My advisor always keeps pointing out that I should have publications and I should keep working and stuff like that. Recently he's been saying that not all student will finish Ph.D. and you should be careful not to be kicked out. He has this notion that Ph.D. students should work more than 80 hours per week on regular basis and near deadlines even they should cut off from their sleep time. I get the idea that he wants to encourage me and I also know that as a Ph.D student I need to have publications.

Is this type of behavior common among most advisors? Is it common for Ph.D. students to be expected to not have a life and just work? And finally do all advisors keep threatening their students like this?

I'm currently a second year computer science student. I've been accepted by the department, not a specific faculty member. Also my funding is coming from TAship not his grant. I'm not sure if I should start looking for another advisor, because I'm not sure whether the behavior I have described is normal.

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    If you don't like his advising policy, change your advisor and talk to another faculty member; but don't lose time, either work with him or change your advisor. – Enthusiastic Engineer Sep 2 '14 at 19:54
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    In Finland (and at least in other Nordic countries, probably in most of Europe) asking someone to work 80 hours per week would be illegal. (... And if the student did it, and the situation continued for a while, the student could expect some big $$$ and the advisor could expect being fired, having to pay big penalties, and maybe even sit some time in jail.) – mmh Sep 2 '14 at 20:58
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    My mind boggles whenever I see these questions. There are only 168 hours in a week. 80 for work, 56 for sleep, and 32 for everything else. No way, not ever, is that a normal or healthy expectation. My advice? If you don't want to work that hard, say no. No adviser should ever expect that level of commitment. For most people, it's neither fun nor sustainable. Sounds like it's time to think about switching advisers. – Moriarty Sep 2 '14 at 21:34
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    On a side note, near conference / paper deadlines (CS) most PHD students I know, sleep less in order to make it. You can replace this sleep the week after the submission. This can happen in any non 9-5 job. – Alexandros Sep 3 '14 at 3:35
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    I work 40 hours a week and get paid more than a PhD student or their advisor. Remember that you are paying him, it's your money, your time. Remind him that this is the case. Enthusiasm for the subject matter will only take you so far, probably to the point where you decide to do a PhD. Only in academia will you find someone paying someone to threaten to fire them. In the real world it works the other way. It's not normal to work 80 hour weeks and your advisor is wrong, but in academia the power structure is inverted and the customer is never right. – sashang Sep 3 '14 at 14:55
up vote 87 down vote accepted

I'm sure some advisors do act this way. I don't think it's very common, but it does happen. It's more common for advisors to expect certain results than a particular hourly commitment, but all these things are a matter of extent.

However, in trying to figure out whether to switch advisors, I think you're asking yourself the wrong question. The right question is:

What type of advising relationship works for you?

If you feel energized, motivated, and happy under your current conditions, that's one thing. If you feel overburdened and miserable, then you should probably look for a different advisor. Even the most competitive Ph.D. programs have faculty who are not so demanding. You have to figure out what type of style works best for you and try to find an advisor who is a good match.

In answer to the question of "Is this expectation usual," I offer the current state of the following completely unscientific survey from the Adventures in Ethics and Science blog.

The question asked is, "My graduate advisor expects or requires me to work...", and as of right now, 68/650 respondents (about 10.5%) report that they believe their advisor expects them to work more than 70 hours a week:

enter image description here

(Note that regardless of what expectations are, the research suggests that the overwhelming majority of graduate students do not work 80 hours a week. For example, a 2003 study of Australian PhD students found that 15.6% worked 50 or more hours per week. A survey of research students at Oxford found that 28.8% worked 45 or more hours per week on research.)

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    That's a great find! Very interesting. However, I would want to caution the reader that this is the kind of survey question where people tend to overstate by a lot. I also have (from personal experience and observing my own students) the impression that grad students tend to overestimate how much time they actually spend on research. – xLeitix Sep 3 '14 at 16:28
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    @xLeitix Not just grad students :) – ff524 Sep 3 '14 at 16:31
  • Hey, another great find :) – xLeitix Sep 3 '14 at 16:31
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    Survey clearly flawed because there's thousands of people who would have responded but were too busy working 80+ hour weeks. =) – corsiKa Sep 3 '14 at 21:06
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    Ouch! This is a really bad statistics. I consider everything above 40 hours per week slavery… – mirabilos Sep 4 '14 at 8:32

I will go as far as saying that 80 hours/week is definitely too much.

80 hours/week means 11.4 hours/day, working weekends or 16 hours/day working Monday-Friday.

