I just checked out my office. It looks like a dungeon. There are no windows. It is kind of cramped. Everything looks kind of industrial. I don't think I would like to study/work there. There are other places in the math building that look like much less depressing places to work such as the math library. Also coffee shops, at home, etc.

I have to have some number of office hours which I will gladly have. But for studying for my classes, working on research, etc. I would much prefer other places. There is no formal rules on where you have to be. I don't have an adviser yet and when I do, he won't be watching over me just looking for results. So there is no formal reason why I have to be in my office other than office hours.

If I simply don't use my office will I look bad to other grad students or professors? Will I maybe miss out on productive discussions? I can see if my office mates are in the same classes; we can work on the problem sets together.

What are the potential pitfalls of not being in my office other than for office hours?

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    This is really going to depend on your country and the expectations of your advisor, instructors, and peers. (whether it should look bad is a completely different question). – virmaior Aug 5 '16 at 23:56
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    I almost never used my office, either. But that's because my officemates tended to be jerks. At one point a couple of them were literally living in it. Other times someone would decide to keep their bicycle in the office so it wouldn't get stolen, and concluded that putting it on top of my desk was a considerate thing to do; or to bury my desk in the pile of exams or homework they were grading; etc. My name was literally written on the desk, and it didn't help. So, yeah, I spent most of my time in other areas of the department or in my home/apartment. – zibadawa timmy Aug 6 '16 at 0:46
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    he won't be watching over me just looking for results — I'm curious to find out how you know what your advisor is going to be like, if you don't even know who it will be yet. – Mad Jack Aug 6 '16 at 1:17
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    @MadJack It's a relatively safe bet with mathematicians. Math departments are not set up so that advisors can easily physically surveil their students, and I've never heard of one going out of their way to do it. Much more often, students have trouble getting any attention form their advisors, rather than too much. Advisors will expect results, but generally would not think to even pay attention to where their students are doing it. – Ben Webster Aug 6 '16 at 20:17
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    That sounds like an awful office - it can't hurt to ask for a different one. Not having any windows is a good enough reason to ask for that, in my view. – Nathaniel Aug 7 '16 at 5:36

Never is an absolute. Having said that, you have outlined reasons why you should use your office (office hours, spending time between department events and classes etc.).

Unless your adviser makes it mandatory (highly unusual), I don't see why you shouldn't work wherever you feel most comfortable in. I was very fortunate, in graduate school, to have a spacious, very well lit and clean office. In spite of these structural advantages, I chose to work from coffee shops most of the time. I had no issues with the administration, faculty or my peers.

To summarize, there are some (usually official) reasons why you would need to go to your office but there is usually no compulsion to have to continue using the office at all other times.

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    This depends a lot on your environment. In my graduate work, this would have really been a bad idea because I was part of a team - being physically away from that team continuously would have looked really, really bad. It wasn't mandatory, but it would have been incredibly detrimental to my graduate work if I had done this. – enderland Aug 7 '16 at 17:35
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    Though, depending on your situation, some tool like IRC, gitter, slack, or other chat tool could obviate the need for physical presence. – Wayne Werner Aug 8 '16 at 13:43

Look bad, not necessarily. Will it be good for you? Maybe not.

Assuming that you don't have a really significant reason not to be on the lab, you should be. Stuff only happens with people that show up. If you are not in the lab, you won't talk to people as much. I literally can't count how many good ideas (and papers) came out of random coffee talk, that wouldn't happen on an otherwise "official" meeting.

full disclosure: That's something I didn't do during my phd and I regret it. I had my reasons, probably not really good enough, but I was almost never at my office and that hindered my development. I could have done more if I was there.

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    Even though this answer is clearly written by someone who is not in mathematics, in my experience it applies in mathematics as well. The company of your peers is an incredibly valuable resource (it's why students come to top grad schools!) and you should be careful not to miss out on that. – Tom Church Aug 6 '16 at 2:06
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    @TomChurch Why is that so clear? And I only ask because, yes, I'm not a mathematician, but my thesis and the group's research were heavily mathematical, therefore so were the discussions/ideas. (LIGM/esiee paris). Indeed, what I said applies to my current/last group as well, where half of the people, including the supervisior, are mathematicians. (A little OT, sorry about that). – Fábio Dias Aug 6 '16 at 15:42
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    Maybe because you said "lab"? Do mathematicians have labs? – Pekka 웃 Aug 6 '16 at 16:07
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    +1000. Research is not something you do alone. Interaction with others, random encounters and talks and so on are extremely important. As is networking. – damian Aug 7 '16 at 8:04
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    @Pekka웃 this might be a language issue, in France 'laboratoire' is commonly used for mathematical research units, too. – quid Aug 7 '16 at 18:17

i had a terrible office for the first 3 years of my phd. I spent some time there initially. I eventually decided it was much smarter to use it to dump my stuff and then worked in the departmental reading room which was next to the common room. I always went to afternoon tea and ate my lunch in the common room.

I therefore had plenty of social contact and mathematical interaction with my peers when I wanted it.

Work time in maths is about solo concentration and is best done in a quiet, airy space with natural light and minimal distractions. This tends to mean a library unless you are a professor.

I now have phd students. Some of the best ones only come in when they need to. That is fine by me.


I feel like none of the existing answers are doing a good job answering this question.

If I simply don't use my office will I look bad to other grad students or professors? Will I maybe miss out on productive discussions? I can see if my office mates are in the same classes; we can work on the problem sets together.

Assuming that:

  • Your advisor is not co-located with you
  • You are working 100% by yourself, without engaging other graduate students

You can work wherever you want with no likely no problems.

