30

Background: At my current institution I haven't even officially started my PhD yet, meaning I am not even enlisted as a PhD student. I have my bachelor’s and master’s already, and this is in Germany so “thesis only”. I also have worked here for a while now during my master’s so I know the institute well and they also know me well, which may be part of the problem as I am not “just a PhD student”.

The problem is that I get buried in all kinds of work like,

  • writing parts of grant proposals (many, not one or two like other questions mention)
  • giving popular science talks about our work on any given chance
  • presenting our work during lab tours for all kinds of guests (which happens often)
  • writing news articles and marketing material
  • supervising students and assistants
  • ...

It’s not that I don’t like doing that stuff as much of it helps me to improve my writing, presentation and people skills.

My problem is that there is nearly no time left to actually do research. I just present old stuff or the work of colleagues that is to some degree build upon my old stuff. I feel like I do the work of a postdoc or professor and not the work of someone that hasn’t even started their PhD yet.

So to what degree/amount are the mentioned tasks normal for a student in my stage?

  • 29
    @buffy In Germany all of these activities are quite normal for PhD students (who are employees in Germany) and often their contract specifically states some of these activities. In this case in sounds like a little much in total. – Dirk Jan 17 at 18:20
  • 4
    And yes, I am a employee which makes all this "part of my job". It´s the amount that bothers me as it leaves no time to do my "main job". – asquared Jan 17 at 18:49
  • 2
    I'm in the US and as in my answer these activities don't sound unsual to me, I don't think it's just a Germany vs US difference. – Bryan Krause Jan 17 at 19:22
  • 6
    I think your question is simply how to limit and manage time (e.g. set "office hours" for supervising students/RAs, and likewise for external visitors). Then make yourself unavailable outside those hours when you need to concentrate and get stuff done, e.g. go to the library/coffee shop/wherever people will not pester you, until they learn. Right? Also, keep an hourly timesheet of where your time went, esp. if you think you're doing more than your peers or they're dumping responsibilities on you. – smci Jan 17 at 22:13
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    Is it normal for PhD staff scientists/professors to do much "non-research" work? Well, yes. Yes it is. – Jon Custer Jan 18 at 14:06
51

These all sound to me like usual activities for a PhD student (the "news articles and marketing material" bit sounds a bit odd to me, but that might be more field-dependent).

PhD programs are not typically designed only to allow you to do research, they are designed to teach you to do research, and furthermore to train you to be an independent researcher. That can include learning about all the other baggage that comes with research, such as finding funding, disseminating the research to the academic and sometimes lay community, mentoring junior researchers, etc.

However, like most things, balance is important. It's hard to specify some number of hours per week or something like that for you to contribute to these "other" activities, but the most important thing is that you are able to make progress in your research.

Since your advisor will be the person judging your satisfactory progress as well as being the person assigning you all these tasks, you should have regular conversations with them as a student regarding this balance. Have these conversations early and as often as necessary. It would be appropriate to approach this question directly as you have asked it here, too: tell your advisor "I am worried too much of my time is being spent on X/Y/Z and it will be difficult for me to make progress towards my thesis."

  • 11
    @JafFromA: I agree with this, but in addition: Keep a time log. At the end of every week, log (on a per day basis) how long you spent Teaching (/assisting), Researching, Writing grant proposals, etc. Put it in an Excel (or comparable) spreadsheet, with a line for each week and a column for each activity. Bring it up with your supervisor regularly. For what it's worth, if you go into industry after you graduate, keeping track of your time like this is pretty common in many fields. – Flydog57 Jan 17 at 21:45
  • It is not that usual to do such accurate accounting, as it is expected (and allowed) to be flexible. You usually do not have fixed working hours (in germany), but may come late and stay late or arrange your time in another way. You often are much more time working/researching than you're paid for, because you work for yourself, after all. Doing such an accounting may even reflect negatively on you. – allo Jan 18 at 9:22
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    @allo: "You usually do not have fixed working hours (in germany), but may come late and stay late or arrange your time in another way." - well, the contract certainly defines very clear working hours, break times, and so on. Needless to say, the only people even remotely sticking to them are some of the people in administration. – O. R. Mapper Jan 18 at 12:32
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    @allo I thought you come early and leave late when having flexible hours. Actually, not having to log hours is mostly synonym for working more hours and not leaving a paper trail of that – DonQuiKong Jan 20 at 10:45
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    @DonQuiKong In theory, in academia it is neither. In fact you're more likely to stay longer, especially since there often is no clear separation between university work and research for many people. Is writing the grant work (as in non-research)? You probably read papers regarding the subject, maybe you secure your own funding. So this is probably something which would go into a in-between category of a log, when you try to count the work/non-work hours. – allo Jan 20 at 12:54
17

I agree with the considerations on scope and balance from Bryan's answer. With a CS background from Germany, I consider all of the activities you listed quite normal, as long as you are not downright swamped with the sheer amount of work. I would, however, like to point out another important aspect:

It is important to learn how find synergies in the additional tasks and your research.

