How do all these geniuses spend their time?

When I was young, my grandfather took me and the rest of my family to his retirement party. After receiving a PhD in STEM education, he dedicated his life to improving math and science education across Indiana. As we all sat around with refreshments, my grandfather told stories about the incredibly bright students he got to meet through the years and all the good they did in their own careers. At the time, I wasn’t interested in his stories as much as these “smart students” themselves. What did they do to get so smart? How did these brainiacs fill their waking hours?

Now that I am a graduate student myself, I can first tell you that not all graduate students are smart, despite what anyone tells you. In fact, as you will see in a later post, being a genius does not necessarily make you a great PhD student (though, admittedly, it helps). Beyond this, I figured it may be useful to outline my own day for anyone that is curious about the routine of a PhD student. Obviously, schedules vary considerably between people, especially PhD students who are not bound by a traditional work week. All the same, maybe some parts of the schedule that works for me can help you too.

An average Tuesday as a first-year PhD student

6:20 a.m.           Wake up

Easier said than done, but once I made it a habit I stuck with it

6:30 a.m.           Exercise (running, cycling, swimming, or weightlifting)

It took me some time to develop this habit, but I find that the easiest way to get the brain going is to get the body going first. Personally, I am a fan of the triathlon sports and weightlifting, but any activity that moves you around works. Plus, there is even some science to support that exercise can kick start your mind too!

7:50 a.m.           Have breakfast and write my plan for the day

In general, I think it is difficult to keep track of everything that needs to get done in a day. For me, simply writing everything down at the beginning gives me some extra brain power to devote to specific tasks and doesn’t make me feel like I am juggling so many activities.

8:00 a.m.           Read

If you are a PhD student, then you quickly become comfortable with always have a literal pile of conference publications / textbook snippets / online tutorials to read. It is no coincidence that becoming an expert is something is challenging. Every week new ideas are published in your discipline, no matter what the discipline is. Reading is a losing battle, but one you still have to fight.

8:50 a.m.           Summarize reading notes, then save or share information as needed with group via Slack

This one may be lab group specific, but generally I try and verify I understand what I read by taking notes and compressing them into a short summary. This can be very helpful for group discussions.

9:00 a.m.           Lab group research meeting.

This tends to involve presentations of current research work completed in the last week as well as discussions on what to pursue next. Literature summaries tend to come in very handy in these situations, as well as any insightful visualizations that someone built illustrating a concept or idea.

10:00 a.m.           Break

After taking down any new information from the meeting, I usually take a minute to decompress and scroll through the news, Strava, or chat with my roommate.

10:15 a.m.           Work on homework from last class

It is amazing how much time you can spend on a single problem set. The transition into graduate mathematics has not been smooth for me, so I tend to start these early.

11:00 a.m.           Class

This may date the post, but at the moment everything is virtual. Zoom meetings are no replacement for in-person classes, but at least you can sit in the comfort of your apartment.

12:30 p.m.           Lunch

Usually eaten while reading or chatting with my roommate.

1:00 p.m.           Conduct research experiments

The actual activities depend on the day, but I tend to find that running a set of experiments and then concurrently adding new functinality for future experiments to be the most useful. Something about building new model architectures while older models are training feels particularly satisfying to me.

3:35 p.m.           Realize you are 5 minutes late to class, commit research progress to Git

Research really sucks you in, for better or worse. Whether it leaves you frustrated or exhilarated, one thing is for sure: You will click that Zoom link a few minutes after class has started.

5:00 p.m.           Break

Usually I will grab a snack and go for a walk while I call a friend or family member to chat.

5:30 p.m.           Get started on homework assigned today

I have found that even getting a small start on a new assignment right after its been discussed in class ultimately makes completing it a little faster. Sometimes starting is the toughest part.

6:45 p.m.           Dinner

Generally with whoever else is around, either done while casually sifting through emails and messages that collected in my inbox throughout the day and watching a show on Netflix.

7:30 p.m.           Either homework or research

Depending on how productive I have been, I will try and get a few more items done for the category in which I made the least progress.

9:00 p.m.           Stop working, go spend time with friends

When the PhD student’s 5 O’clock rolls around, I try and spend some time talking to friends or family. If no one is around, then I will focus on personal projects, like writing these blogs!

10:30 p.m.           Go to sleep

I am sure some PhD student’s will gawk at this. No, I don’t get to sleep this early every day, but I tend towards being an early riser as opposed to the PhD standard of staying up late. If I have a deadline approaching. I will usually get up a few hours earlier instead of staying up later. Something about that better suits me.

Key Takeaways

This is sort of a trick question. The main takeaway is that there is nothing special about the routine of a PhD student, at least when compared to undergraduates and those working a job. I suppose we dedicate more of our time to reading and homework, but that is expected in a program and necessitates achieving world-class expertise. If you view the PhD as a job (which it is) where your duties are to conduct research, it is not all that dissimilar to any other profession.

Now, a benefit of this job is that it is heavily dedicated to learning a diverse array of concepts and applying them to explore the cutting edge of a field. Over time, the day-to-day pursuit of new knowledge adds up, eventually giving professors an all-knowing aura that we may have felt as an undergraduate. I think a better characterization of professors is that they have taught themselves to learn well. For some, this ability to grasp and retain concepts, regardless of the topic, is an incredibly satisfying skill. If you feel the same way, then perhaps you should consider a PhD. The daily routine of a PhD student tends to be ordinary, but over time can lead to extraordinary growth.

The daily routine of a PhD student tends to be ordinary, but over time can lead to extraordinary growth.

Coming Up: Planning your summers as a PhD Student

One of the best parts of being a PhD student is having free-form summers to (mostly) spend how you wish. Not only does this give you a chance to explore a variety of different positions, it diversifies your research by introducing new topics and people into your life. However, depending on your interests and PhD progress, your summer months may be better spent pursuing industry positions or academic placements. My next post will delve into the details of choosing a summer opportunity that best fits your interests.