Say for example you are a new PhD student and realize that you hate doing research in your free time but you are more than willing to spend several hours in the morning to do research. Was your decision to become a PhD student right for you or not?

I'm asking because people are suggesting that "you have to be really passionate and curious about everything all the time"

what if you want to be curious during your work and just relax and have fun doing unrelated things when you have some free time in your hands?

I guess this indicates that you aren't really passionate, but what's the threshold for "being passionate enough for a PhD"?

These thoughts have really made me somewhat confused over my decision of going for a PhD. It's been a few weeks that I'm into this program and after reading a lot of stuff online addressing the question whether the PhD is right for you or not, I'm already starting to question my decision.

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    There's a large area between "I want to do research all the time" and "I can do research a couple of hours in the morning". The former will burn you out, the latter will likely not allow you to keep up in the competitive academic job market.
    – xLeitix
    Commented Aug 26, 2014 at 12:28
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    Free time? What free time?
    – Eekhoorn
    Commented Aug 26, 2014 at 14:13
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    @ksm001 "by morning I implicitly meant the 8-10 hours that you spend on average at your office or lab." That's an unusual definition of "several hours in the morning". You must get a really early start. :-) Commented Aug 26, 2014 at 15:16
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    I think that the question can be interpreted in many ways: (1) I hate doing research but it's an ok job (2) I like research but I'd hate to have to do it all day ( = work hours + free time) (3) I hate research but I like the benefits so I love the job. Commented Aug 26, 2014 at 16:01
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9 Answers 9


The other answers already explain that no, you shouldn't be doing research all the time, with no time for breaks, relaxation and other interests. All this is quite correct.

However, I am a bit unsure whether the stark dichotomy "all research all the time" versus "a few hours in the morning" is really helpful here. Maybe an answer to the following question is more helpful:

Is doing a Ph.D. right for you if you plan on doing it as a 9-5 job, 40 hours per week?

And there, I would be a bit more careful. Yes, there are people who can do a Ph.D. like a "normal job", at their desk at 9am sharp and dropping their pencils at 5pm. It is possible. However, my personal impression is that these people will avoid the typical Ph.D. burnout, but they will likely not be top performers. So my answer to the modified question above is:

You will probably do fine with a 40 hour workweek, if you make sure to stay self-motivated. However, you should think deeply about just why you want to do a Ph.D... because unless you are uncommonly brilliant, you will likely not be productive enough to stay in academia and compete with people who routinely put in 50-60 hours per week. You may want to think about leaving academe with the Ph.D. and going into industry.

Note that I am not saying "40 hour Ph.D. students" are lazy. However, if you can't work up the level of passion and commitment to your topic that makes you want to put in 50-60 hours per week often, then there will likely be someone else, and that someone else will have more publications five or ten years down the road.

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    Note many careers expect more than 40 hours a week of work. In some cases substantially more.
    – kleineg
    Commented Aug 26, 2014 at 15:57
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    Yeah, competitive careers are also more work. Turns out we failed at the whole "so we have all this leisure time now, right?" thing.
    – user18072
    Commented Aug 26, 2014 at 16:14
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    On the other hand, working much more than 40 h will decrease your performance. Big tech companies, that are probably the closest environment to academia, tend to limit the time their employees work.
    – Davidmh
    Commented Aug 26, 2014 at 21:52
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    This answers seems very strictly related to the US, and perhaps a few other countries. It is quite possible to do research 9-5, I am thinking a public job for example. Commented Sep 3, 2014 at 6:41
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    Research is so multifaceted. When I entered our program, I was reading textbooks constantly. Then I was learning how others did things in their labs. Then I was neck deep in my own projects generating data for a year. Then I was analyzing those data for months. Now I spend most time writing combined with reading for appropriate citations. I haven't generated data in over a year. The program and field of study will dictate much of this schedule, but where that time goes could change dramatically and repeatedly as(if) you move from junior graduate student to faculty.
    – mightypile
    Commented Jan 1, 2015 at 18:47

Having to be passionate and curious about everything all the time is a great recipe—for exhaustion.

