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I hear a lot of people brag or complain about how many hours they have to work for their PhD. Is this the norm? And if so is this really a wise choice to make? Do students really 'work' during this period of time (as would be expected in a corporate office), or do many also spend their time goofing around?

I've read that it's only possible to do 4 hours of deeply creative work everyday. Since energy often depletes over the day, I've personally found that outside of a small number of hours in a day, the rest of my time is spent doing mechanical tasks or straining myself in vain to think about a problem.

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During course work, that's not unheard of (but not 7 days a week, 5 or 6 maybe). I would probably dismiss your friends' chatter as macho bravado though: wrong statements to this sort seem to give some people a kick, and a sense of tougher-than-you. – gnometorule Mar 3 at 5:00
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I've heard that if you can put in 5-6 productive hours a day, 5-6 days a week, for 5-6 years, you'll have enough for a PhD in most fields. The key is productive hours though, most people have a hard time getting 6 productive hours in an 8-hour work day. – Roger Fan Mar 3 at 5:59
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But in my experience it is not the norm to work so many hours. Several people at my department (in the UK) have recently had successful PhDs (finished and gone on to Postdoc jobs) having worked normal 8x5 hour weeks most of the time. – user2390246 Mar 3 at 9:06
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Looking busy is not the same thing as working. Looking idle is not the same thing as not working. I solve some of my toughest problems when I'm running, walking the dog, and playing games (when my mind is relaxed). If I found myself in an environment that demanded that I look busy for 12 hours a day, I would do my best to get out of it. – Jim2B Mar 3 at 14:24

The answer is no.

There are a lot of factors in play. With my work, a lot of it is creative so it is hard to say when I am working or not.

Do people expect students to work that many hours? Maybe, but it isn't healthy (and maybe not legal).

Do people really work the entire time they are at work? Probably not. Your productivity certainly goes down the longer you work. Whether people goof around or not isn't specific to Academia and can happen anywhere (I don't find goofing around to be a negative thing).

I too have read several studies about the limited number of hours that people have for mentally demanding tasks. In fact, I read a study about programmers that said they were lucky to get 1-2 hours of solid work done in a day. This info can help you organize your day so that you work on difficult tasks in the morning and then mechanical tasks in the afternoon. Also, studies have shown that taking breaks and going on walks can help improve your productivity.

There isn't a cookie cutter answer for everyone. It depends on yourself, the type of work, your advisor, and your coworkers.

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I agree, it's hard to say when exactly I am working. I like this photo a lot: mathematician at work. Though I usually prefer to do my "work" (the creative part, anyway) during the night. When particularly productive/stubborn, I can stay up until late morning. – tomasz Mar 3 at 8:05
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It is important to emphasize this can be very field-dependent. In some fields that are based on lab work, you may actually have to spend long hours doing technical non-creative work. However, this still does not mean you necessarily work the whole time - often there will be down-time while waiting for the experiment to run. – Bitwise Mar 3 at 13:22
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A good example of not working while being as work, is the fact that a large portion of people will be reading this while at work. – Dragonrage Mar 3 at 17:55
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I don't agree with the programmer 1-2 hours of productivity. I work two jobs as a software developer and I am capable of being fully productive for about 4 hours after a full day of classes, and 6 hours if I don't have class the day that I'm programming. Perhaps I'm different from most, but I would find that only being truly productive for 1-2 hours per day would run all of my projects into the ground, and I would subsequently be fired. Then again, for a lot of people productive is subjective. I suppose that as long as you're getting results and meeting deadlines, then it doesn't matter! – Chris Cirefice Mar 4 at 13:58
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"I would say in any given week I do about 15 minutes of actual work" - Peter Gibbons – corsiKa Mar 5 at 0:12

Most people who brag about how many hours they work are inefficient. Because they are inefficient, they feel a need to point out how many hours they work - rather than pointing to the quality of work. Keep this in mind.

Some PhD programs will allow you to be more isolated from non-PhD related work than others. If you have to teach, for example, that might take a considerable portion of your week - preparation, class, grading, etc. This might cause you to have to work many more hours if you want to make progress on your dissertation than someone who does not have to teach.

If you are unlucky and have your "paid research" different than your dissertation research the same thing can happen - you have to split your time into different buckets. The quality of your advisor and their expectations thus has a big effect here, too.

How quickly you want to graduate can affect this too.

That being said, how you work affects how efficient you are.

