, and that was simply because sanity took over. What was the point of lying awake at night feeling bad about the fact I had only done 3 hours today instead of 7, when I could be getting a good night’s sleep in order to do more hours the next day.

Sanity prevails a lot in year 3. Mostly it’s because you just hit the ‘I don’t care anymore’ wall and the only way over/around/under it is to let go off all those things you did in your first couple of years that were useless. Like feeling guilty and worrying about how many hours you weren’t working.

So, my advice to you, from a completed PhD student who worked several contract jobs, did monthly duties in my department, mentored other students, still travelled and took days off, and wrote a bloody novel while being a PhD student: work however many hours you can OR however many hours you need to to reach your deadline. If that means a 56 hour week, well, get cracking.

If it means 15…then take the rest of the day off and stop worrying about it. You’ll be better for it tomorrow.


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