phd student scheduleOne of my friends (a financial consultant) asked me once.. ‘What do you do all day? Do you even have a to-do list?’

We all know that PhD students do ‘research’. But if you come down to the specifics, many of us really don’t know what goes into a PhD.

Until a few years ago, even I was completely oblivious to the ins and outs of a typical PhD.

You must have read the timeline to complete PhD. Here is a tentative description of what your average day will look like in a PhD program

PhD : Year One

Laboratory rotations and Course work

  • 2-3 hours of classes/ journal club
  • 6-8 hours of laboratory work (This decreases during examinations)
  • 1-2 hours of reading papers at home (This increases during examinations)

By the end of the first year, you would have passed all your tests and found a lab that suits your professional goals and personal work habits.

PhD:  Year Two

First 6 months: Starting a project

  • 8-10 hours of laboratory work
  • 1 hour of reading papers for journal clubs/seminars
  • NO studying at home… YEAH!!

Second 6 months: Qualifying

A qualifying exam tests your capabilities of ‘thinking out of the box’.

Are you capable of doing independent research? Or is a PhD not your cup of tea..

Every PhD program does it differently.

However, as an example, you will be required to write a research grant on your own research idea, design experiments and think of hypothetical outcomes and then defend it in front of a committee.

  • 5 hours- reading, reading, reading …reading
  • 1 hour- getting frustrated- feeling stupid- walking around aimlessly
  • 5 hours- reading, reading… reading
  • 1-3 hours- writing
  • 3-4 hours of reading/writing at home

Congratulations! You’ve qualified!!

This is when the real research starts!

You will be working towards testing a hypothesis.

Your advisor will meet with you approximately once every week for a personal one-on-one meeting.

You will analyze your results together, talk about what experiments you will do next week and discuss your project in general.

PhD: Year Three- Five

  • 8 -12 hours of working in the laboratory
  • NO reading or working at home unless you choose to do so.
  • When you have enough data to publish a paper, there will be a few insanely busy weeks of repeating some experiments, writing, writing and more writing,
  • If you choose to write grants, again you will have a couple of crazy weeks in between.

End Year 5/ Beginning Year 6

  • Writing your thesis
  • Writing your paper
  • Cursing yourself for not saving important data/ taking blurry pictures..
  • Repeating some experiments

Some graduate programs have alternate avenues for senior graduate students to build their career skills.

Grant writing workshops, teacher training and internships in industries are some of the examples.

Some other things to remember:

Most graduate programs have compulsory talks and presentation that you need to give each year.

It’s a mad rush to gather data and put it together before each. However, it helps you tremendously in taking a step back to look at your own progress and re analyze what you need to do next.

There will also be seminar/ talks every day that you may want to attend.

Finally, every graduate program is different.

So, don’t expect everything to go according to your plan.

That’s what graduate school is about.

You start with plan A, after a few months you move onto plan B. By the time you graduate, you’re probably on plan Y.

Repeat. Rethink. Redo.

Finally, don’t sue me if your program turns out different.

Next – A moving story -Internship at Large Hadron Collider, PhD and Researcher in US Army


  1. prabhakaran on March 14, 2013 at 10:51 AM

    Hi HSB,
    Thanks very much for the insight. I would be more happy , if there was another post like this for a person doing his masters. Looking for one soon!!

  2. Gaurav on March 14, 2013 at 2:43 AM

    Good article !
    Can you do a similar thing for MS student’s daily schedule ? 😀

  3. donnaray on March 14, 2013 at 12:34 AM

    well-documented article..n yes, I still want to go for PhD..:)

    • easwaran on April 30, 2013 at 9:47 PM

      Dear Donnaray,
      yes, it is the ulitimate option, please go ahead
      let the time rewrite your name in its history, wishing you splendid moments,
      my son too pursuing his PhD, i am glad it is happening

  4. Kumari Nidhi on March 13, 2013 at 1:25 PM

    Hi HSB, thank you for this very useful information.

Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.