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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