I live in Germany. I've just recently finished my M. Sc. in computer science and I'm now thinking about pursuing a PhD. I've been offered a full-time position on a topic which I'm quite interested in (related to my Master thesis). The contract would be for five years and well-paid, so I wouldn't have to worry about finances. But I am still very hesitant to accept, since I'm not sure if I can handle the stress associated with a PhD. Driven by fascination and harsh self-criticism, my studies went quite well and I've always received positive feedback on my performance. But I took much longer than average to finish and by the end I was close to a burnout.

I'd like to continue research on the topic of my thesis, but I'm not really interested in another academic title. I believe this is a great opportunity, but I'm also aware that I need to consider my well-being after exposing myself to way too much stress during my studies. I'm currently thinking about negotiating the contract from 40 hours down to 35 hours a week. An hour a day might make a significant difference in terms of stress. However, this obviously means there would be less time to develop, implement and test research ideas. Is thinking about work-life balance in a PhD a good idea? Or is it a sign that I'm not fit enough and I should go to the industry straight (where I know I'll end up in the long term, anyway)?

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    This is hard to answer as it will depend a lot on your personality. Anyway, one thing I'd be quite curious about if I were you is to what extent the hours in the contract are just a formal necessity or whether there is some real enforcement of working time. In many places people can work whatever time they want for their PhD as long as they come out with something good. In such a situation it wouldn't make sense to reduce the formal working hours as the real conditions wouldn't change. (The negative implication is that you may well work more than 40h whether the contract says 40 or 35.) Commented Mar 9, 2023 at 21:55
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    As @ChristianHennig comments. That is, depending on the type of work you're doing, can you really stop yourself from thinking about it after the official stop-work time? Would pretending that it's 35 hours (with a pay cut?) really make it different from 40? And, yes, I think most things at that level are outcome-based, not rule-based... But I'm not familiar with the situation in Germany. Commented Mar 9, 2023 at 22:25
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    Stress in a Ph.D is a function of several factors, not just the amount of hours worked. Even in the odd (and lucky?) chance you do get to work fixed hours a week, your working relationship with your advisor contributes majorly to your overall well-being. Is your advisor supportive? Do they offer sound guidance? Do you trust that they will help you succeed? Of course, the answers to these you may not know now, but I am just saying there are other aspects to what could induce stress. It is quite possible to work long hours and yet be stress free, as long there is a supportive system around.
    – Neb Uzer
    Commented Mar 10, 2023 at 2:45
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    One thing you have to keep in mind in Germany is the "Wissenschaftszeitvertragsgesetz". Irrespective of the numbers of hours per week you have, the hard limit for employment during your PhD is (excluding some other special cases) always 6 years. Even at 35 hours this should be enough, but you should keep in mind that something like taking twice the time at half workload is not possible. Also as an alternative, if you feel burned out after your Masters-degree, consider taking a few months off for doing something different (e.g. travelling) before you start, that is easy to negotiate for.
    – mlk
    Commented Mar 10, 2023 at 8:49
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    Note that both official and practical working hours in a PhD will depend strongly on the specific domain and environment. I've seen anything from people doing a PhD at 25% employment as a side-gig, to 50% employment and working well past 120%, up to 100% employment like a regular job (and many permutations of that). You might want to take advice with a grain of salt unless you are sure it actually matches your situation closely. Commented Mar 10, 2023 at 12:34

9 Answers 9


You write that you were on the verge of burnout at the end of your studies. You did not have fixed working hours during your studies. Ask yourself what made you put in more time and effort than was healthy for you. Was it the feeling that others were working harder? That your results were not good enough? Ask yourself whether a reduced contractual working time would really solve your problem.

I'm a PhD student in Germany and I've also been faced with the question of whether it's possible to do a PhD with the normal workload of a full-time job. In Germany, there are two types of doctoral funding: a scholarship and a staff position. It sounds like your offer belongs to the second category. Ask your supervisor how much time you would have to spend each week on work unrelated to your PhD, e.g. teaching. Talk to PhD students in the research group about how much they think they have to work and how much they actually work. The actual working time of PhD students depends very much on the working culture of the particular group. (If there are people with disabilities or PhD students with small children in the group, this could be an indicator that not too much overtime is expected). Then you can consider whether you can cope with the workload and whether reducing your contractual hours would mean you actually work less.

