How long does it take to do a PhD

Academic work can be largely autonomous, so how should you spend your PhD time? What activities are going to give you the best ‘bang for buck’? It’s a question we all struggle with, even when the PhD is done.

James Patterson completed his PhD at the University of Queensland, and is currently a Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of Waterloo, Canada. He believes that the PhD experience can and should be far better supported in Australia, and that early career researchers can help create a healthier research culture for ourselves into the future.

In this post you’ll hear exactly how James spent his time – complete with graphs!

Whether you’re in the thick of a PhD right now, or considering doing one, a million dollar question can sometimes seem to be: ‘how long will this thing take?’ There is of course no single answer (we’ve all heard the stories ranging from ‘the beast that wouldn’t die’ to ‘the trailblazing prodigy who puts everyone else to shame’), and different research fields, institutions, and life experiences along the way combine to make each person’s PhD journey unique.

Nonetheless, I want to share some numbers based on a detailed tally of where I spent my time during my PhD. My reason for doing this is to firstly show how surprisingly variable this pattern can be, and secondly, to argue that doing things beyond your core PhD work can be extremely important and beneficial.

My PhD timeframe overall was unremarkable. In Australia the common length of PhD is around 3.5 to 4 years – mine was 3 years and 9 months. During this time I kept a timesheet. I know this might seem strange, but in a previous job I needed to log my work, and I liked the way it helped keep track of where I spent my time. I thought I’d forget it pretty quickly, but to my surprise I actually kept going for the entire time.

This is how I spent my time overall:

time for phdThe data categories are:

  • ‘Core PhD work’: basically all the reading, writing, empirical work, project meetings, conferences, etc that was essential to the research.
  • ‘Professional activities’: side projects and collaborations, workshops, training courses, academic and industry networks, and contributing to student associations (things that some people might consider as ‘unnecessary distractions’ – although I disagree).
  • ‘Admin and miscellaneous’: administrative things like signing forms and solving administrative problems, as well as random corridor conversations, coffee breaks on the lawn, and long lunches.

The average time split between these different tasks is shown in the pie chart and table below. In these numbers I have accounted for annual leave (assuming 3 weeks per year not 4 as allocated), public holidays (approx. 8 per year), and sick leave taken (approx. 1 week per year).

Screen Shot 2016-02-20 at 5.00.54 pm

The time split between these categories is quite variable both week-to-week and over the whole duration. There are sustained busy periods leading up to milestones, but also periods where work dropped off due to life events, holidays, or other random reasons. There are big chunks of time spent on professional activities in the middle period, which included a collaborative project writing a paper with early career colleagues from across the country (over 1.5 years), and a lot of time invested into postgraduate activities and advocacy (such as trying to build a postgraduate association in my department to address a very poor organisational culture). ‘Admin and miscellaneous’ tasks were fairly constant throughout. Overall though, the hours I worked really went up and down week, which seems to be a normal thing, but often something we beat ourselves up over.

It’s important to situate my experience a little though.

My PhD was in the social sciences in an interdisciplinary field of water and environmental governance. I was fortunate to have great and supportive supervisors, although overall, I felt that my research was of little interest both in my department and the university as a whole.

I was in some ways fortunate to be a position that was flexible regarding long hours, and without anyone relying on me. I began my PhD when I was 26 and finished when I was 29, was not married, and don’t have a family. I was very fortunate to be in a good financial position with an Australian Government scholarship, a state government top-up scholarship, and an operating expenses grant.

However, even with the benefits/privileges available, I still exceeded the basic expectation of 3.5 years duration to complete my PhD (most scholarships in Australia only run for a maximum of 3-3.5 years, after which you’re on your own). Hence I had no income for the last 3-4 months of my candidature (and afterwards).

Does this mean that I should not have done as many professional activities and finished on time? Could I have worked smarter and saved time by carefully studying these graphs more along the way?

The short answer is no, I don’t think it’s quite that simple. Firstly, I don’t think it would have been possible to hurry the work and ideas much more than I did – these things just need time to a certain extent. Ideas develop sporadically (sometimes slow and grinding, and sometimes in ‘aha moments’), and I don’t think it’s possible to ‘speed up’ the process of good ideas past a certain degree of effort and commitment.

Secondly, the professional activities (especially collaborative side-projects) were really valuable for feeding back into the ideas of my research and getting informal feedback and personal support in my work. Thirdly, many of the professional activities helped me build skills on my CV, build my research network and make important contacts, and led to extremely important career opportunities.

My career path post-PhD has been quite unpredictable, but I trace my current postdoctoral role in Europe back to professional activities during my PhD.