You should be curious and interested in the research that you want to do, and be motivated enough to keep going even (or perhaps especially) on days when things just don't work the way you want to. More importantly, it should be interesting enough to you that you're willing to put up with the failure that is a necessary component of successful research. But it's not necessary, or even practical or desirable, to spend every waking hour thinking about or doing research.

  • This, is a very simple yet highly explanatory of the situation. Too few students actually think about it
    – TheVal
    Commented Jan 25, 2021 at 15:20

My experience is that I was so exhausted from learning new things at the beginning of my PhD, that I couldn't take more in at some point in the day. I would read light literature, watch silly sitcoms, go out, do things completely unrelated to work. And I also worried because I saw that my supervisor and other 'real' scientists seem immersed in their topic more of the time.

By the end of my PhD my fingers keep itching to write down ideas or look at data when I'm doing other stuff. It simply gets easier because there is less novelty to the work you're up against, and because you become more competent within your field. Once you feel that the knowledge you have can contribute to the field, it's a whole other ballgame. But that takes time, and it's really nothing to worry about when you're just beginning. Taking time off to do other things is still incredibly important of course - not only psychologically but also for work productivity - but the spontaneous, out of the blue research-related insights tend to increase in frequency over time. I don't think the number of hours you like to spend doing research right now can tell you all that much about what's to come.


I will also give my perspective as someone who is almost 3 years into a PhD in the UK.

I am one of the unusual students in my department who treats my PhD time like a full time job. I come in at the same time every day (9:30 approx.) and leave between 5pm and 6pm every day. I very rarely do any work at home, because I need the time to spend doing other things. My partner works full time, so we have a routine during the week and like to spend time together in the evenings and on weekends. The only times I actively work at home are when I have deadlines coming up (i.e. progress report due, presentation to finish). That said, I quite often discuss my work with my partner, which can help me think. My supervisor is very strict, so I certainly wouldn't get away with being away from my office without permission from him.

The first few months of a PhD isn't really indicative of what the rest of the time will be like. You will likely spend most of your time initially reading up on your research topic, which can be incredibly dull! Annoyingly, much of the scientific literature is written in a way that makes it hard to read, so when you are spending most of your day reading, you will find it difficult.

Once you have settled into your PhD, you will spend most of your time doing other things. It does depend on your research area. I am in the climate field, so much of my time is spent doing data manipulation and analysis on large datasets. During my first 6 months, I was doing a lot of data collection and quality control. I was also learning a lot of programming skills that I required to be able to work with these datasets. I also took some time to go to skills courses offered to PhD students at my university. One course that was very useful in my first year was about literature searches - how to do effective searches and also how to record the information learnt while reading. I can go back to a paper I read 2 years ago, and not have to re-read it because of the notes I made every time I read a paper.

Different universities provide different experiences, so you may get the opportunity to do some teaching (unfortunately I don't have that option). Attending a conference in your first year is a great experience, and something to work towards. I presented a poster of my research at my first conference, which was also a new skill learnt.

I guess what I am trying to say is that you don't have to spend hundreds of hours per week working on your research to be a successful PhD researcher. On the other hand, you will need to do more than a couple of hours per day to be able to get your PhD in a reasonable amount of time. I am on course to finish mine in 3.5 years. Don't let your experience in the first few months put you off, as it will get better. If you still aren't enjoying it after 6 months to a year, then maybe reassess your decision.

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    total off-topic, but I am extremely interested to hear about: I can go back to a paper I read 2 years ago, and not have to re-read it because of the notes I made every time I read a paper. how do you do that? Commented Aug 26, 2014 at 17:01
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    @WolfgangKuehne I read through a paper highlighting important parts (i.e. data used, period studied, useful methods, important results). I then write a cover sheet with the name of the article, the authors, the date I read the paper, and then add notes based on what I highlighted. I then write a summary of the paper in my own words.
    – emmalgale
    Commented Aug 26, 2014 at 20:41
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    great, you should consider writing this in a on-topic question, so it can be Favorited and others can benefit. Commented Aug 27, 2014 at 9:16
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    @ksm001 I'm in a very similar situation as emmalgale: PhD in engineering (paid well enough through industry) in Austria/father of 3 small kids/not overachieving, but solid contributor/no academic ambitions/35h per week. My professor would like to squeeze more out of me, which quite often makes me feel bad, but I consider family more important. They suffer enough when there are conferences/paper deadlines when I do not keep the 35h/week self imposed limit.
    – Sebastian
    Commented Aug 28, 2014 at 15:05

Full disclosure social science Ph.D. program.