My solution, by the way, was this: I made it clear in the interview that I could not work more than 40 hours a week in the long term, which my supervisor accepted. Then I saw my doctorate as a 8 to 5 job, which worked well for the first 80% of the doctorate. Now I am working more to finish my dissertation, but for a limited period of time that is fine for me.

  • That's a very helpful answer. I believe my main issues were overidentifying myself with my work as well as working inefficiently due to concentration issues, partially because there was no real separation between studying and leisure time. I believe transitioning from being a student to being a paid worker would be very healthy for me. Commented Mar 11, 2023 at 19:09

In my group in Germany, there is a fellow Phd student who has an 80% contract by choice and usually doesn't work Fridays. As far as I can tell, that person gets their work done just as well as the rest of us, judging by objective measures such as submitted publications. Of course, there are some phases, especially right before submission deadlines, where we are all working regardless of whether we usually would. Our supervisor encourages us to take time off afterwards to balance this out.

However, I strongly encourage you to talk about this with your future supervisor and especially future fellow Phd students, as they will be able to tell you about the group's culture with respect to these sorts of things. Phds in Germany are often highly individual relationships between supervisors and supervisees and a lot will depend on what your supervisor expects. In contrast to the experience in my own group, I also know Phd students, where it is expected that they work weekends and long hours.

  • It's encouraging to hear from such a success story. If I knew it would work out this way, I'd go for it. It's exactly the inherent variability of work environments, as well as the unpredictability of research, which makes the decision so hard for me. However, from talking to the supervisor and some potential future colleagues, I've gotten a positive impression. But as pointed out by Ina, self-exploitation is another potential issue to consider. Commented Mar 11, 2023 at 18:55

Let me start by saying that I find it crazy that we as a society are so brainwashed into thinking that only those who are willing to spend a majority of their time working their butt off are really serious about their career and fit for doing their job. Of course you do not have to be a workaholic to be fit for doing a PhD, especially if you don't want it to take over your life. Especially in Germany where A) the right to work part time is guaranteed by law and B) the route to a PhD is often less structured and less time sensitive than in other places.

There are even studies that hint to a 4-day work week being just as productive as the status quo 5-day work week that has been so firmly implanted into our brains as being the only way to go. In some countries this concept is already tried.

On the flipside (as said by some commenters), it often happens that people put in a lot of (unpaid) overtime while working on their PhD. If that were the case in your institution, reducing the hours on paper but not in reality would just lead to you getting paid less for working more or less the same. Talk to your future supervisor and ideally to other PhD students about this to find out if that is the case.

So, if you feel better with working less hours per week, are OK with a little less money and have the guarantee that it will not only be less hours on paper, go for it. It will not make you less of a PhD student. It will probably won't even make you less productive, as you will have more time to recharge and relax in between working hours.

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    "Talk to your future supervisor and ideally to other PhD students about this to find out if that is the case." - Perhaps this is especially important for the case of Germany. Research groups are very different - in some, the advisors will enforce the max. 40 hours per week (because by the employment law, he/she is formally obliged to, except for those financed with scholarships). In other research groups, PhD students spending less than 50 hours per week in office will receive snarky comments from their peers. Find out what the culture in the group is from the other PhD students.
    – DCTLib
    Commented Mar 10, 2023 at 8:56
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    There also is the option to start with 40 h and then evaluate after 6 months or so, as it's always possible to reduce.
    – erc
    Commented Mar 10, 2023 at 12:31
  • You're right. In an achievement-driven job like research, efficiency is more important than total working hours. Of course, this quality is difficult to predict. But by reducing my working hours, I would also be setting my hope into the remaining hours being more productive. Commented Mar 13, 2023 at 3:48

Thinking about work-life balance is a good thing for a PhD, and something that many people have to painfully learn during it. Someone working 75% of the time but at full efficiency is going to run circles around folks spending 16 hours a day totally exhausted but not stopping to catch a breath.
But ultimately, you should ask yourself whether you actually can do a specific PhD at less time at a pace sustainable for you.

There is no one-size-fits-all answer to this: Both official and practical working hours depend strongly on the specific domain, university/lab and advisor.

With the way funding works in Germany, your salary is directly tied to the official working hours. Often, the official working hours will be set according to the salary funding available, not the actual work hours expected/required. Cutting back on work hours may not even be feasible since the funding must to be spent.
Regardless of your own preference, talk to your potential future advisor whether working reduced time is even feasible and how official versus expected work hours align. You gain nothing by asking yourself whether you are fit for a situation that doesn't actually exist.

