Living the life 1: Things are going great…

Friend: “How are things?”

PhD Student: “Meh…”

What not to say! Image credit: Jorge Cham, PhD Comics
What not to say! Image credit: Jorge Cham, PhD Comics

When muttered to most PhD students* those three words often conjure up thoughts of contempt and general dissatisfaction. However, what most of us seem to forget is that regardless of how any work may be progressing, we actually have one of the best jobs going.

A bold claim, maybe. Let me explain.

For the majority of the year (deadlines and experimental constraints aside) we have one of the most flexible work schedules possible. As long as the work gets done and the thesis is completed in time, it doesn’t matter when, or indeed where, we work. True, most of us may choose to work a ‘normal’ week (see the average PhD student), perhaps so our schedules coincide with those of friends and loved ones, but that needn’t always be the case.

And it is this flexibility that sets a PhD program above any graduate job (as well as bridging that gap between ‘undergraduate world’ and ‘real world’).

Waking up to a glorious morning - what are you going to do?
Waking up to a glorious morning – what are you going to do?

Imagine this weekday morning scenario:

07.30: Alarm goes off.

07.45: Stop snoozing, pull self out of bed.

07.50: Make self open curtains.

07.51: Oh sh*t, it’s really sunny…

What happens next?

For those that may have followed the train routes and taken a job in ‘the city’, it’s likely to be an overcrowded and rushed commute with a take-away coffee and floppy pastry. In constrast, a PhD student could conceivably take the day off, go for a long run, sit in the park, sunbathe with a book, have a picnic with some friends, cycle 50 miles, hit up a beer garden, go climbing, play football. The list goes on…

Any work missed out on can often be made up by working a few longer days or coming in on a wet weekend (as I am now while I write this – it’s work, honest…).

Bask in PhD flexibility. Take some free time when the sun is shining (or not), and enjoy it as you will.
Bask in PhD flexibility. Take some free time when the sun is shining (or not), and enjoy it as you will.

Even if taking a whole day off when the sun is shining isn’t feasible, much more common is taking a few hours here and there, regardless of the weather. This allows us to take a lunchtime yoga class, play sport on a Wednesday afternoon for the university, or go shopping in off-peak hours. Whatever takes your fancy.

Then there’s ALWAYS a day when you just can’t pull yourself out of bed, be it due to the previous nights debauchery and an apocalypse hangover, or just straight up tiredness. Easy solution: sleep in, catch up on rest, and come in refreshed later on. Not possible if you’re working set hours at a multinational company or law firm.

This is why I believe, despite the stressful work and relentless chasing of supervisors, PhD students really are living the life, and when next asked those three words, at least a little part of us should acknowledge that things are going great!

*(Obviously not those in their first year and still feeling super keen…)

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About James Hickey

I'm a geophysical volcanologist trying to better understand volcanic unrest.

4 comments on “Living the life 1: Things are going great…

  1. Sadly, I will have to say that I do not agree with your bold statement that we have one of the best jobs going. My main reason for this is two-fold.
    Firstly, the experience of doing a PhD is a very personal and subjective one. No two theses are the same, as our research is supposed to be unique, and therefore no two experiences are the same. Your experience maybe very much like you describe in your blog, however your office mates experience could be the polar opposite. Secondly, and this is much more of a personal view over a sweeping statement, I don’t see a PhD as a job. One could argue it is more of a vocation, or simply further studying. In most jobs, you leave the work it at the office. You work your 40 hour week and then go home. At work, unless you are the top dog, you have a team working with you, supporting you and often working on a similar project to you. There are deadlines, imposed structure and this is not necessary a bad thing as your blog may suggest. This allows you to separate out work and life whereas with a PhD the separation is more of a blurred line. And this is why I feel I can not classify what we are doing as a job.
    Not to be all doom and gloom, I am aware of the benefits a PhD has but just feel that I cannot agree with you that it will be the best experience of my working life!

  2. I agree with both of you, to some extent, but I can’t help but think that enjoyment is negatively correlated with year of study…

    1. That could be true. Or does it just correlate with stress/pressure and there tends to be more of that in your latter years.

  3. I’m a fence-sitter here too. There are definite advantages and disadvantages to PhD life. And I’m not sure the beginning is the easy part – looking back at the start and how clueless I was about what I was trying to achieve certainly doesn’t seem like the best part now. Results are excellent too, and they tend to come later.

    All in all, I think what KT said about it being a unique experience is bang on.

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