A day in the life of a PhD candidate

One of my favourite blogs, Apples Under My Bed, recently featured a 'day in the life' post (inspired by this NY Times series). I love a sneak peak into the lives of others and not many people know what a PhD involves (myself included before I started one), so I thought what better than to do a similar post about being a PhD candidate.* So here goes!

Background: I'm based in a women's health research unit situated within a medical faculty at a university in Melbourne, Australia. For the first three years of my PhD I typically worked in the office everyday, 9-5 pm. However, in this last part of my candidature, I now split my time between the office and my home to facilitate writing and as a self-care practice to prevent the ever lurking threat of 'burnout' (Google 'PhD burnout' if you dare).

Wednesday, 22nd July 2016

6.30 am: I wake up to my cat in my face. She has no respect for personal boundaries. I check my personal social media accounts on my phone followed by my professional ones. I like to do this before I'm in official work mode in case there is something needing a thoughtful response; it gives me time to mull it over (and prevents me from replying in a rash fashion) before I eventually turn on my computer and reply. Once my partner is awake we typically give each other an account of the night's proceedings (e.g. "I had the weirdest dream..."; this always reminds me of this skit by Michael McIntyre) and our plans for the day.

7.00 am: I roll out of bed directly onto the floor to stretch for 10 minutes in front of the heater - this is one of my favourite series to do. PhDs typically involve a disgusting amount of time in front of a computer so everyday I try to stretch morning and (longer) at night to keep my body happy/agreeable.  I then make breakfast (peanut butter + banana + cinnamon on toast and a cup of tea), farewell my partner who is going into his office to work (he is also doing a PhD), and then settle at my desk.

7.30 am: I eat breakfast while checking my Twitter and reading the morning news here and here. This may seem like procrastination but I legitimately consider it to be an important thing to do. You never know if something has happened overnight that's relevant to your research which might give you an opportunity for self-promotion (to be competitive, one must build their public profile as a researcher while also remembering the Kardashian index). And if something big has happened it might mean that a lot of your day will be spent dealing with the media so it's good to know now than to get an unexpected email/telephone call from the university media department later.

8.00 am: I recommence analysing an interview. It's one of 26 I conducted with women about their experiences of living with endometriosis. I'm using an in-depth psychological approach that requires a lot of concentration; I typically can't do it for more than 2 hours at a time.  

10.00 am: I eat morning tea (greek yoghurt with orange, oats, nuts and seeds; somehow it seems important to tell you all what I ate) while reading this journal article. I then email it to the members of a special interest group for qualitative research methods that some of my colleagues and I recently formed within our school.

10.30 am: I get dressed and ready to go into the office for the remainder of the day. I also make a coffee to drink on my commute. Very important.

11.00 am: The commute begins! It's a 20 minute walk to the train station (on days like today this will unfortunately be my only exercise), followed by a 15 minute train ride and then a 15 minute tram ride. On the train I check my professional email and social media accounts, and respond as necessary. On the tram I decide I need a break from screens and instead stare out the window at a sunny Melbourne winter day.

Beautiful day + waiting for train because I just missed it.

11.45 am: Somehow I make it into the office in record time (despite missing my intended train). I spend the first 30 minutes doing little tasks such as writing out what to discuss in this afternoon's supervision (a fortnightly meeting with your supervisors), crossing off things on my to do list that I have since done at home, etc. I normally also use this time to catch up on the goss with the other students but today they are out of the office.

12.15 pm: I open the document I will be working on for the rest of the day with trepidation. I'm currently work on my 5th paper (aka Difficult Paper No 5; I'm doing my thesis by publication) and it's a tricky one. I first read over what I wrote the previous day and am surprised to find it's not as awful I remember it being (this pretty much happens everyday). I then go to start writing but hunger wins and I go to the kitchen to heat up my lunch instead (I can't remember what this meal was despite thinking it's important to tell you all!). I ignore the temptation to sit with my colleagues (even though I hate missing lunch) as I feel a paragraph coming on. I return to my desk to eat lunch and instead get briefly distracted by a news story about something disgusting an Australia politician has said. I feel a strong need to Tweet about it and do so. My supervisor sees the tweet and comes over to tell me that she is equally disgusted. I then force myself back to my paper to write the aforementioned paragraph.

1.30 pm: Time for supervision! We're in M's (primary supervisor) office today. I give a brief update on Difficult Paper No 5 to M and then J (secondary supervisor) joins us. I give them both a brief update on where I'm at with my postdoc project proposal that I am hoping to submit early next year (yep, it requires that much foresight). We're all excited about the idea; fingers crossed it all works out! [Side note: I'm finding that one of the most challenging things about this last leg of the PhD is to balance completing my thesis with working on activities like this to progress my career after.] We finish up supervision with a brief discussion of where we're all at with watching Grace & Frankie (so good! Watch it!), and the impossible beauty standards women are subjected to at all ages. I leave supervision feeling as I typically do: reassured and slightly more motivated.

Rare action shot of M, J & I in supervision - totally staged and we're all trying not to laugh.

2.00 pm: Fight urge to slump on desk and take a nap. As positive as I find supervision to be, I typically feel drained afterwards. I think it's the emotional energy involved with presenting your work and fearing someone will tell you it's rubbish. Impostor syndrome strikes the PhD candidate frequently... I write myself a few notes to remind me of what we discussed in supervision and add what I said I would do to my never ending to do list. I then do a few of the easier things on the list just to have the satisfaction of crossing things off.

2.30 pm: I continue working on Difficult Paper No 5 with slightly renewed enthusiasm after M pointed out a paper I sent her that morning is an excellent example for the format of this one. I tweet the lead author of said paper to praise her work and connect with her; I find this is a very useful way of networking and have had some great things come from it. At some point I take a brief break to make my afternoon tea in the kitchen (apple oat cake and tea). To jazz up my afternoon, I have my tea in a cup and saucer instead of my scummy postgrad mug. It's the little things. 

4.00 pm: I commence the commute home in reverse order of before. I like to use this journey to read a paper that I've printed (I so want to be one of those paperless people but haven't found an affordable piece of technology that can accommodate reading pdfs in such a way that you can easily highlight and note-take on it. Recommendations welcome!). Lately I've been reading papers relevant to my postdoc; it's difficult to learn an entire new literature for something that you may not even need to know (if you, say, don't end up getting funded) so I spread it out across the week. If it's an interesting paper it provides a useful distraction from the trials and tribulations of peak hour commuting. If it's not it's a struggle to use the last of my mental capacity for the day. Today it's an interesting paper and the commute flys by.

My office building + weather that has turned to complete rubbish since I've been in the office (#Melbourne).

5.00 pm: Arrive home and quickly type up some notes from the paper I read on the commute home into a computer file where I'm collating the literature for my postdoc app.

5.30 pm: Turn brain off for the day and watch Gilmore Girls. I watched it when I was younger but have recently redeveloped an obsession with it and am not even embarrassed about it.

6.30 pm: My partner comes home and is equally exhausted from his long day of PhDing. We decide cooking is too hard tonight and to treat ourselves to dinner out. On two PhD incomes eating out is such a luxury so one must pick wisely. We research dinner options on Zomato and settle on a cheap dumpling place we've yet to try. It's delicious and super cheap. Winner.

And the rest of the night isn't particularly relevant to doing a PhD so I won't bore you with the details! 

What's your PhD day like?

Kate xx

*The PhD experience tends to differ for everyone depending on lots of factors including the school and/or faculty you're in, your research field, your supervisors, etc. My experience is but one example.