  • Quality of your working hours
    • Sitting at a desk for 12 hours straight is most often bad.
    • Working 12 hours, taking 10 minute exercise breaks every hour? Much less bad.
  • How deliberately you work
    • Do you sit aimlessly without tasks?
    • Do you have a system to keep track of what you need to do?
    • Do you manage your energy (doing high energy tasks when you have energy, low energy when you don't) or do you just blindly do tasks?
  • Do you know when to call it quits -- or keep going?
    • If you have a high energy task you are doing great at, do you keep that momentum going?
    • Conversely if you feel burned out, do you just take a break? Or keep going anyways?
  • When do you work?
    • Some people rock 5am-7am. Some people rock 1am-3am. Some people are afternoon people (my prime time is about 4-6pm - I can accomplish insane amounts in this time compared to the rest of the day). Figure out when your times are.
  • Do you have distractions?
    • An hour with no distractions during writing might be better than 4 with continuous interruptions.
  • Read this article and apply it ruthlessly to your life. You are a maker, your advisor is probably a manager.

You will likely find that the better you work, the less you have to work. But simultaneously realize the more you could work (so if your goal is more X then it's great).

The how, when, and what for when we work dramatically affects our ability to work tons but also whether or not we have to.

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The first line is not really true. Some people have to work huge hours because they have no choice. It's "work all the time, or you wont get your PhD" right up until the day before they get their certificate. To go through hell and then be labelled inefficient it the definition of adding insult to injury. – Wetlab Walter Mar 3 at 15:25
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@J.J how many of those people brag about their hours? My experience is people who are forced to work many hours generally don't brag about it. If anything, they lament it. – enderland Mar 3 at 15:29
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Ah, true. I rescind my downvote :) (could you just edit the answer slightly so i can) – Wetlab Walter Mar 3 at 15:31
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@J.J I added something I wanted to add anyways :) – enderland Mar 3 at 15:33
    
I'll take the folks who brag about what they actually did than how many hours they worked. – corsiKa Mar 5 at 0:13

My experiences suggest the answer is: possibly. Or perhaps more accurately sometimes.

A lot depends on the field you're in. I studied for a PhD in life science, where a lot of time at the lab bench was required. This is skilled work, but it's not "creative" nor does it involve much mental effort. So it's certainly possible to be productive at it for longer than four hour stretches.

In addition I often had to go in at the weekends to observe the results of my experiments. Cells don't grow to a useful 9-5 weekday schedule, unfortunately! I imagine other areas of science will impose similar time pressures.

I treated my PhD as though it were a job. Although I did work longer than 8 hours a day and I did work weekends when necessary, I viewed this as an annoying imposition and tried to minimize it. Other students and postdocs in the lab did longer hours and were more productive.

When it came time to write up my thesis, I discovred I simply did not have enough material to make it worthwhile. Ultimately I was forced to apply for a lesser research degree (an MPhil) and when it came to the crunch, I was not even able to obtain that with the evidence I'd gathered. Part of this is unquestionably down to lack of bench-hours.

I cannot speak about non-practical subjects, but even there I would imagine the amount of reading, learning and documentary research required would be significant, and would not involve creative mental effort. But my experience suggests that while ten hours a day, seven days a week is likely excessive, a successful research degree does involve time and effort well beyond that required for a regular highly-skilled job.

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This attitude is unfortunately prevalent in many "lab" fields, in which students are often used as cheap technicians rather than getting a proper PhD education. – jakebeal Mar 3 at 11:59
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@jakebeal That may be so - I only have the experience of the one institution. But if that's the case here, how do you explain the lack of thesis material? – Matt Thrower Mar 3 at 12:00
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I don't know particulars of what you worked on and how and in what context. Things I have seen happen elsewhere, however, include: 1) "good thesis" equated with "publish in Nature, Science, or Cell" which is too high a bar, 2) students working only as directed, and on risky or long-term projects, rather than allowed to help scope and de-risk their own research program, 3) lack of lab techs and automation such that students are required to work very inefficiently (e.g., students shouldn't run the mouse colony), 4) "saving up" for big publications, leaving students in danger of scooping. – jakebeal Mar 3 at 12:08
    
@jakebeal Interesting, thanks. I was never much good at lab politics to follow this sort of stuff. Sounds like I may have been a victim of a mixture of 2, 3 and my own laziness. – Matt Thrower Mar 3 at 12:35
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In addition to what @jakebeal said, I would certainly include lack of supervision. If your results don't look like they would help you achieve your goal, it is your supervisor's task to identify this early on, and steer you in a more productive direction. (Personally, I have yet to meet a supervisor who actually had the time to fulfill his tasks properly, but maybe it's just me and/or bad luck.) – tripleee Mar 4 at 12:09

Just to add to what is around:

Dr Hugh Kearns, famous speaker and researcher in "high performance psychology", has a very interesting course that is given to PhD students around the world, "The Seven Secrets of Highly Successful Research Student", with research that has been published in Nature.

I was lucky enough to have the chance to go to this workshop, and one of the secrets that all successful PhD student share is "Treat it like a job".

He mentioned (as conclusions of his research), that if you do a PhD and work (but really work, not procrastinate) 8h a day, 5 days a week, thats enough to have a successful PhD.

So the answer is no! Just, treat it like a job.

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I would like to present how I think about my productivity as a PhD (note: it's Computer Science & Political Science). It might help getting an understanding about the hours and numbers.