In 2011 (a year or so into my PhD) I applied to attend a training workshop for early career researchers. I was accepted, and following the workshop several of us participants collaborated on writing a paper together over the next 18 months. During these interactions, one group member randomly mentioned an upcoming conference in Germany (5 days before the deadline for abstracts). I ended up successfully applying to present my work at this conference, where I randomly met a highly-regarded European researcher, who extended an invitation to visit his institute, which I took up after I completed my PhD to collaborate on a grant proposal (although largely without funding support). This proposal was eventually successful and hence 3 or 4 years down the track, I am able to follow my dream to work in Europe. But none of this would have happened if not for all the seemingly incidental steps along the way, all of which were beyond my ‘core’ PhD work.

So in this case trying to save time in the short-term by cutting out a seemingly extraneous activity would have been completely unproductive in the long-term.

This implies that stuff beyond your core PhD work matters. In fact, I firmly believe that as PhD students we should think and act far beyond our core PhD work, use the opportunity to develop a wide range of professional skills, and contribute to building healthier research cultures in our organisations (e.g., more collaborative, supportive, and empowering for early career researchers). We never know where it will lead, but there’s a good chance it will be worthwhile.

Therefore, in answer to my question, how long does it take to do a PhD? For me, the answer was average! But how I spent was time was what really mattered.

Thanks James – your diligence gives us all something to think about! What about you. How do you spend your time? Have you measured it? We’d love to hear about it in the comments.

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37 thoughts on “How long does it take to do a PhD

  1. This is great, thanks James. I’m into my 6th year now. Many of us have so much else going on. In my case shortly after I started, my partners business slumped and I needed to find work as well, there there have been three teenagers to care for (which became much more difficult than I had anticipated), sick and dying friends and relatives.. life.. my thesis is also about activism and agency – the story of a community framed by my own story – and, as James correctly states, the professional work is incredibly valuable, and in my case the activism geared up and has actually provided the best data to support my argument. A lot of this data is around self care, including taking the time needed. What the institution wants from us is not necessarily what produces quality work. Our situations and needs are diverse and this need acknowledgement and respect.

  2. Thanks James, i’m so glad to know i’m right on average – and that there are others who keep a spreadsheet of how they spend their PhD! I have a timesheet of all the hours i spent on core tasks over the past 3 years and 10 months of my PhD (i’m about to submit).

    I too have been doing a lot of extracurricular professional development activities (mainly conferences and workshops), and without a scholarship i have had to take chunks of time out to do consulting work to pay the rent. All in all, i have averaged 2-3 hours a day of solid PhD time (not including admin), or what Cal Newport of the Study Hacks blog calls ‘deep work’. At first glance that doesn’t seem like much, but thanks to your graph, i now think that’s well on average.

    One of the other things i have been keeping track of in my little spreadsheet is how i feel towards my PhD every day. I have devised a 5 point scale range from ‘this is the worst thing ever and i am completely wasting my time’ all the way to ‘this is a game-change, bring on the Nobel prize now’. Interestingly, the more ‘deep work’ i do on the thesis, the better i feel about it. The closer i am to deadlines, the less good i feel about it…and when i’m attending conferences or workshops, or otherwise interacting with others in my field (which, coincidentally, also is water and environmental governance) then i feel most energised and positive about the whole thing.

  3. This is very reassuring! I’m curious to know what software you used to track your time – I think this would be good for me to do, too…

  4. Great post, thanks! I think it would be great to see more of these graphs, it will help those in a not-so-motivated/not-so-efficient stage of their PhD by realising that productivity goes up and down all the time. And great idea Paula also, keeping track of how you feel. I thought of doing exactly the same thing, and I think my words were just as dramatic! Welcome to the rollercoaster!

  5. Nice work, James. I keep track too, to reassure myself that I am actually working and to motivate myself to work. I use a piece of paper “ruled” into columns by printing out a grid I made using Excel. If I wanted to analyse the numbers, software would be easier. As I go, I note down what I do, and what I read, to provide data for regular reports to my supervisor. This saves a lot of time in meetings.

    You make an excellent point that the process of good ideas can’t be speeded up. Having a scholarship that ends after only three years is anxiety-provoking, especially as I am in a university that doesn’t seem to have any money to employ me as a tutor or research assistant.

  6. This is really interesting. As a PhD parent with young children I think a lot about how I use my time as I feel a constant need to be efficient and balance everyone’s needs. I think the point made about the non-core work actually being just as important as the Phd in terms of networking and career opportunities is particularly interesting, especially as that is what I struggle with most as a parent. I have no problem meeting the ‘core’ work of my Phd, but I do feel like I miss out on opportunities to network and collaborate because of time restrictions – and who knows what other opportunities could flow from such interactions. Lots of food for thought – thanks for sharing.