Most contracts (and I assume you have one) state 35-40 hours/week (7-8/day not working weekends). However, this is generally just a "placeholder" when speaking of academic positions, where it is difficult to impose strict working hours. However, this does not mean that your supervisor can ask you to work an unreasonable amount of hours.

Directive 2003/88/EC of the European Parliament states that:

Member States shall take the measures necessary to ensure that, in keeping with the need to protect the safety and health of workers:

(a) the period of weekly working time is limited by means of laws, regulations or administrative provisions or by collective agreements or agreements between the two sides of industry;

(b) the average working time for each seven-day period, including overtime, does not exceed 48 hours.

This is surely implemented in the UK, France, and Italy (and I am sure most other EU states implemented the EU Directive).

I would say that, as a PhD student, there could be exceptional instances where you would need to work 80 hours/week (e.g. close to a deadline) but, for your own sake, that should NOT become a habit, but should instead be a very exceptional situation.

I have known people who had the "feeling guilty because I am not in the lab on a Sunday afternoon" syndrome. This is not healthy, and I hope for you that you do not reach that point. Working 80 hours/week means you'll soon become stressed, tired and overall less productive (as you will be more likely to make errors and will have to redo things several times). I know several people (unfortunately more than I would like to) who have had serious health problems because of this type of unreasonable request from their bosses.

You can work 40 hours/week and publish good papers. There are plenty of good people in academia who publish in very good journals, but have a life, a family, and hobbies during their free time. Do not believe those who tell you that working 24/7 you will publish more, because they are just trying to exploit you.

And always remember: just because you are passionate for your job that does not mean you should not have any right. You have the right to work reasonable hours, have the right to have holidays and you should be allowed to take them without having to beg or being considered lazy, and you should be reasonably paid. Just as in any other job.

A little edit on what to do :

  1. Speak with your supervisor and explain the situation. Try to be reasonable and see if you can both work out a solution
  2. If no solution can be found, look for another supervisor. Try not to make a bad brake up with your old supervisor, just explain that you are not confortable with the situation and that you feel it's better for both of you if you change supervisor.
  3. If things get particularly bad, remember that the university has an HR office, that is there also to deal with these things.
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    Sorry, but that is just the old bullshit that is used to exploit students. This is as bad as people not putting students or technicians on papers. It is wrong, unethical and borderline on the legality side. His research is going to the advantage of his supervisor, who will get a publication from his work and may be able to use it to get further grants. So he is providing value to the university by teaching and to the supervisor by doing research. That for me is work and he should be protected as any other worker. I'd definitely would have gone to see HR. – nico Sep 3 '14 at 17:41
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    I agree he should change supervisor (see edit). However, bear in mind that his research work is not his personal work. The university and his supervisor benefit from it. Even more, the University has most likely a policy that all of his results will belong to the University (I had to sign that when I did my PhD). He wouldn't get away, say, by publishing his data without his supervisor's name or without acknowledging his affiliation with the University. I then don't see why he shouldn't be treated correctly. His supervisor should not be able to psychologically threaten him without consequences. – nico Sep 3 '14 at 17:57
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    PhD students can be assigned?? That looks like a potential cause of this problem. Professors are getting assigned students instead of it being a mutual choice. – Austin Henley Sep 3 '14 at 18:08
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    @New_new_newbie In the UK, we have to pay tax on income over £10,000. My studentship is more than that, so if it was an income, I would be paying tax. We also have to pay National Insurance if we earn more than £153 per week, which I would if my studentship was a taxable income. – emmalgale Sep 5 '14 at 10:55
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    It is not his work, it is his studies/research.It's both (ethically, even if not legally) – JeffE Jan 6 '15 at 6:37

I think that your question is mainly opinion-based; because every faculty member has his own policy on advising PhD students and nothing seems to be correct/normal here. But, I answer your question from a student's perspective who is uncomfortable with his studying hours in his PhD program.

If you feel uncomfortable with something in your studying program, you should solve it. The best solution is talking to your advisor.

However, if working more than 80 hours/week is too much for you, you should think about solving it as soon as possible, because, you should work on your PhD project more than three years and when you are uncomfortable with that amount of work, after one or two years, you will face physical or even mental problems such as constant tiredness, depression, etc.

Think about your preferences, abilities and expectations and decide whether you want to work with that advisor or you can find another faculty member who has more flexible working expectations from his students.

In my opinion, expecting higher working hours from a PhD student is not a bad advising policy. But, the point here is that the student should think about his abilities and whether he can work under extreme expectations or not. Some students prefer working more and some students prefer less demanding and more flexible studying hours.