However, consider that a majority of graduate work involves other people - whether a research group, collaborating on papers, or simply sharing knowledge and brainstorming ideas (do NOT underestimate how useful it is to discuss research proposals or topics with peers/faculty). In these cases, you run into two problems.

First, how it looks to others, which is the first of your questions. It is easy to say, "people are only evaluated based on their results - you can get results regardless of whether you are in the office or not!" Unfortunately people aren't this rational and objective, and particularly in research (where it is harder to have "clear results") you will suffer from perception problems.

This is unrelated to whether it's true or not. The unfortunate situation is that an overwhelming majority of people correlate butt-in-seat time with productivity. Fair? True? Absolutely not. But just because something isn't fair doesn't mean you won't be perceived this way.

In particular, other graduate students will see you not at your desk. They won't have insight into your time at a coffee shop, working from home, or whatever. This means their impressions of you will be fairly negative. Unless you are producing crazy high quality work (which as a new grad student is unlikely), you're going to be starting from a negative place in gaining peer-status with your fellow grad students.

It will be harder to take spontaneous breaks with peers. This might be coffee, meals, games, or other silly things. While initially unrelated to research, those activities significantly contribute to how we form relationships. Working remote from peers makes it much harder to form these relationships.

This leads you to be detached from your peers (and potentially even your advisor). People quip, "out of sight, out of mind" but there's a reason it's a quip. Many advisors are really busy and their ability to drop by and talk may require you to have more flexibility. Basically, the busier your advisor is, the more important your availability becomes - if you are consistently working in a desk near your advisor's office, this helps.

What are the potential pitfalls of not being in my office other than for office hours?

All of the above plays into the second problem, which is your overall, long term efficiency and "status" as a graduate student. If your goal is future research, whether as a professor, post-doc, industry, or a PhD (in the case of you being a masters student), developing and fostering relationships with your colleagues is quite important. These colleagues are those you will want to gain the following from:

  • Collaboration/assistance with research
  • Networking for collaboration, guidance, and/or project collaboration
  • Finding future jobs

People often forget how important their peer relationships are. But consider that if you are pursuing a PhD, it is likely in 5-10 years some of your current peers will have positions where they can dramatically influence your career. This might be because they have a large grant they need more researchers on, because they are on a hiring board at a university, or know of a position that comes up. Ultimately, these relationships are invaluable to an academic. Realistically this applies to everyone, but if you are pursuing a PhD it is likely the number of stakeholders worldwide in your field is small enough that you could over the course of a career meet most of them (between conferences, collaboration, etc).

If your goal long term is research, you want to know, foster, and develop relationships. Alienating yourself from the first group of people who make this the easiest (peers and other faculty at your institution) is not a good move longterm.

Now... if none of the above applies to you for some reason, then it won't really matter. But I suspect a ridiculously small percentage of graduate students can realistically claim none of the above applies to them.

Graduate school efficiency

Ignoring the above problems entirely, another consideration is the fact that when you enter graduate school you often have no clue how graduate school works. The best way to learn is interactions and informal conversations with your peers, particularly the senior students.

Spontaneous conversation is nearly impossible if you are working remote the entire time. The lack of relationship with peers means suddenly you will be in your last few years with no working peer relationships.

If you ultimately do decide to avoid your desk, I would recommend you consider ways to avoid the above problems entirely. This will depend on your specific circumstances, so I can't really give good guidance, but it would be good to consider the entirety of this post as you begin your graduate career.


My advisor would come by his lab (with our workstation computers and desks) a couple times a week to see who was around. I don't think he took literal, on-paper notes, but he would give grief to those who he didn't think he was seeing enough. It never made a huge difference, but it did mean that our lab was a more collegial environment to get work done in. People could collaboratively solve problems, etc. The department had other rooms for TAs to hold office hours, etc. in.

Given this, it could get you scolded by your advisor if he expects you to get work done in your provided workspace. Probably best to discuss expectations with your advisor.

  • I don't have an advisor and won't for a couple years. Thanks for the answer though. – user41631 Aug 6 '16 at 0:55
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    I don't have an advisor and won't for a couple years. — That is irrelevant. – Mad Jack Aug 6 '16 at 1:18
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    No, it's not irrelevant. In the first few years of a math PhD program there is often (including in the OP's case) NO FACULTY MEMBER who could or would check up on whether students are in their office. It is IMPOSSIBLE for the OP to be scolded by their advisor, or discuss expectations with their advisor, because their advisor does not exist. How could that be irrelevant? (Two years from now, when they do have an advisor, they'll also likely have a different office.) – Tom Church Aug 6 '16 at 2:09
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    How could that be irrelevant? — OP's question really only makes sense in the context of having an advisor: compared to what an advisor thinks about an advisee being in the office, what your peers think about it is essentially meaningless, hence irrelevant. – Mad Jack Aug 6 '16 at 2:44
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    @MadJack No, you're wrong. Students who don't have advisors aren't ignored by their program. The professors running the graduate program especially will pay attention, as will those teaching their classes. I don't think it's a big concern in this particular case, but wondering whether a particular course of action will give you a bad reputation amongst the professors and students in the program is a valid question. – Ben Webster Aug 6 '16 at 20:09

In my experience, the reputation of a graduate student rises (or falls) primarily based on their ability to get things done – that is, to make progress on their research.

If your advisor is unhappy with how things are plodding along, then the fact that you are rarely in your office might make you look bad. (It's not hard to imagine someone thinking, "Where is (s)he? No wonder no work is getting done.")

On the other hand, if you're progressing along rather well, I think there's a good chance your long absences will likely go unnoticed.

That said, I echo what the other folks have said about spending time with your fellow students. From what you've said, though, it sounds like your office isn't a good place to do that. So long as you find other places to network and collaborate on campus, I see no reason why your dungeon can't be a little-used place to store books and such.

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