Managing Time in a PhD

One of the biggest benefits of a PhD is its flexibility. There are no set working hours. If you do not want to work 40 hours a week, don’t. If you prefer to have the Wednesday and the Saturday off rather than a regular weekend, do it. If you do not want to work one day, or one week, you do not have to.

But unsurprisingly, this can backfire. Due to a lack of structure, what you need the most in a PhD is good time management!


Meeting Deadlines

An important part of managing time in your PhD is meeting your deadlines. But a deadline can mean many things. The ultimate deadline is the fact that you need to hand in research at the end of 3 to 4 years (or even longer in some cases or countries).

Now you might be able to spot the issue here: that deadline is VERY far away. The smart thing to do is to set yourself smaller deadlines, that are attainable, and in shorter periods of time. Example: set deadlines for when certain chapters need to be written, when data collection needs to start and/or finish or when results need to be analysed.

The good thing about these earlier and smaller deadlines is the fact that they break down the massive goal of finishing a whole PhD into smaller and more attainable chunks. These chunks can then be further broken down into weekly and daily to-do-lists. This process has already given you ten times more of a structure than the initial set up. Now that some structure is in place, the question becomes: When exactly are you going to do this?



Working Hours and Efficiency

Most jobs have set hours, such as 9-5. During these hours, nothing is done besides work. Friends and family do not disturb you. Emergencies that are not job related will have to wait until the clock hits five.

Although there is an argument to be made for having set periods of time that are dedicated to just working without any type of interference, it doesn’t have to be 9-5. If you function best working at night, you can. Get up at noon, have breakfast and figure out your schedule for that day. If it works, it works. That is the benefit of the flexibility granted within a PhD.

Another thing most people do not seem to understand about PhDs is that if the mentality isn’t nine-to-five, we might not end up working 8-hour days. Some days will be more quiet, other days will be filled with preparing for and running experiments for 8 hours, then check the data and prepare for the next day. That is an 11-hour workday at least.

This does not even reflect the “coding-holes” some students fall into. Stuck behind a computer looking at codes. People can completely lose track of time during this. One reason this happens is because we don’t have the set hours, because we don’t really know when we are supposed to start and finish a day.



Guilt and Comparison

So, what do we base our hours on? Well it depends. Some people prioritise their social events and plan their work around that. They might still end up working over 8 hours, or not. I have friends who go into the office and treat it like a proper nine-to-five, but sometimes more like a ten-to-six, or eleven-to-seven. The general idea is clear. Another one of my friends works at least six days a week. When she takes a break, I do not know. What I do know is that when she does not work, she feels guilty about not working. I, too, have had these feelings of guilt.

We all have different ways of working. And we know that. And yet we compare. If I were to compare my work ethic to those of the two friends I just mentioned, I would look very lazy. But you cannot measure your success as a PhD student in hours worked. It needs to be output based. If you get three times more done in five hours than someone else gets done in ten, good for you. If you feel like you get less done if you have to work the full ten hours, and this also diminishes the work you are able to do the next day, do not work ten hours. There is no point. You would actually reduce your own productivity.

Also, you are allowed to take breaks. There is increasing pressure in a PhD to work more and more. To figure everything out early on and just keep at it. If you do not wish to have a burn out at the end of your second year, I suggest you take actual weekends off, weeks off to go on holiday and, sometimes, a nice mental health day off. Your (mental) health is what you need to get you through this process. See it as an investment if you would rather not see it as a holiday or a break. No need to feel guilty or embarrassed about an investment!

What do you do to manage your time in the PhD properly? Let us know by  tweeting us at @ResearchEx, or email us at, or leave a comment below.

by Merle

Merle van den Akker is a PhD student with the Behavioural Science Group at WBS, looking into the effect of contactless payments on how me manage our finances. She tweets at @MoneyMindMerle.


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