As far as you don't have any funding problem, before talking to your advisor; search carefully for another faculty member who's policies on advising PhD students meets your preferences. Talk to their students and when you have made your mind on changing to another advisor (after talking to them), talk to your current advisor and stop working with him.

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    This is good advice, but doesn't explicitly address the specific question that was asked, of whether this is normal. Perhaps you can edit that into your answer. – ff524 Sep 2 '14 at 20:23
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    Thanks for the advice. But I kind of wanted to know whether such expectations from PhD students are normal among most advisors. – CentAu Sep 2 '14 at 20:26
  • @ff524 I think this question is primarily opinion based and I edited my answer to mention this point. – Enthusiastic Engineer Sep 2 '14 at 20:28

First of all, this depends on the country. In some places, PhD students are considered workers, and have the social rights that come with it. I still work a few more hours than what my contract says, because it goes in my own benefit, but it would be illegal for my advisor to force me to work overtime (so, answering your question, no, here it is not normal).

In other places, they don't, so they may be in principle allowed to demand as much as they want. But here we have a problem: double the hours doen't mean double output. In general, it is not true that working more hours you will get more results!

The best argument to show this is that big tech companies, like Google and Yahoo, that are probably the closest thing to Academia in the industrial world, go to lengths to limit the overtime their engineers put in. Their beans are in the quality of the output, so they have done extensive and careful research, and it has one of the highest quality assurances: lots-of-money-reviewed.

Sometimes, there are deadlines, and we have to put in extra hours; but then, you will get much better results if your team is not burned out.

Edit: Here is a study relating hours worked and productivity in a factory during the World War I. It appears that the productivity for this manual work scales linearly until it hits the roof at 50 h/week. It is remarkable that people working 72 h/week accomplished exactly the same as people working just two thirds of that.

Without more data to support it, I conjecture that for intellectual creative work, the plateau is reached much earlier.

  • Exactly! But (half-jokingly) though ''in some places, PhD students are considered workers and have the social rights that come with it...'', in most places I know about, they are treated as slaves. And did somebody say "social rights"? What is that? – The Dark Side Sep 5 '14 at 10:39

Yes absolutely (advisors do expect 80+ hours a week). It's a terrible situation to be in, but what they want to see is productivity, which is not the same as throwing more hours at it. When I was in grad school I got that lecture constantly. Most people find that more than 50 hours is unhealthy and unsustainable. For a bit you can go 80 hours a week but not too long. But remember he wants productivity, not hours. He cares about publications, not about how long it takes you to generate the data and write it up. Try to look to the other successful, older grad students and figure out how much to work based on that. In grad school it's easy to get into a rythme and lose focus about what you are doing long term. Develop weekly, monthly, and quarterly plan (start from the quarterly plan). Grad school is all about time management and project management. Too often I got stuck for long periods of time in some shit that ended up not mattering at all; we all (all of my colleagues/classmates) wasted years this way. But just remember they care about the publication, not about you, not about your degree.

  • +1 for "Grad school is all about time management". Which includes "deciding how much time to spend in total", but more importantly "deciding what to spend time on". And conversely "what NOT to spend time on". – Floris Sep 4 '14 at 22:18
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    That last sentence is sad, but true nevertheless. I couldn't agree more with this answer, and ''When I was in grad school I got that lecture constantly'' is eerie. I can't help thinking that I am you. – The Dark Side Sep 5 '14 at 10:36
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    If a student told me she was spending 80+ hours on research on an ongoing basis, I would immediately have a discussion with her about how to reduce the workload. That kind of effort is simply not sustainable on a long-term basis. – aeismail Jan 27 '15 at 11:46
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    Sorry, "not about you, not about your degree" is a nasty and plainly false stereotype. Most supervisors I know are interested in the best possible outcome for the student. There may be supervisors who do not care, but this is down to the individual supervisor. I agree with the "productivity, not hours", or else I would have downvoted your response with prejudice. – Captain Emacs Mar 3 '16 at 13:12

I've certainly known advisers do this. Whenever I've tried working with anyone that has this type of policy, they have fallen into one of 2 categories.

1) Advisers that expect a significant fraction of their students to land Tenure track faculty jobs in good institutions within about 2 years of graduating. Check the resume's of the groups prior alumni. If it is this sort of group, I'd likely suck it out and continue. If you have more prior students working as post-docs/adjuncts 4 years later than you do as tenure track faculty then the next category applies.

2) Advisers that are unable to get anything done during the day, usually because they simply don't know what they are doing. Unfortunately this is more common than the previous category in my experience. Change groups now, you will learn little, it will be unpleasant if you continue, and you won't even be in a good situation at the end.