In many domains, you are not actually paid to do your PhD. The salary you get is for "service work", such as contributing to general tasks in a scientific collaboration, working on a practical project that is merely the use-case of your research, teaching, supervision, and so on. Actually working on your PhD is then your own business and time; you primarily get paid by your institution so that you are close to your research peers and don't have to worry about finding a job elsewhere.
As far as I am aware, a 100% employment over 5 years in Computer Science in Germany is practically guaranteed to be paying you for significant teaching work. Unless you are working in an absolute niche, there will be competition that does not mind working extra hours or churn through several people.

From the way you describe your M.Sc. the driving force is not your employment but you. So ask yourself: If you are overworked and may feel that you must keep up with goals set externally, will you stop yourself from working that extra hour per day?
Because that is what you may have to do if you pursue a PhD in Computer Science.

It may be worth keeping in mind that a disparity between official and working hours is not exclusive to academia/science. Especially software development and other work related to CS is notorious for being an industry with wildly different work-life guarantees. You might not want to think of this as "industry vs academia", but rather weight the offers you actually have – that may include looking for other offers so that you can make an informed decision.

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    "you are not actually paid to do your PhD" This is absolutely key. If your employer decides to give you lots of what you call service work, you are obliged to do it for the time per week written in your contract. So then it might make sense to reduce this to an acceptable level, provided you still make enough money for a living. If your employer gives you a lot of freedom to basically do what you want... Well, be happy and take the money. It is OP's (often not so easy) task to find out how the group culture actually is. Commented Mar 10, 2023 at 19:22
  • I think the question you've posed is quite important. If I start a PhD, I will only survive if I learn to accept the possibility of failure. With the M. Sc., I can always turn to the industry, decreasing the pressure to succeed. Commented Mar 12, 2023 at 0:39
  • What do you mean by competition churning through several people? Are you referring to professors from different research groups working on the same topic? I think I would try to steer my research such that it becomes as niche as possible without sacrificing relevance. Commented Mar 12, 2023 at 0:47
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    @freshGraduate Yes, it’s not uncommon for several research groups to work on similar topics, and for some groups to handle heavy workload by having multiple people work together or in succession to handle stress. Keep in mind I don’t know anything about your specific research; figuring out what the competition is - if any - is something you should discuss with your potential supervisor. Commented Mar 12, 2023 at 6:44
  • Well, that's a good point. Of course I know that science is competitive. But I didn't consider the nicheness of the field to be a relevant factor in the stress equation before you mentioned it. Commented Mar 13, 2023 at 3:32

Worked hours vs contracted hours

In general, the process of research as such and PhD in particular is unstructured enough that there is not an exact match between worked hours and contracted hours.

You should definitely care about managing your workload and work-life balance, however, I feel that "negotiating the contract from 40 hours down to 35 hours a week" will have no impact whatsoever on how many hours you'll actually work in a given year, as all kinds of other factors (external, personal, psychological) will have a much larger impact on that than anything that contract says, so the only thing this negotiation will achieve is that you'll get paid less for the same thing.


Is thinking about work-life balance in a PhD a good idea ?

Absolutely !

And not only a good idea but a vital consideration since a balanced outlook in general helps us to look at a topic from different points of view, make indirect connections between phenomena and so on - factors that, all other things being the same, will have a strong bearing on original and substantial findings that you will make during the programme.

Or is it a sign that I'm not fit enough and I should go to the industry straight (where I know I'll end up in the long term, anyway)?

This is the main question in your situation, I feel.

Every research workplace, i.e. university, research institute, contract research organization, consultancy, industry, has its own ethos, its own predominant type of people and its own ambiance. This is regardless of whether most staff in the research group abide with the prevailing ethos or not: they are supposed to and success in that arena demands it.

From your post, I think it's clear that your main attraction to the M.Sc. programme was that the topic was very interesting to you. You were probably a "straight-through" postgraduate (no time working after your B.Sc. degree) so you didn't see the downside of academic working environments as clearly as the upside. Your work drained you a bit.

The feeling that you will end up in the industry eventually reads a bit ambiguously. It could mean you feel this is your preferred milieu or that you feel you may not be "good enough" (or suitable) for academia.