First weeks in a Ph.D. program... here's what's going on.

You're in the hazing period of grad school. People are over-exagerating.

  • Your peers (cohort) are all hyper competitive with each other right now. There's still very much that need of many to show that they are the smartest person in the room. This usually comes from a place of insecurity (i.e., needing praise, not wanting to feel the impostor syndrome, etc.). Overtime, this will fade. Then it will become like most other working environments... there will be lots of honest water cooler talk, less competitiveness, etc. However, within your lab it will also mirror the corporate world, where your peers will agree with everything your boss says, fake knowing things they really don't know, and generally try and win favorability.

  • Everyone needs to say how hard graduate school is and how much work it is in the beginning. It's a mantra that no one ever questions. You get the same kind of thing in corporate jobs. The truth is, I haven't found the work of it to be that hard at all! Sure, I've experienced lots of frustration in feeling held-up due to delays in feedback, new directions in the lab and a lack of face to face time with my advisor, but the work is quite easy. The people who do spend way too many hours of their life doing work I have found to be one of four types:

    1) Obsessed with perfection as a means for impressing. This is the typical OC type you surely have encountered through your entire life.

    2) Has no defining personal life that gives them sustenance outside of grad school. This is the student who will answer his/her's advisor's email 5 minutes after it arrives in his/her mailbox, as such sets the expectation that this is acceptable. Most students are like this their first year, but there will definitely be people around you that stay this way.

    3) Not very competent. When I arrived in graduate school I was really surprised at the amount of incompetence I saw in my peers. I'm certainly of average intelligence, but have always been a self-doer, so I wasn't expecting everyone be a genius. However, there's just a lot of incompetent people in the programs. Ironically, these are the ones that seem to fare the best in terms of getting through the program. I still scratch my head with this one.

    4) Inefficient. This can involve having poor time-management skills, but I find it's more about workflows. My peers spend a lot of time every week doing repetitive tasks that they could streamline and automate in so many different ways. My favorite was a student who needed to run a series of descriptive and regression analysis on newly available data every a week. The task literally took this person over 10 hours every week because this person manually entered everything into SPSS (a point and click statistical software). In 2 hours of research on simple coding skills this student could have learned how to automate nearly the entire process, and had the task finished in seconds. The fact that the advisor thought this was a good use of time is a whole other issue! The point is, I find that what my lab mates finish in 20 hours a week literally takes me under 5 hours to finish. Just work smart!

Your question seems more about work-life balance. This applies in graduate school too. Let the program run your life, give up all the small things you do outside of school, and you'll be saying hello to depression in no time.

Yes, you can have a life while being a Ph.D. student. In fact, I'd say as soon as the Graduate Program becomes how you describe yourself to others it's time to reevaluate your life.


I have found that for some reason people really dislike it when other people do things for reasons that aren't "noble".

I posted a question on here a while ago asking about doing a post-doc, and I said that the main reason I would want to do one is because it seems like it would be a fun way to spend my time for a few years. I got a lot of negative replies along the lines of "If that's the reason you want to do a post-doc, you clearly aren't the type of person who should be doing one" or "I hope no one wastes research dollars on you".

Similarly, anyone who creates a start-up with the goal of "getting rich" is harassed. If they had pretended their real goal is to solve some great problem in the world in order to make it a better place, they would have gotten a lot of positive feedback instead.

In the programming community, a lot of people say "you're not a real programmer" if you don't have side projects that you work on in your free time. How can you possibly be passionate about your work if you don't do it in your free time as well?