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    Yes. But someone in the other answers said "double the working hours isn't going to double the output", (certainly not necessarily), so it is category two all the way. In my experience, category 2 people are more often than not, second-grade researchers. Top notch people don't care about trivialities such as working hours, or "are you in the lab". – The Dark Side Sep 5 '14 at 10:44

First of all, this varies by field and then it varies again by adviser. I am speaking from the perspective of biological sciences but I think what I have to say could apply in your circumstance.

In my program, we are expected to teach (~7-8 hrs/wk), take classes (~8 hrs/wk), then spend the remaining time in the lab. This does not factor grading (easily 20 hrs/wk for lab classes unless you just do a bad job at it), studying for classes (~10 hrs/wk), and then attending meetings and seminars (~3 hrs/wk). Where does this leave time for research in the lab? My adviser expects me to spend 40 hours/wk in the lab which is difficult to do when you have so many other things to do as well and often not enough time to get it all done. The majority of my weeks end up being 60 hours of work during the Fall and Spring semesters because classes tend to mess up my planning for experiments. During the summer, I tend to average about 45-50 hours. But then the rest of my time is really spent in classes, teaching, grading, and studying. Bottom line - your weeks may be crazy because of other graduate school requirements making your work hours stretch as a result.

I have talked to others extensively on the program. Many of them do not need to teach and their advisers tend to ask them to spend about 50-60 hours a week working. The other very common situation is that the adviser does not care so long as they are productive. There are many different management styles and I have had personal experience with both.

A small percentage of advisers tend to ask for ridiculous hours and threaten their students but it's certainly not the norm. I know some people that enjoy or do not mind that lifestyle - research is their hobby and they love spending that much time on their work. Some advisers are the same way and have a hard time understanding others that do not share the same passion. If this lifestyle is not for you, I advise switching sooner than later. I switched advisers half-way through my PhD and I wish I had done it sooner.

Summary: It's not the norm but it's not exactly rare either. If you can't handle this kind of lifestyle you should change while you still can.

Short answer... I would expect PhD students to work 60-80 hours a week, but would not require it, and would not advise working more than 10-12 hours five or six days a week. Based on my experience, students that work less than 40 hours a week are likely not to make acceptable progress and submit, or will require an extension and/or not to achieve the publications required to assure award or career. Conversely, students that consistently work much more than 80 hours a week are likely to suffer (mental or physical) breakdowns. A 9-5 mentality is not a good fit for a researcher, but an around-the-clock focus is potentially fatal.

It is normal for an advisor to expect that you'll be working of the order of 80 hour weeks at times, particularly if you are being paid to do research or teaching as well as undertaking a full time PhD. It is their responsibility to warn you if you are falling behind and liable to have your candidature cancelled.

The long answer takes into account what research and a research career is all about, as well as expectations of university staff.

A recent study by an Australian union found that, "on average, academic staff work 50.7 hours per week over the whole year and of the 45% of professional and general staff that reported working uncompensated overtime, the average was 5.7 hours per week...

Over three quarters of survey respondents (77.1%) indicated they worked these hours because they felt they needed to do so to ensure they performed their jobs satisfactorily and/or for fear of losing their job..."

See http://www.nteu.org.au/stateoftheuni

  • Your mentioned "Maybe courses to help you read and write, plan and think more efficiently and effectively". Can you suggest any readings, resources for this? – CentAu Jan 5 '15 at 5:52
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    I don't see how this answers the actual posted question. At a minimum, your discussion of how graduate students should spend their time is obscuring your answer. – JeffE Jan 5 '15 at 23:46
  • There are some good resources in the form of books but they tend to be oriented specifically to the US model of a PhD, and often more to the humanities style of PhD - think of the kind of academic who is likely to write about writing, language and style, and their background. – David M W Powers Jan 5 '15 at 23:51
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    @JeffE. To recap my answer to the question unambiguously. Yes! It is normal for a good supervisor/advisor to expect a PhD student will work 80 hours a week, but NOT to require or even want it. My answer explains WHY. I have learned that most questions in a form that seems to expect a yes/no answer don't actually want just a yes or a no, but an explanation that explains WHY. I also have the impression OP's supervisor didn't actually say OP should be working 80 hours a week, but he might have acquiesced to a complaint that he was expecting too much: "has the notion" ≠ "expressed a requirement"! – David M W Powers Jan 6 '15 at 0:03
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    @DavidMWPowers Please edit your answer to emphasize those points. I'm afraid most people reading your response will give up after the third screen of text. – JeffE Jan 6 '15 at 6:36

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