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  8. Interesting. I’m just starting out and would appreciate hearing how other have there core PhD / Deep Work time.

    PS I’m using Timesheet developed by Florian Rauscha to track my activities. Free Android app

  9. ‘I don’t think it would have been possible to hurry the work and ideas..’ as a group of PhD students in the midst of a “shut up and write” session we termed the coin ‘thinkubator’ to explain the need for time for new ideas to come together and be inspired by other areas of reading and scholarship…. This is also reflected in an article about procrastination… http://www.nytimes.com/2016/01/17/opinion/sunday/why-i-taught-myself-to-procrastinate.html?_r=0

    • I completely agree with you Kate. The whole point of the PhD is to generate new knowledge (I love the way Matt Might describes this: http://matt.might.net/articles/phd-school-in-pictures/) and so the PhD being given a time-frame almost does not make sense in reality (esp as different disciplines will have different challenges). You need time to think and reflect to develop your arguments. While I suppose it can be rushed, I imagine that a couple extra months of thinking time eventually leads to a better final product.

  10. Very interesting! Out of personal interest, does the average time to complete in Australia (of 3.5-4 years) include both full time and part-time students?
    The reason I ask is that I’m always interested in these average figures especially in a part-time context. In South Africa many PhDs are completed while working as an academic staff member, with full course loads, supervision of Masters students and 4th years….and so would love to see something similar done in a part-time framework.
    (Although perhaps part-time PhDs are less common generally speaking?)
    I personally have a less exact time management approach: I keep a journal where I date and document/summarise each day of work I put into my PhD as a means of keeping track of my progress (in the part-time land where several weeks may pass between each ‘PhD Day’). I have found this to be extraordinarily valuable approach.
    Last year, while teaching 3 semester long courses (and coordinating 1), overseeing 2 4th year year-long research projects and 4 Masters students I managed to log a measly 19 days work on my PhD. This semester I have been granted a semesters sabbatical, and have just logged my 60th days work on the PhD (I still coordinate one module, participate in a few admin matters, and supervise 1 Masters student). This continued period of time has me wondering how anyone manages to finish part-time – I am leaps and bounds ahead of where I would be if I had not been given this term to focus on my PhD.
    Hence my curiously of how other part-time students approach their time management.

    • Part-time students in Australia are allowed 4- 8 years. I am an external part time student and work full time, which I juggle with parenting responsibilities.

      To provide context, I started in April 2014 but my supervisors think I can finish and submit by end of 2018, which will put me in around 4.5 year mark if it happens. I have finished data collection and just starting initial data analysis.

      I approach my study by putting in about 1-2 hours every night and longer periods during weekends. I also log what I do everyday and mark of as either accomplished or nil for the day. For example today I only managed to read one journal article which be logged before I go to bed.

      • I’d be interested to see how the time sheets look at the end of your study period Ali. We usually tell people that a part time PhD is about 20 hours a week, but I’m curious as to whether this is really what happens.

      • I think our part-time (in South Africa) also translates to 4 -6 years. I seem to recall reading somewhere that the global average (accounting for part-timers too) is 7 years to complete a PhD (although these guys give some other averages: http://www.gradschoolhub.com/faqs/what-is-the-average-time-to-obtain-a-ph-d/).

        That’s really impressive that you find time to do a little each day! I have the best of intentions to do that but find it very hard to implement in practice. Outside of sabbatical time I try to put as many Saturdays aside as possible for PhD work (which motivates me to get the work-work done), and give myself Sundays off as a rule (unless on a cohort/writing weekend). …and if I am completely honest, during term time when I have 2 courses running and several students being supervised I don’t look at my PhD for more than a couple hours (outside of the occasional Sat) during the term itself.

        @Thesis Whisperer, Im rather embarrassed to share this, but I just worked out that last year (working full time (in academia) and doing PhD) my PhD hours per week equated to a measly 3.5 hours each week. Very far from 20 😦

      • Some Australian universities have a contractual agreement with candidates for the 20 hours per week and you have to specify the day of the week and one weekend day to work the PhD.

  11. I’d also be interested to know how you record time, and what software you use? In a previous job I also recorded time, but this was in 6-minute units and was definitely not something I wanted to replicate for the PhD! But now, over a year in to what feels like a never-ending project, I think it would be good to have some sort of a record of where my days go… Also, I’d be interested to know if you tried to stick to regular office hours. This is something I’ve been trying to do, to make it feel more like a job, but it hasn’t always been successful.

  12. Thank you for this post. I’m excited to read that someone else is also keeping track of their time. Amazing! I agree with James that it helps understand where I spend my time and whether I studied/worked too much in one week or too little in another. It keeps me accountable to myself. And, just like James, it helps me draft a quick summary for my supervisors.

