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There's something I am not able to understand. I'm a CS master student in Germany. Now I'm doing my master thesis. Before starting my thesis I had an image about PhD students which turned out to be wrong. Always thought that PhD student work much much harder than us and have too much stress. Or that they wake up at 5 am and keep working all day and night! But then when I started working on my thesis, my supervisor was so nice that he gave me a place in his office. Since then I always see the PhD student coming to their offices at 9 or 10 am and leave at 5 pm. I also see them waste a lot of time by hanging around or going for smoking every 45 minutes or so. They even spend almost one complete hour having lunch and then having coffee and desert!!!

Is this the normal life for PhDs or is there something wrong here?!!

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OMG ! PhD students eat ! call their advisor ! But more seriously, I'm not sure what your question is. You had some preconceived notion that Ph.D students are strange abnormal creatures, and you discover that they're fairly normal. Also, a lot of time during a Ph.D is spent doing what looks like absolutely nothing: it's usually called thinking. –  Suresh Apr 25 at 14:59
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The normal life for a PhD student is the one that leads to getting a PhD in the end. –  Charles Morisset Apr 25 at 15:01
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@Suresh: Well, PhD students have to eat, and eating at some point between 9 am and 5 pm is medically advisable. But I am disappointed to hear that they also eat dessert, drink coffee and take a complete hour for these shenanigans. Even a master's student knows how to eat a nutritious lunch in 30 minutes or less. PhD students -- especially those with master's degrees -- can surely be held to a higher standard: say 25 minutes to start with. A student who needs more than 20 minutes may not be ready for his thesis defense: after all, he could be tenure track faculty soon... –  Pete L. Clark Apr 25 at 23:55
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@JeffE: Are you not aware of the studies (e.g. Colbert-Kardashian-Taylor-Wiles 1999) addressing the negative correlation between diurnal postprandial cake consumption and mathematical productivity? The precise amount varies with the quantity and even the color of frosting, the density of nuts and the recommended standard consumption time in a rather complicated way but the magnitude of the effect might surprise you. Are you saying that similar studies have not been done in TCS? I guess that's yet another way in which all other academic subjects lag behind mathematics. –  Pete L. Clark May 5 at 2:41
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@PeteL.Clark well-played, sir :). Bonus points for "diurnal postprandial" –  Suresh May 5 at 4:26

3 Answers 3

up vote 16 down vote accepted

There's no single "correct" answer in the life of a graduate student—the culture varies from university to university, department to department, and even group to group. It's also a function of the PhD student as well.

One thing to note is that, as a CS student, you're working in a field where it is very easy for students to do their work in environments outside of the laboratory. (Compare that to, say, experimental biology or chemistry, and the freedom in work environment is pretty stark.) Consequently, you don't really have a good feel for how many hours the students are working in aggregate—they may be spending a lot of time working from home, or in the evenings or on weekends.

At the other end of the scale, I have known advisors who expected their students to put in a minimum of 70 to 80 hours per week in the laboratory. (Of course, since this is lab work, there's no way to do much of it "from home"—other than reading and writing.) And in my own experience, there are weeks where I barely worked 40 hours, and others where I put in close to 90 (usually right before conferences and when I was racing to finish my thesis).

In the long run, there are very few absolutes when it comes to the career of a graduate student, and you really do need to find your own "path."

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In addition to what others have said,

  1. Do not assume that "hours looking productive in the office" == "hours working".

  2. Do not assume that "hours working" is proportional to "amount achieved".

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+1 for Do not assume that "hours looking productive in the office" == "hours working". –  Marc Claesen May 6 at 8:11

First of all, master and PhD are two different kinds of life. For PhD time is usually flexible and they would like to work this way because progress in their work to some extent relies on inspiration. So it's understandable that they need enough sleep hours. Unlike master students, who just attend courses and learn things written in the textbook, PhD students have to invent things that has been written no where. For master students, hardworking (hours in your opinion) is enough. However, for PhD students, inspiration, insight are the key.

Second, it's also a matter of personal habit difference and labs management difference. Some people would like to sleep from 1am to 8am, some like 11pm to 6am. It's different from people to people. And some professor pushes more, while some pushes less.

Third, many PhD has to work at home in the night and doesn't have the summer/winter vacation. But as master students, you don't have any study tasks during the same period.

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