How many hours should you spend on the clock, and when should you spend them?

When you start a PhD, you’ll often hear that your research should be treated like a 9 to 5 job. If you’re like me, this will probably cause you to panic and question what on earth you’re doing – don’t a lot of us start PhDs because we secretly didn’t want a 9-5 job?! I can’t work from 9-5 for 5 days a week, that requires self-discipline – which I don’t have!

On a more serious note though, I don’t think the ‘hours counting’ mantra is healthy for a number of reasons – mostly because it misleads doctoral students into thinking that if they’re not working flat out for 35-40 hours a week, they’re doing their PhD wrong. A quick online search of ‘how many hours a week should a PhD student do?’ even yields a huge number of people on forums saying they do up to 70 hours a week, some even more than that.

Pocket watch

I don’t think this is a productive thing to be telling new PhD students because it piles on the pressure, and we have enough of that already. I went through a stage in my first year where I thought that if I wasn’t hyper-focussed for 40 hours a week, I wouldn’t get my PhD finished. I even felt guilty for including supervisions and training into these hours, as it wasn’t time I was spending directly on my research and thesis. This was also at a time when I had a job working around 14 hours a week, which left me very little time to relax.

This leads me onto my next point – counting hours, and expecting a certain amount, discounts the fact that many students have to work to support their PhD. Some even work 2 or more jobs (particularly if they have a part time job at the same time as teaching, as I did at one point). When this is the case, it’s completely unreasonable to expect PhD students to have the time or energy to work 40 hours a week or more. This expectation of ‘a certain number of hours’ also shames those students who have to work into thinking they aren’t doing as well as their funded counterparts, because they simply don’t have as much time to dedicate to their research. I felt this very deeply when I wasn’t funded.

But apart from anything else, everyone is different. I go through some weeks of doing very little PhD work, but then will work incredibly intensely for a couple of weeks or a month after that, over weekends as well as weekdays. Sometimes I take holidays off, sometimes I don’t, depending on how I feel and what needs doing. This sporadic timetable hasn’t held me back from doing what I need to do, and I’m still confident that I will finish when I want to (within 3 years, as planned). Some people take longer to do a PhD, and that’s no reflection on whether they did or didn’t do 40, 50, 60, or 70 hours a week. It’s about how much you need to do and what you get done, not about how long it takes you to do it or when you did it. Some people are quick workers, some are slower. Your pace is your own, and you should put in the hours you need to reflect that.

Calendar organiser

For me, 9-5 hours are just unsustainable. I’ve worked 9 to 5 in a desk job before, and it’s not the same as doing a PhD 9 to 5. It’s easy to switch off from work when you get home from a traditional job, but it’s much harder to do the same with research. You’re constantly thinking about it, and probably have reminders all around your house or bedroom (books, papers, folders). It’s incredibly mentally taxing as well, so expecting total concentration for 7 or more hours a day is just unrealistic. 9-5 workers in office jobs are thought to only be productive for 3 hours a day, and if I try to force myself to do research for 7 hours a day or more, I’m definitely this un-productive, if not more so. If you’re not built for it, forcing yourself to do the 9-5 is a very unwise use of your time. Some days you’re full of motivation and get loads done, others you’ve just run out of steam – and that’s okay. No one should feel pressured into pushing on when they don’t have the mental or emotional energy because they feel restricted by the clock.

With such high expectations of PhD students, no wonder ‘burn out’ is such a big issue. How doctoral candidates haven’t caught fire and frazzled out by now (to labour the metaphor) is just completely beyond me. For the sanity of PhD students everywhere, and to start to chip at the now huge block that is the mental health crisis in doctoral candidates, we should stop introducing new PhD students with the immediate ‘this is how many hours you should work in a week’. PhD students in the Arts and Humanities have the luxury of flexibility in designing their timetables, and they should be encouraged to work when they want to, and how they want to. All the hours expectation does is make those who aren’t doing upwards of 40 hours a week, or sticking to a 9-5 timetable, feel anxious and inadequate. At the end of the day, as long as PhD students are making progress on their theses with their final deadline in mind, what does it matter when or how they do it?

Images kindly provided by David Jones.

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