29. Masters: Mapping it Out (4) – A Day in The Life of a PhD Student

Researching boundless PhD projects and writing and re-drafting your own proposals can leave you prone to getting lost in the world of academia and contracting a clear case of application-fever. It’s easy to lose sight of the end goal when the volume of information out there is so vast and the deadlines seem to be just around the corner. I for one have often found myself thinking, ‘but what is it really like to do a PhD?’ and ‘what do PhD students get up to day to day?’. With the structure of regular lectures, seminars, and tutorials gone the academic landscape suddenly appears to be rather strange and unfamiliar. Indeed, PhDs seem to be a whole different ball game. Well, here to bust some of those myths is our fabulous RGS postgraduate committee. Today, they give us a flavour of a day in the life of a PhD student

Nina Willment – Royal Holloway, University of London

A day in the life of my PhD is really really varied, which I absolutely love. However, I can get carried away focusing on meetings, networking, admin, emails etc so I try to block out at least one dedicated writing day per week to make sure I get things done! On the writing days, I sit at home in my study and just crack on writing in my own little bubble. On other days, my PhD life might consist of various meetings, attending a specific lecture I like the look of, having lunch or a drink with my fellow PhD students, and breaking that up with walking my dog or some rubbish TV!


James Brooks – University of Manchester

My day varies from week to week, so a standard day is hard to summarise! I travel a lot for my PhD, whether for fieldwork abroad or in the UK, conferences around the world, or training courses at other institutes. If I am in the office, my day starts (ideally) around 9am (give or take a few minutes…) with a coffee in our kitchen area, giving me the chance to catch up with other PhD students and colleagues. I then usually spend the rest of the day analysing and processing scientific data in the office, breaking up my day by chatting with the fellow students around me.

If I am away on fieldwork, again, my day is very variable! I have been lucky to spend time abroad on-board a research vessel, around the Arabian Peninsula, and a research aircraft around India. Field campaigns have really opened up the world to me, seeing these fascinating environments firsthand. Life on the ship, for example, would start around 8am with breakfast and morning briefing. Morning instrument calibrations would then take place, with any instrument repairs and work starting now. Depending on how the instruments were performing, this could take either an hour or all day! Frequent breaks with other people on-board with drinks and food would happen throughout the day, taking in the amazing surroundings of the Arabian Gulf and the Suez Canal.


Chris Martin – University of Leicester

As a mature, part-time student my answers may vary from the rest. My days depend on my work schedule since I still have to pay the bills – not ideal. I have a 0.5FTE post as a youth worker and also work on a casual but regular basis on an adventure playground, where I’m carrying out participant observations for my fieldwork. Since I work evening sessions, I tend to not get up early (yay!!), and the days when I work I try and do a couple of hours studying during the day, currently transcribing video from focus groups. The days when I don’t work I do the same but more of it, and this is when I also incorporate more in-depth reading and writing. Since I live 3-1/2 hours drive away from Leicester I find it all quite isolating, so I often go to the Exeter Uni Library, a 10-minute drive, to study.


Jo Hickman-Dunne – Loughborough University

Everyday is different, and that is the beauty of it! Realistically your first 6-9 months are tough as you are never sure what you are meant to be doing, but a good supervisor will set you deadlines and short tasks to keep pushing you in the right direction. It get’s more fun in the later stages as other bits of work come along to keep it varied, such as writing book reviews or papers, and organising conference sessions.

Some people treat their PhDs like a job, working 9-5 everyday. My approach is more to fit my PhD around my life, rather than my life around my PhD. I mostly work from home, and I’ll often work maybe 11-4 (after other things have been achieved in the day) and then do another couple of hours in the evening. I have really busy days on campus when I run from meeting to meeting but some days I don’t do anything more than check my emails. I’ll work at weekends when I’ve got lots to do too. I think your PhD has got to suit your lifestyle otherwise it’s no fun!


Dan Casey – University of Sheffield

No one day is the same. My days can be pretty intensive or more relaxed. For example, if I’m going to Sheffield (from London) I could be up at 4.30am and on the train at 5.45am. I’ll then have meetings with my supervisors, maybe attend a study skills session and perhaps be doing some teaching (whether this be a seminar or workshop). In between these times, I’d be trying to write up supervision meeting minutes, reading for my research or taking notes and refining thesis chapters. More than likely I’d then leave on the 6.30pm train. Other days, I might be on fieldwork. This would be a completely different structure. Usually, I’d get ready to leave where I was staying by 9am. I’d then make sure to have my interviewees details ready for the day ahead and travel around to different sites and farms. Another day, I might be attending a conference in a different city or be relaxed at home catching up with work. However, this is what I love about the PhD … I think if I was doing the same activities day after day it wouldn’t make it as exciting. This also helps you develop multiple skills at the same time. I wrote a blog post last year that might help answer this question too: http://www.pgf.rgs.org/15-the-many-faces-of-academia/


So there we are, our wonderful committee dispelling some of the myths surrounding ‘the everyday’ of studying for a PhD. Variation, flexibility, and hard work seems to be the order of the day! We’ve been introduced to everything from the fascinating world of fieldwork and life onboard a research vessel through to attending conferences, lectures, and seminars, or working from home. I certainly wouldn’t object to breaking up my day with regular dog walks! We’ll be back next week with a new blog entry asking our committee to reflect on the transition from a Master’s degree to PhD research… Hope to see you then!


Alice Watson

MSc in Migration Studies, University of Oxford