In my opinion, all of the above is a lot of baloney. Who cares what your motivation is. We're all going to be dead in the next hundred years, and the only thing that matters now is the tangible results you can provide to your employing agency. If I can produce high quality research publications in a post-doc that I'm doing for "all the wrong reasons", who cares? Life isn't fair; there are people who slave away and have little to show for their work, while others hit upon a lucky discovery with little effort and are set for life. If you would rather spend your free time drinking beer and socializing with friends instead of reading articles, but you're still able to make good progress on your PhD, who cares?

I've found that most people who brag about working hard and being at the office all the time are normally wasting their time in other ways anyhow. Sure, they may be "working" 10 hours a day, but they're not actually accomplishing all that much.

So I wouldn't let other students' opinions on whether you're "passionate enough" have any bearing on what you do with your life.

EDIT: Having said that, I will point out that probabilistically, those who are more curious and interested in their work will tend to do better than those who aren't. If you're forcing yourself to work 60 hours a week, you will probably not do as well as someone who has to stop themselves from working that many hours because they're having so much fun. For instance, I spend my research time performing molecular dynamics simulations, writing programs to analyze the data, and writing papers on the results. But then I spend my free time learning about quantum mechanics. Maybe what I do in my free time could somehow help my research; then again, maybe it won't. But I don't get burnt out, because I'm splitting my time up into divisions of what I can handle without anxiety.


If you are limited to "several hours of research in the morning" this is going to make completing a PhD in a reasonable amount of time difficult. While part time students can and do finish PhDs, it is a long and difficult road. If your interest in the research wanes over time such that several hours becomes a few hours, it is going to become an even longer and more difficult road which may cause a downwards spiral. While many students fail to carve out personal time, completing a PhD does not require you to not relax and have fun. One can be passionate about research and still take a break and relax.


Since you're only a few weeks into your PhD programme I suspect you have a somewhat limited understanding of what research is and how varied it can be. I'll give you my perspective, as a PhD student.

I think a lot depends on how excited you are about your topic. When I did my MSc, I was fortunate in being able to propose any topic I liked within a broad range of areas. So I ended up doing research developing some of my own ideas, with a lot of freedom to follow my own path. I got good results, and now I'm working on my PhD. I love it. I'm not sure how passionate I'd be about doing research based on or forking off of someone else's idea. But since it's my own "baby", I'm very passionate about it, and would do it for fun even if there wasn't a PhD at the end.

But let me put this into perspective by pointing out that I'm not equally passionate about all parts of research. I actually enjoy writing, so I don't mind writing papers, but I wouldn't say I'm passionate about it. Sometimes I find paper writing tedious. I love thinking about my research, doing it, and talking about it. I do not love writing proposals; it gets easier over time, but it's not something I would do for fun. As for reading the literature, it depends on how well-written it is and how relevant it is to me. I don't mind it, and I recognise the value of it, but I'm not passionate about it. When I get home at the end of the day, I'm not tempted to read papers or write proposals.

I found the first six months of my MSc to be a struggle, and I suspect most people do. I read papers, but found it very difficult to concentrate on what I was reading because the language was so stiff and formal. I spent too much time reading things that weren't that useful. I made false starts. Research is a skill that takes time to develop, and although others can help you, ultimately it's something you have to teach yourself.

You're in the PhD programme now, so unless you're truly miserable, I suggest not to worry if it's right for you until you're further along, and have a broader picture of what research really is.


This is a difficult one, but my impression of having spoken to people who write a lot of papers (some of them very good math papers) is that it's necessary to take breaks and not think about research all the time. This is to prevent mental (and even physical) exhaustion.

I want to comment though that you should not necessarily judge what the correct ''work schedule'' is from professors and other people with permanent positions, these people have much more experience in the game and probably work more efficiently.

I also knew someone who published two articles in good journals and then went to work in finance after the PhD as they didn't want to carry on in academia. I guess if you work 24/7 you are increasing the chance of burn-out early on and not wanting to continue in academia.

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