For example, if he spends 20 hours a week on his advisor's project, and 20 hours a week on a project with another professor (that the advisor is not involved in). Do most advisors find this acceptable, or do they see this as taking up work time that belongs to them?

And what if those 20 hours a week are spent on non-research activities, such as taking classes unrelated to the topic of the PhD, or a part-time job outside the university?

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    "...20 hours a week are spent on non-research activities". A PHD requires at least 3 years as a full-time job (most times probably more). If you only work for 20 hours per week, it will take at least 6 years. – Alexandros Jan 21 '15 at 9:46
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    Only your advisor can say whether it is ok for her/him. Generally speaking, while I assume that most advisors are open to side projects of PhD students, once the side projects get as important or more important than the PhD work, the vast majority of advisors will likely become less than thrilled (I certainly would not be happy at all about this arrangement). – xLeitix Jan 21 '15 at 9:52
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    It also depends on your funding source. If you are paid from a grant of the professor, doing something else a substantial fraction of the time may also be infeasible from a contractual point of view. – xLeitix Jan 21 '15 at 9:53
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    In practice, it doesn't matter what most advisers would think. It matters what yours does. – Davidmh Jan 22 '15 at 9:32

It is down to the supervisor, i myself believe any extra research projects adds a LOT to your own skills. Being taken out of your comfort zone and learning new skills improves yourself as a researcher. Besides how much "real" work time can you devote to one PHD before your productivity falls off dramatically.

I see a lot of PHD's concentrate soo much on their project that they don't spend enough time learning new things that makes them so much more productive in the long run. However, aimlessly going to lectures where you don't apply those skills is less worthwhile than doing a project. Having said that, if you know a good lecturer whose lecture series illuminates a previously difficult and unknown area, and those gems are out there, then it is not wasted time. Devoting your time to a job unless it does teach you new skills may be pushing it.

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    This is very sound advice. Of course, the trick is to find the sweet spot where you don't overdo it. – Davidmh Jan 22 '15 at 9:35
  • True, it really does depend on your advisor/supervisor and their personality as to where the sweet spot lies. – BigAl Jan 22 '15 at 10:13

It really depends on the funding source.

It is fairly common for researchers in industry to get a Ph.D. "on the side" as part time work away from their full-time job. Many professors are OK with this because 1) an industry researcher often has more maturity in their approach to a subject than a student fresh out of undergrad, and 2) The professor is likely not required to provide funding for the student.

A professor who is funding a student to work full time from their grants, however, will be rightfully angry if the student does not work full time for them.

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    A professor who is funding a student to work full time from their grants — At least at many universities in the US, research assistantships formally pay for only 20 hours of work per week, which makes this argument a red herring. – JeffE Jan 21 '15 at 22:36
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    @JeffE Yes, you are correct, but I believe the other half is usually expected to be spent on coursework or their thesis. I think it would be reasonable for a professor to be concerned about whether their money is being well spent with a student who committed half-time to work on a completely unrelated project. – jakebeal Jan 22 '15 at 3:39

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