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Managing Time in a PhD

One thing that is often heralded as the biggest benefits of a PhD is its flexibility. There are no real set working hours. This can be most easily exemplified by the fact that my own family came over for a week to see me for my graduation. In that week I have spent most of my time with them, and have hardly done any work. I did not need to let anyone know I had no time for work. I just did not think of, or did any work towards my own research for that week. Fancy that in a regular job?!

Yes, when it comes to a PhD, there is no real boss to justify yourself to. If you do not want to work 40 hours a week, you do not have to. If you prefer to have the Wednesday and the Saturday off rather than a regular weekend, that is fine too. If you do not want to work one day, or one week, you do not have to.

But unsurprisingly so, this can backfire. Due to a lack of structure, what you need the most in a PhD is good time management. Because otherwise the flexibility that seemed so great once, is the most suffocating thing of all.

Meeting Deadlines

An important part of managing time in your PhD is meeting your deadlines. As long as you tend to meet these, it all seems to work well enough. Now within a PhD, a deadline can mean many things. The ultimate deadline is the fact that you need to hand in research at the end of 3 to 4 years (or even longer with extensions, inclusions or part-time studies). Anyway, there is a set deadline after some number of years.

Now you might be able to spot the issue here: that deadline is VERY far away. The smart thing to do is to set yourself smaller deadlines, that are attainable in shorter periods of time. An example of this could be setting deadlines for when certain chapters need to be written, when data collection needs to start and/or finish, when results need to be analysed, etc.

The good thing about these earlier and smaller deadlines is the fact that they break down the massive goal of finishing a whole PhD into smaller and definitely much more attainable chunks. The breaking down of these chunks indicates the basic structure of your planning already. These chunks can then be further broken down into weekly and daily to-do-lists. This process has already given you ten times more of a structure than the initial set up. Now that some structure is in place, the question becomes: When exactly are you going to do this?

Working Hours and Efficiency Most jobs have set hours. The nine-to-five is a job often referred to. During these hours, nothing is done besides work. Friends and family do not disturb you. Emergencies that are not job related will have to wait until the clock hits five. Most of the regular life happens after five, or in the weekend.

Although there is an argument to be made for having set periods of time that are fully dedicated to just working without any type of interference, life does get in the way. When push comes to shove, there is a limited amount of time in a day (24 hours) and same for a week (168 hours) and yet a lot of things have to happen in that time, that are not always exclusively work related. This might mean that nine-to-five is not working. If you function best working at night, you can. Get up at 12 in the afternoon, have breakfast (more like lunch, but hey) and figure out your schedule for that day. If it works, it works. That is the benefit of the flexibility granted within a PhD.

Another thing most people do not seem to understand about PhDs is that if the mentality isn't nine-to-five, we might not end up working 8 hour days. Some days will be more quiet, which is where the lazy stereotype comes from. I do not work 8 hours a day. There is no point. I can focus up to five hours, in which I do a lot of work on a really high tempo. I get through a lot and I do it well. But as such, five hours is plenty (if it is work that requires a lot of cognitive effort, that is). So I tend to cut my days short. Not always. Some of my days have been 14 hours of madness. Preparing for the first day of a study to start at 10:00 means starting before 8:00 to make it work out. Testing was till 19:00. During that time you have to continuously check in that everything runs smoothly. Short end of the stick, you are there the full 9 hours yourself. Then "tidy up" in a way that allows for a smooth start the day after. Enter in the data, make sure this all ends up working in whatever program you are working with. Suddenly your eyes start involuntarily closing. You have worked 14 hours. Time to go home.

This does not even reflect the "coding-holes" some students fall into. Stuck behind a computer looking at R (or any equivocal data analysis program/language). Knowing that it is going to take forever, we start early. And suddenly, as your stomach is trying to eat itself and you are starting to see numbers everywhere, you realise you have been staring at a screen for too long. As in, 10 hours too long.

One reason this happens is because we don't have the set hours, because we don't really know when we are supposed to start and finish a day. Because most of the deadlines we have set are deadlines that we have set ourselves. We do not have to justify not meeting these deadlines to anyone. So what drives us?

Guilt and Comparison What do we base our hours on? Well it depends. Some people prioritise their many social events and plan their work around that. They might still end up working over 8 hours, they might not. I have already mentioned I do not make 8 hours, but I have friends who do. One of them goes into the office and treats it like a proper nine-to-five, but sometimes more like a ten-to-six, or eleven-to-seven. The general idea is clear. Another one of my friends works at least six days a week. When she takes a break, I do not know. What I do know is that when she does not work, because it is the Christmas holidays and she is (supposed to be) spending time with her family, she feels guilty about not working. I too, have had these feelings of guilt. Not putting in enough work, lagging behind, despite there being no objective indications of this being true.

We all have different ways of working. And we know that. And yet we compare. When I was asked to present my experience of the first year of a PhD to the new cohort of PhD students, my main message was to not compare work ethics. If I were to compare my work ethic to those of the two friends I just mentioned, I look very lazy. But you cannot measure your success as a PhD student in hours worked. It needs to be output based. If you get three times more done in five hours than someone else gets done in ten, good on you. If you feel like you get less done if you have to work the full ten hours, and this also diminishes the work you are able to do the next day, do not work ten hours. There is no point. You would actually reduce your own productivity. So ultimately, figure out what works for you, and stick with it. As long as you do get your work done, and meet your deadlines!

Also, you are allowed to have breaks. There is increasing pressure in the PhD to work more and more. To figure everything out early on and just keep at it. I worked over Christmas as well. For me, there was no real break. When I was not attending to my own research I was teaching or marking assignments. If you do not wish to have a burn out at the end of your second year, I suggest you take actual weekends off, weeks off to go on holiday and sometimes, a nice mental health day off. Your (mental) health is what you need to get through this process. See it as an investment if you would rather not see it as a holiday or a break. No need to feel guilty or embarrassed about an investment!

I would like to emphasize that this article is in no way meant as a complaint. I do not envy people working set hour jobs, where there is no flexibility to manage anything that is not the direct workload facing you. I like the flexibility of the PhD, but I'm hardly immune to the traps of the lack of structure. I wrote this article to explain what it is that (PhD) students complain about and the common traps in PhD time management. Maybe I am just trying to send out the message that most, if not all PhD students have (had) these issues and that no one is alone experiencing them.


Behavioural Science

Personal Finance



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