This can mean executing some of the additional tasks in such a way that their results are in some way useful for your research. It can just as well mean guiding your research into a direction that aligns with the content of your additional tasks, even if it is not exactly the direction you would have picked otherwise.

Let's look at your examples (without taking into account whether the concrete amount or frequency of such tasks is adequate):

  • writing parts of grant proposals

Beside this being an "inter-generational contract" (PhD candidates are employed from the funding gathered by a grant obtained by one of their predecessors, and during their employment, the candidates write some grant proposals to secure funding for their successors), delving into the topic of grant proposals may give you a better overview of what questions and topics appear to be considered interesting by the community and by external entities.

Furthermore, it gives you a chance of spawning follow-up projects to what you are working on, which will, in the future, produce citations of your work. In the best case, it might even create one or two new positions in your lab with colleagues working on directly related topics, thus naturally paving the way for collaboration opportunities.

  • giving popular science talks about our work on any given chance
  • presenting our work during lab tours for all kinds of guests
  • writing news articles and marketing material

All of these are chances to practice how to present your work to members of an audience who are not experts in your field, maybe not even in your general subject area.

Depending on your research interests, this can be immediately helpful for paper-writing: While research papers typically assume some familiarity with the field, there often is a desire to keep at least the introduction and problem description sections comprehensible to a rather wide audience. After all, even readers who may be only marginally familiar with the particular research questions should be able to figure out what the paper is about by and large, so they can decide whether reading up on the topic in order to understand the paper in-depth is worthwhile.

At the same time, chances are your research interfaces with people outside of your field in one way or another. Maybe you will have to embed a theoretical framework in a context of application from another field, maybe your research results are meant to benefit non-experts (who will thus be a part of user studies or similar events). Either way, you will have to explain to people who are outside of the target audience of your actual papers what your research is about.

  • supervising students and assistants

This might be the proverbial elephant in the room when it comes to synergies between additional tasks and your research - at least if this supervision happens in the kind of arrangement I am thinking of: Projects of one or more students whose content is more or less individually agreed upon between the students and (officially) the examiner/(inofficially) the supervisor.

If that is the case, try to actively participate in the definition of the tasks. Bachelor and Master theses, as well as other student-based projects, can often be designed in such a way that they end up forming a sub-project for your own research (think a prototype with a small evaluation of a concept you describe, an alternative approach that you do not have time to explore yourself, an extension that forms the "missing link" between your concept and a concrete problem, ...). Motivated students may be willing to try and publish a paper about their work together with you after completing their project, not so motivated students will at least submit their work, which you can then mention in your thesis as a proof-of-concept developed by students.

If done well and with some good luck, this can be a self-reinforcing process, as satisfied students will recommend your supervision to (hopefully) equally capable friends of theirs who can carry on where the previous ones finished.

5

Let's get things sorted straight away: in Germany, most PhD students are Wissenschaftliche Mitarbeiter (scientific collaborators), with a part-time or full-time contract for the time of their PhD. The tasks of your job are:

  • writing parts of grant proposals (many, not one or two like other questions mention)
  • giving popular science talks about our work on any given chance
  • presenting our work during lab tours for all kinds of guests (which happens often)
  • writing news articles and marketing material
  • supervising students and assistants

Plus some degree of teaching responsibility and, of course, doing research.

Being able to get a PhD degree is, at least on paper, an extra perk. If you have a full-time contract (TV-L/TV-H 13 100%), as common in the "IT" part of MINT, you're supposed to do all those stuff during your normal work week, and then put extra effort towards your thesis. If you have a part-time contract (50%, 2/3, 75%), as common in the "MN" part of MINT, you're supposed to devote that portion of the work week to those tasks and work the rest of the time towards your degree.

