A day in the life of a 2nd year PhD student

I was trying to think of an interesting blog post that might be useful for people considering doing a PhD, and I had the idea of doing a sort of insight into what I actually do on a daily basis. This would have been really useful to me when I was trying to decide what to do with myself as a newly minted graduate considering doing a research degree. Particularly because it is quite tricky to explain what PhD students actual are and what they do, you really don’t find out until you become one. And by that time it’s a bit too late!

I think the mystery shrouding the PhD process may be one of the reasons that there is such a high drop-out rate for first year PhD students – people begin a PhD but rapidly realise that it’s not what they were anticipating and come to the conclusion that the PhD lifestyle is not for them. Maybe this post will help to prevent a few people falling into this common trap.

You know when you’re at a party or other ‘small-talk’ kind of social occasion and people always ask what you do for a living? Well when you say you’re a PhD student this is almost always followed up by either a blank expression or the question “so what does that entail?”. This is actually quite tricky to answer because a PhD is like a job, but it’s not a ‘proper’ job and you are still classed as a ‘student’, but you also have to teach and are included in staff-only departmental emails. Confused? I am. Anyway, here is a quick run-down of a typical day in my life so you can draw your own conclusions about what a PhD entails and stop asking me about it at parties!

  •  7.30am                              Get up!

I usually haul myself out of bed between 7.30 and 8am, depending on if I’m working at home or if I need to walk into ‘the office’ in the Geography building.

  • 9am-10am                       Emails/ Twitter/ general timewasting

There are always loads of emails to be sifted through. Then I should really check my academic twitter account and maybe have a look at those journal alerts, oh and I need to read through the prep for this tutorial and the afternoon’s labs… You get the picture.

  • 10am-11am

Tutorial Teaching a 2nd year undergraduate tutorial, probably in a different building that I will have to sprint to because I’m almost certainly running late!

  • 11am-12pm                      Writing/ meetings

I try to squeeze in some writing time in the mornings because I find that’s when I concentrate better. But unfortunately this is also the prime time for having meetings with my research group, supervisors or other academics.

  • 12pm-1pm                        Lunch!

It’s very important to give yourself a good lunch break. I’ll either have a chat with the other physical geography PhDs or, if I’m at home, I’ll have a read of my book or a magazine.

  • 1pm-3pm                          Labs

Lab demonstrating for another group of undergrads. This can be anything from demoing and supervising actual laboratory experiments, through to assisting with computer-based ice sheet modelling practicals, or answering questions during a pen & paper research exercise.

  • 3pm-6pm                          Research

Finally some time to work on my own research! At the moment this involves working in ArcMap GIS to make measurements of modern glaciers from satellite images, before doing a whole load of maths-y data processing in Excel.

  • Evening (after 6pm)        Dinner/ sports/ tutoring/ pub/ more PhD work

My evenings are a real mixed bag. Three or four days a week I’ll be hurrying home to eat dinner and go out to either a sports session (Muay Thai or rock climbing usually), or to my other job as a geography A-Level private tutor. Otherwise I might be going round a friend’s, catching up with someone via Skype, heading down the pub or just staying in and watching tele. A couple of nights a week I’ll usually try and squeeze in an hour or two of reading journal articles, proof-reading my own writing or maybe even writing this blog.

Hopefully this has given you an interesting insight into what PhD students actually do all day. Mostly it seems to be a juggling act between getting in c. 40hrs of PhD work  per week (or more when deadlines loom!), fulfilling our teaching obligations and trying to fit in hobbies and a social life. It really is like a full-time job, so please stop telling us ‘but surely you’re a student, you must have loads of free time?’. We really don’t!

If you’re applying for a Phd and you think you’ll have tonnes of free time then I’m afraid that you’re wrong! I’d suggest you do some research on sites like the Thesis Whisperer, Research Whisperer and PhD2Published. These will give you more of an idea of what doing a PhD is like and can point you in the direction of more information.

p.s. You may be wondering about the relevance of this post’s title image. Quite simply, tea gets me through my days as a PhD student. And there’s nothing wrong with receiving important life messages from the slogans on your tea mugs.


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