    It’s also great to see my progress over time and realise: Yes, I have achieved a lot. When sometimes it doesn’t ‘feel’ like it, the numbers and my daily entries show a different and uplifting picture.

    And keeping track helps estimate how much time will be needed for certain tasks in the future. For example, by recording the time it took me to transcribe my first 3 research interviews, I could calculate an average and then estimate that for the following (1-hour)interviews it would take me 10-12 hours to transcribe. This is incredibly helpful when scheduling transcription time into my week. I use Excel for my time log, and slightly different categories.

    Thanks, James. Seeing another academic write about tracking their time encourages me to start communicating about my own time log more. This is inspiring.

    • Having good records of how long things have taken in the past is invaluable Anke. I know it takes me about 40 minutes to properly read a journal article in my discipline. This makes me more realistic about my ‘to be read’ pile (often depressingly so!)

  13. This is a fascinating article, thanks. I am always curious to learn more about how other graduate researchers spend their time and what activities they value most, as being a research student is such a varied role. I wish I started documenting my time at the beginning of my project!

  14. I have more of a question than comment. I will be completing my M.A. at the University of Chicago next year, and hopefully my Ph.D. soon after that. Based on this blog post, it seems that, at least for a Ph.D., a 45 hour work week is standard, with many spikes. That said, is it reasonable to assume that a M.A. will be similar? I am married with no kids. So, time with my wife is extremely valuable to me as I prepare for the program.

    Thanks!

    • Interesting point. I wonder if different countries really are all that different? I would love to see what the actual average time to complete globally is (of full time vs part time and for different disciplines). I can imagine that while different institutions state various ‘time-allowed’ criteria, that the reality is that discipline rather significantly contributes to time to completion (if we ignore other factors like full-time/part-time & other commitments etc)…but that uni’s have to have a ‘blanket’ time to complete to roll out in the student guide. A ‘writing’ dissertation vs a ‘survey instrument’ dissertation vs a ‘lab-work dissertation’ vs a ‘data collection/coding/statistics dissertation’ are likely better indicators of time to completion that what ever any institution says is the time to PhD complete? Another aspect: at our institution you cannot graduate/be awarded degree complete without a published sole-authored article from your PhD. So average publishing times in various disciplines then also contributes.

  15. James, terrific piece! I can TOTALLY relate to your experience.

    I must say that it was my side jobs during my PhD that led me to current research position, so I can attest to James’ point that the stuff beyond PhD work is important.

    When I got interviewed for my job, I had the impression that the panel was not necessarily interested in my specialty area but my overall profile. Developing professional skills and networking are crucial. Doing side jobs can help you achieve those.

    It is at times the side jobs that would open more future job options and valuable contacts.

  16. Great post. I wish I’d kept a track of my time during my PhD.. it would have been a fantastic procrastination tool and really interesting to look back on!
    I’m in New Zealand and took 4.5 years to complete my PhD – with a 6 month suspension where I took an academic job to fund studies. After that, I resorted to building a student loan as I could see that stopping every 6 months to earn enough to fund the next 6 months would mean my PhD would drag on forever!
    In the end I finished it within the governments four year maximum enrollment time.
    No fancy graph of time spent on it however, but I know that I put in plenty of long days and nights!

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  18. My project was funded over 4 years by a UK research council, but i took just over 5 years to complete, using a write-up year on top of my minimum candidature. Most UK research council projects are now 4 years at a minimum, many projects needing ethnographic data get even longer, some 5 and a half years in total.

    My own project required me to do my fieldwork over a year so I was still collecting data into my 3rd year. So when scientists claim a PhD can be done in 3 years I think that’s all very well, especially when their theses are half the length. It’s not a race but if it were, humanities folks would be running a completely different race.

    Looking back over my own PhD, i don’t really know how I managed to finish. During it I had a baby, got married, did a year’s fieldwork, cared for my mentally ill husband, struggled to afford childcare, left my husband when he became abusive, wrote an article, presented at international conferences, developed a hand disability which prevented me from typing, needed a month’s interruption when i lost the use of my hand, completed a month’s research training abroad, etc etc. Fit 5 house moves into all of that, 2 lots of my son’s chicken pox, a 2 month period where I ran out of money and had to teach full time, when i had pneumonia. I could go on. In the end I relied on voice recognition software to write.

    In short, I was very happy to finish as little as 2 months after i was supposed to. I was financially penalized for doing so, however. When people with no responsibilities boast about finishing quickly I just nod and smile. Pat on the back to them.

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  21. Good article. I use toggl to track my phd (www.toggl.com), it is very usefull and makes it possible to tag the activities.

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