If I were you I would ask myself which of these interpretations applies to you. But either way, I think you would benefit from a year or two in a non-academic research job if only to recharge your batteries and find which way you want to go.

By the way, I think 35 or 40 hours a week is not the real question here. Personally I and my contemporaries worked double that but loved the work per se. It was the unusual human environment and odd (non-) relationships people in academia had with each other that goosed us.

Wishing you well.

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    During my thesis, I did get a lot of valuable insights while I wasn't working on it, e.g. while riding home from university. That's a very good point. Commented Mar 13, 2023 at 3:58
  • You've touched on an important question. I see my future in the industry because I don't wanna expose myself to the competitive pressure of academia forever. I can see myself continue doing research for a few years, but ultimately I'd like to be an engineer. Thanks for your wishes! Commented Mar 13, 2023 at 4:05

Is thinking about work-life balance in a PhD a good idea?

Not only is it a good idea, it is absolutely crucial for your success that you take care of yourself and build an environment and lifestyle in which can thrive as a researcher.

In my experience, those who are most productive are not those who work the most, but who have the ability to take, say, 2 or 3 hours a day -- at a time that works best for them -- to set aside all distractions and focus on a key goal in their research project. Anecdotally, I spent large portions of my PhD (sometimes weeks at a time) accomplishing essentially nothing, and other weeks accomplishing an unbelievable amount in a short amount of working hours. Taking a break has few downsides and is often a great idea to boost your productivity.

So to answer your main question:

Are reduced working hours in a PhD a reasonable idea?

Absolutely yes.

  • During my thesis, I've also made the observation that progress is very unpredictable and by no means subject to continuous growth. I guess this is something one definitely needs to be able to endure. Thanks for the perspective. Commented Mar 13, 2023 at 3:37

Please consider the answer of @lordy. Unfortunately, that was exactly what happened to me in my PhD in Italy. And according to my experience, it was the case for most PhD students all over the world.

If you manage to give your supervisor the number of publications they want from you every year, they will have a more flexible approach towards you, and will most probably not care about how many hours per week you work exactly. If not, they will push you to your limits. They will do it to try and get something from you and justify the money the University/research center is spending on you. But mainly they will do it because it will not make sense to them to supervise a PhD student that does not produce new publications for them each year and therefore doesn't improve their curriculum.

Remember, PhD students are actually cheap (actually the cheapest) disposable publications-producing machines in academia. That's how academia sees PhD students, everything else is secondary. They are disposable because the vast majority of them will leave the university/research center where they worked producing papers for their supervisors, while the supervisor themselves will stay, waiting for new PhD students to squeeze for other 4/5 years. I repeat, I think this is the case the majority of times in Accademia. In Industry it's different.

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    I'm sorry to hear you had such a negative experience. I think in my case the publication pressure wouldn't be too extreme, but I've heard of departments like that. Commented Mar 11, 2023 at 16:26

Doing a PhD is not a normal full-time position (40h/week) but usually considerably more (>60h/week). But it is also not like a normal job - it is more like being married to your thesis topic without fixed working times at an immense pressure. In order to survive in academia you have to put everything you have into your projects.

Even if your potential supervisor agrees to reduced working hours (which is unlikely) you might still have to work considerably more than the hours you're being paid and you the run the risk of not being able to finish your PhD and you will certainly not be able to start a competitive career in academia.

To answer your question from above: It is most likely not a good idea for you.

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    I disagree with that. I know people who did work much less than 30 hours (and completed in time). I know single mothers who did a phd and teachers who did a phd in their free time (the latter unpaid, I think). The last sentence I also disagree with: The future is not the only thing the counts, but also the current time - if you are happier now, that may be a good idea. (Also OP does not want to have an academia career - as far as I can tell, Industry does not seem to care at all)
    – user111388
    Commented Mar 10, 2023 at 11:10
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    Even if not every PhD is like this, I feel this is an important data point. Sure there are people (and entire domains) for which things work differently, but most PhD students in Computer Science in Germany I know of are doing significant extra work. Even if one doesn't want to survive in academia forever, 5 years is still quite a while... Commented Mar 10, 2023 at 13:33
  • While this scenario is rather pessimistic, I'm aware that it's a possibility. I appreciate the straightforwardedness. Commented Mar 11, 2023 at 16:23

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