That, at least, is the situation on paper. In practice, your degree is one of the main goals. As O.R.Mapper also said, your best bet is to make sure those other parts of your work also have relevance towards your degree. Try to be proactive in offering to supervise Bachelor and Master theses by proposing topics which are relevant to your research (data analysis, programming and evaluating some algorithms, etc.). The better those theses are, the further they will bring you, and the higher the chance a good paper may come out of them - which, depending on the advisor, may be a major part of your final thesis. Try not to see those tasks (especially the teaching and supervising ones) as a burden: they may be really useful, if played well.

  • Isn't Mitarbeiter just employee? – Peter Mortensen Jan 20 at 1:30
  • 1
    I'm not totally sure, but I think part of the paid hours are supposed to be used for PhD research, i.e. 'wissenschaftliche Qualifikation'. It's not purely something you do after work hours. – henning -- reinstate Monica Jan 20 at 9:45
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    I guess formally, it is expected to do research in the paid time and write the thesis in the unpaid time. Of course, it is not easily possible to distinguish between the two, especially when the research leads to papers. – kap Jan 23 at 11:08
3

In Hamburg, by law, at least 30% of your paid time should be focused on your PhD. Track your time and if that isn't the case, speak up.

But as others have said, most of what you have to do, can help you as well. Find the synergies and maximize them. In the end you should be able to reach 50% or more and all the remaining tasks are necessary for your (academic) career anyway. You can't be a professor without teaching experience. If there is an opportunity, most people will hire someone who was able to generate funding, for a postdoc position.

2

The type of work you described definitely belongs to the work of PhD students. And sometimes it can even be less connected to research; from my own experience this can include organizing conferences or helping reorganization of offices.

The actual amount typically depends on the kind of contract. There are different types with different perks and requirements on your side. A typical full time university job ("Lehrstelle") includes a certain amount of teaching, typically measured by lecture hours. It is expected that you spend twice as much time for the teaching. I.e. if you have the obligation for 8 hours of teaching this will mean 16 hours per week. The additional time is required for preparation, correcting exams, supervising the lab, etc. Also supervising other (bachelor and master's) theses is expected, and also helping students in seminars.

Often these jobs are only part time, which means that the official teaching obligations are also only halved. This allows you to spend the other half of the time for doing research.

Additionally, there are research grants. They typically do not include teaching obligations, but supervising students for seminars and theses is often expected and also voluntarily giving a lecture. However, it is easier to select an interesting topic. With these contracts comes the most free time to actually do research work.

The other topics are normally not written down explicitly in contracts, but it is expected to be the kind of work. If you feel that you do more than is usually done in your group, speak to your supervisor. From my experience in research groups that work well together, the work is shared belong all members, with a trend that PhD students that are shortly before finishing their own thesis have to do less work to concentrate on the at that time more pressing topic.

However, with any kind of contract it is often the case to write most of the thesis in after office hours.

-1

You need to concentrate on your research. Hide out if needed or do your work at odd hours. Often people won't tell you the dirty truth but I would urge you to at least consider a more stark and cynical view of grad school.

A fair amount of single-mindedness, even selfishness is needed. It is possible to take this too far (not pulling your weight in the group, leaving lab dirty, breaking things) but you are the opposite. Doing too much. At the end of the day, the "score" will be based on how many papers you write and how good they are. NOT on the other crap.

Buckle down and get some science done and papers written. You can be more outgoing and do outreach, etc. after you are a tenured faculty.

  • 4
    This does not address the fact that the OP is a salaried employee of the university. He/She is formally was hired to do exactly what he/she spends so much time on. Given that, the "Hide out if needed or do your work at odd hours." suggestion does not appear to be appropriate, as making yourself unavailable is against the working contract. It would however be appropriate to approach the supervisor about reducing the non-science workload. – DCTLib Jan 18 at 22:45
  • I disagree. One approach is to ask supervisor. Other is avoidance. They each have plus and minus. I am not talk open rebellion, but avoidance. This is very possible as an employee. For example when asked to help, "sorry too busy". – guest Jan 19 at 0:06
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    Yes, avoidance is possible for employees. However, unless you are Wally, avoidance will come back and bite you. The person whose assignments you are avoiding is the one that supervises your Ph.D. and that will write recommendations for you later. Avoiding assignments is a good way to end up on that person's bad side. – S. Kolassa - Reinstate Monica Jan 19 at 16:02
  • You can take a stance of doing the minimum. It's actually prioritization. Your instructor gets more out of the publications anyhow. And certainly you do. I urge to at least consider this more contrarian view along with the other answers. – guest Jan 19 at 17:02

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