A realistic day in the life of a PhD student

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I’m Hannah and I’m a first year Theology PhD student here at Manchester, doing research on the characterisation of daughters in the Hebrew Bible in relation to the theme of sacrifice – and I’d like to talk a bit about what my life as a PhD student is really like. I want to break down some unrealistic expectations that often surround those who do a doctorate and why, starting with a very realistic day in my life.

The stereotype of a postgrad should not be the older, wealthy, and ‘serious’ student whose fully funded PhD is their only commitment: this is far from mine and many of my fellow postgrads’ reality. Here I am, with a demanding retail job and a passion for socialising, doing a full-time PhD too!

I also live in Liverpool and therefore do a lot of my work remotely, which proves that doing a doctorate can be flexible and that you don’t always have to rely on being on campus to get the most out of your degree.

Honestly, I’ve had a hard time getting into a routine with my degree, as it’s very different to doing a BA or MA where lecturers create a lot of your daily structure for you. Yes, there is a certain amount of contact time in the form of meetings, but it’s still a huge adjustment. By sharing a typical day in my life, you’ll hopefully see how I’m managing the process – and still having a life away from my research!

9.00am – 10.00am: Waking up, coffee, breakfast!

The early riser stereotype of a doctoral student is not always the case for me, especially after a tiring work shift the day before – my nightly practises to wind down were pushed back somewhat so it wasn’t as possible to have an early night.

After the mandatory morning scroll on my phone in bed, I always start my day with breakfast (this day was a bagel) and a strong coffee. For me, I cannot begin to mentally function on studying without these processes. I’m not about to advertise a caffeine addiction to my fellow postgrads, but if you can stomach food in the morning, I really think it sets you up for the day and means you can get going on work much better.

10.00am – 11.00am: Emails and planning the day

I always find it’s helpful to look over my emails and calendar to make sure I’m up to date with everything and I know if there are any deadlines coming up. As annoying as it can be to get right, organisation, having a diary, putting events and deadlines in your calendar etc. are of paramount importance for myself in order to keep myself as organised as possible, and is one of my top tips to any budding doctoral student. You may think you can remember things in your head alone, but trust me, those important dates mount up quickly and you don’t want to rely on your memory alone. From checking and/or adding to my calendars and to-do lists, as well as replying to any important emails if needed, I am in good stead to get going on work!

At this point in the day I will also typically check eProg – a Manchester-based service accessed through MyManchester, which is where much of my research progress (meetings, expectations, milestones etc) are tracked. Each task on there will have a deadline so it’s useful to check if I have anything imminent which may need to be factored into the rest of my day.

11.00am – 12.30pm: Research / work for my next meeting

In the case of my research and probably for many other doctoral students, I am often working towards a specific milestone as agreed between myself and my supervisor in time for our next meeting – this will take up the majority of my time in a day. Of course, everybody’s projects can differ widely, as well as what they are currently working towards. Whatever your current focus is, this will likely be in preparation to send to your supervisor, so that you can discuss and build on it in your next meeting. I currently meet with my main supervisor around once every two weeks; each time building on what was discussed last and what work I have completed since our last meeting.

Whilst working on this I will often leave home to work in a café or library. I find that leaving my living space and associating somewhere external as my place of work for the day really helps my productivity and helps to separate working time from relaxing and downtime.

12.30pm: Lunch!

With the same rationale as breakfast, a lunch pitstop (and maybe another coffee) is so important for maintaining momentum whilst working, as well as forcing you to take a break away from your laptop to reduce the chance of burnout. Yes, a PhD requires a lot of hours and hard work, but breaks are still so important to keep your mind happy and healthy, leaving you in the best mindset to do your best work.

12.30pm – 3.30pm: More research

After lunch at the café I’d been working at, I continued on there for the rest of the afternoon and found I had particularly good momentum on this day to get a lot done. Again, not all days can be like that and life can get in the way, so it’s important to praise yourself for a good day, as well as showing compassion towards yourself when days don’t go quite as planned. That’s life!

It’s also at this point in the day that I tend to switch up what I’m working on to hit a few more spots on my to-do list. In my case, I moved away from my specific biblical research and did some work on the Hebrew language – a key component in my research as I am focusing on the Hebrew Bible itself! Moving away from the main objective but still doing something related to my overall thesis idea means I stay more engaged in what I’m doing and won’t get bored doing the same thing for a whole day. Though my choices are specific to my research, this is a piece of advice I’d offer to postgrads no matter their focus.

4.00pm – 8.30pm: Work shift

On this particular day I had a closing shift at my retail job. It’s important to highlight that not all PhD candidates can rely on funding or their own wealth and have to subsidise their studies through part-time work. It’s a tiring aspect to my day-to-day life, but it’s necessary. I would even say it’s a positive experience overall as it forces me away from obsessing about my research all day every day, and brings me into a totally different environment in which there are different expectations to adhere to. It diversifies my life and skillset and should be viewed positively as the reason I am lucky enough to be able to do a doctorate, not as something that steals my focus from my research. I can shine in both settings if I put my mind to it!

8.30pm – 9.30pm: Home and dinner time!

After my shift was over, I finally headed home on the bus and had dinner. If I can help it, I will always reserve my evening for winding down and will try to assuage my mind from thinking about my work any longer. Working late into the night has never been a positive experience for me and I would definitely not recommend it unless it’s absolutely necessary. Even if you feel like your day wasn’t as productive as you’d hoped, it’s far better to get some sleep and try again the next day, rather than stressing and staying up late to work – it’s unlikely that you will do your best work or come up with your best ideas in this context.

10.00pm – 11.00pm: Socialising time

Keep in mind that not all my days will tick this many boxes, but I did find some time and energy in the evening on this day to do some socialising and have a drink at my local. I do think in some cases there is not only the stereotype that postgrads are older, but that they are so caught up in their work that socialising and doing ‘normal’ student things won’t be commonplace. I myself find a lot of joy in socialising and think it’s another important alternative to avoid always obsessing over your research. I understand that more introverted students may not find as much joy in how I like to socialise – which is often in pubs, restaurants etc. – but that doesn’t mean that you can’t find alternatives that suit you! As long as you find time for yourself, your friends and hobbies, you will come back to uni work rested and more motivated.

11.30pm: Bedtime

I cannot pretend that I am the best at getting early nights and a good eight hours every time, but whenever I can I will do my best to make sure I’m well-rested. I don’t need to tell you that sleep is really important for your mental wellbeing and getting the most out of your day. Every day is different and if there’s a lot on your mind then I totally understand that a good night’s sleep may not be possible, and is never the easiest thing to achieve anyway. Aim for it if you can and don’t beat yourself up if it doesn’t happen!

That’s my realistic day in the life of a first year PhD student – I hope this was helpful and reassuring for those who don’t fit the postgrad stereotype. I am very passionate about shining light on those working, socialising postgrads who manage to live a full life, whilst also putting in the work needed to do well with their studies.