My work is divided into "Thinking" and into "Doing".

"Doing" is the stuff that you can work on for 8 hours per day. Dull research assistant jobs involving filling out excel sheets, having to write the literature review, reading literature for taking notes and getting background, office hours, teaching and preparing teaching. Writing emails, applications, funding requests, finishing off papers, going to conferences. "Doing" is the stuff that I can plan and that usually has an end in sight.

"Thinking" is the hard work of which might not happen on a daily basis at all. It involves actually sketching out and developing my models and my hypothesis, reading difficult literature with challenging methods/theory that is crucial to my own work, thinking about how to convert theory into a computer program. "Thinking" is the stuff that happens when I read a completely unrelated book, when I am cooking, in the shower or on the train. I can plan to try, but I cannot plan to succeed. I cannot say "On Thursday I will have my theoretical argument". I can say "On Thursday I will work on my argument doing x and y. No promises".

It is the second category that makes it so difficult to break down a PhD into simple numbers. Sometimes it takes a day to make huge progress, other times (most of the time) you grind on a seemingly simple problem for weeks, even months.

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I have a very relevant personal anecdote: about a year ago, I was working on a paper. I had been pondering for over two weeks about a particular area, and wasn't able to make any progress whatsoever. I was effectively spending hours looking at sheets of paper, scribbling nonsense just not to stare at blank sheets of paper. – tomasz Mar 6 at 0:50
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Then I went to visit my parents, anxious to leave the work unfinished. We went to visit some relatives, and well, I got more than a bit tipsy. However, on the way back, I had a veritable flurry of the ideas. As you can probably guess, when I sobered up and considered it, it turned out, the ideas were not quite right. However, after a few weeks of polishing them (which was mostly doing at that point), the stuff I came up with during the one-hour car ride (thinking) turned into about a fourth of the entire paper. – tomasz Mar 6 at 0:51

It really should not be the norm. Like Austin already pointed out, there is no universal answer to that.
When I did my PhD (in computational chemistry), I also had a commitment to look after students as a teaching assistant. This was certainly my main work during the semester and not a lot of research could be done while simultaneously preparing the next day with the students, grading protocols, discussing related things with the supervisor.
When you are finally at the point where you can do the research for your PhD, you may as well do not consider it as work any more. There are plenty of ways, how you can boost your own productivity. If the environment is right, co-workers, supervisors, friends, equipment, then you should be able to find your way of getting the most out of it.
I personally prefer staying long at my workplace, while goofing around (primarily on the network). I like the quieter hours during the evening, where I can concentrate better. But that is certainly my own choice, so I might end up staying longer than 10 hours, but I would neither complain nor brag about it.

In any case, it should not be a requirement and it is certainly different for any individual.

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I'd be careful with social comparison. While it can be helpful to see how other fare, the work time alone is a really bad measure for a couple of reasons:

  • often based on subjective impressions (not, e.g., time studies with automated measuring)
  • often no differentiation between "being there" and "actively working"
  • ignores discipline
  • ignores difficulty of topic
  • ignores state of the PhD thesis (usually there are ups and downs)
  • ignores time to think (incubation phase, time where you do something else)
  • claims are sometimes used for ... strategic reasons
  • ignores efficiency of the work ("Don't count the days, make the days count.")
  • some work is difficult to classify -- could be PhD work or not (e.g., teaching, doing stuff your adviser wants you to do that might or might not be relevant to your work)
  • some PhD students are exploited to do irrelevant work (costing them time to do their PhD thesis)
  • etc. pp.

In short, the PhD is not a prison sentence (although at times it might feel like it). Time doesn't cut it.

Instead, I would recommend to focus on what is needed to do a successful PhD (look at those PhDs that came before you, esp. those in the same department/with same adviser). Find out what people need to be successful in your discipline (likely: publications, publications, publications). Much more useful than time alone.

P.S.: Regarding creative work, yes, you need ideas, lots of them. But that's why you need time off work. And not all work is creative -- usually there is a lot of routine work involved.

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Ideally, a PhD student should work 0 hours a day. If you do the work you love, you won't work a day in your life.

Of course, most people have to overcome tough obstacles in the beginning of their scientific careers, but it is what you make out of it. I personally enjoyed the hardships because I learned a lot from every difficult problem I had to solve. I spent almost every hour I was awake and sometimes even dreamed at night thinking about my research, but not because I wanted to get it over with or get a degree to show off or even start making real money quicker. I just wanted to know how things work, to know the truth.

But even though you might not feel like you are working, others will. Friends and family will get much less of you when you spend weeks in the lab or in front of computer.

I've seen peers for whom PhD program was a toil. Most of them dropped out. They didn't seem to be spending too much time working on it either. I guess the key is what everyone says: pick the right topic. If you do something you are passionate about, the time will fly and you will wish it would just freeze so you can keep working on what you do forever until you find what you are looking for.

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