Marking Time: My Grad School Workload



Going into graduate school, I didn’t really have a good sense of how much time grad students spend “working”. One would suspect it has to be quite a bit, if only because the stereotype of “in the lab or office from sunup to well past sundown” is so pervasive in academia. Indeed, all one really has to do is go read a few PhD Comics, and one concludes that grad school is one’s life! What’s more, if you do some Google searches on the subject, you’ll find a variety of opinions and questions - “I think it’s reasonable to ask my students to work X hours per week.” or “Can I do a PhD like I would do a full-time job?”. It’s clear people are curious about these kinds of things.

And it turns out I was curious as well. Earlier this year, the question “Well, just how many hours do you spend working?” popped into my head. In an attempt to rigorously answer that question, I have been keeping track of the number of hours I spend each day doing research. As I’ll discuss, “doing research” is not the same as “being at the office”.

Below, we have a histogram of my daily hours since January 1, 2016. Histogram of Daily Hours

It’s somewhat long-tailed, isn’t it? And quite possibly in the wrong direction! When I first started out doing this, I was quite disheartened - “You mean I only got 6 hours of research done today? I’ve been up longer than that!”. It goes to show you just how easily you can get sucked into doing other things. Conversely, focussing on doing deep work helps me spend more time doing useful things. If I am not doing deep work, or working on some other project, then I’m probably wasting my time.

For those of you wondering “Just what the heck does he mean by “doing research”?”, let me give you an answer. I have been fairly fastidious about making sure that the hours I record reflect time spent actively working on research projects, or taking care of logistical issues (conference travel, making talks/posters, etc) related to doing research. Writing a paper? Doing research! Going to lunch with my colleagues? Not research! Reading an academic’s blog? Entertaining, but not research! If I am focussed and concentrated on solving a research problem, or, following my three daily questions, working on the most impactful thing for moving my research forward, then those hours do count towards the total. But just sitting in the office and doing other stuff does not count.

The key thing for me has been to try and remove as many distractions from my schedule as possible. To be sure, there are other things I would like to do (such as write for this website or go to the gym), and those take time. There’s also just the routine tasks of living life - buying groceries, cleaning your apartment, etc - and those take time, too. But if at the end of the day, I feel like I’ve just been running around, then I probably was going in the wrong direction. Unless that was the point of the day.

Looking at an average day, it appears I do pretty well Monday through Thursday, but taper off quite dramatically as I get to the weekend. Average Hours, By Weekday

As one might expect, the weekends tend to be a time for getting errands done and whatnot, so not too much research takes place then. However, since my schedule is most free on the weekends, it is not inconceivable that I could get some work done.

On a weekly timescale, there appears to be some reasonable stability. As the time series plot below shows, the weekly total tends to ebb and flow. Some of the variability can be attributed to conferences (in February, my attendance at SQuInT 2016), or to vacations (June, July).

Total Hours, by Week

Turning the time series around, and making a histogram of weekly hours, it’s clear that I am not yet treating grad school like a full-time job. However, I am on average putting in more hours as compared to the .5 FTE that a typical grad student would be paid to work.

Histogram of Weekly Total Hours On the whole, keeping track of how many hours I work on research has been useful in keeping me on task with respect to getting stuff done. As the saying goes, if you do not measure it, you cannot improve it. When I look back on my day, and see I passed a mere 2 hours doing research, it motivates me to be more vigilant tomorrow about using my time wisely. What is more, by having a record and being honest about what the record means, it’s possible to make objective (i.e., data-driven) statements about my time use. Which is preferable to some kind of vague feeling along the lines of “I am working hard.”.

If you’re a grad student, I would encourage you to keep track of your working hours, if only for one week. The results might surprise you. They will certainly help keep you honest about your time use.

If you are a grad student with (no) time to spare, you might like (quickly) looking at my Twitter feed.

In case you prefer to hear me speaking about being accountable with how I spend my time, I made a video. If you like such videos, click through to YouTube and leave a comment letting me know, or subscribe to my YouTube channel. Ideas for other kinds of videos you would find useful are welcome!