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What is the average life of a PhD student? How many hours etc? Literature students? Watch

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    Hello -

    I'm considering going for a PhD, I'm a week away from completing my undergraduate degree and then will be going onto a masters.

    I understand PhD's are incredibly difficult and require a lot of self-belief/hard work/determination and overall a strong passion for the subject, but I'm curious as to what the average course is like. Particularly the work hours/work-load and how it compares to an undergraduate degree.

    (This is specifically for a literature PhD by the way). Is much of your time spent in the library researching/compiling evidence and building on your work continually over the three years? Or are you at home for a lot of it?

    Apologies for the probably obvious questions I'm asking but I'm feeling a little in the dark regarding the entire thing!

    Thanks in advance for any replies
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    I'm a PhD student but intrigued to see what the answers to this question will be...I'm in my first year, but really don't feel like I'm working hard enough - I've had so many days of doing nothing! What am I meant to be doing? I hardly see my supervisors =(
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    (Original post by Himeros)
    Hello -

    I'm considering going for a PhD, I'm a week away from completing my undergraduate degree and then will be going onto a masters.

    I understand PhD's are incredibly difficult and require a lot of self-belief/hard work/determination and overall a strong passion for the subject, but I'm curious as to what the average course is like. Particularly the work hours/work-load and how it compares to an undergraduate degree.

    (This is specifically for a literature PhD by the way). Is much of your time spent in the library researching/compiling evidence and building on your work continually over the three years? Or are you at home for a lot of it?

    Apologies for the probably obvious questions I'm asking but I'm feeling a little in the dark regarding the entire thing!
    Literature PhD here, but this is a difficult question because almost all of us only do one PhD, and it's dangerous to generalise from just that. My experience was that my PhD meant harder, longer hours than when I had full-time jobs, but not terrifyingly, all-encompassingly longer or harder. A key issue is that work & thought can spread themselves out inefficiently across your whole day -- you have to self-manage, and you can struggle to get enough done during working hours, and your problems will follow you home and into your bedroom and bedevil you as you try to sleep. Humanities postgraduate work is one of the stickiest kinds of work and it's very hard to get away from it. Coping with the fact that (for most literature PhDs) parts of the process will be barren and unproductive or actively involve taking wrong turnings is also hard.

    You can (and should) still take holidays and have time off. This will make you more productive in the long run. You also can (and should) still maintain some kind of a social life, though this will need to be managed much more deliberately than when you were an undergraduate.

    As for the library vs. home or whatever, this depends on your preferences and the demands of your project. Archival work will demand that you go to particular places at particular times, but if you're not messing with manuscripts and records you will probably have to work out times and places of work that work for you. At my institution some postgrads in English like to work in the library, some like to work at home, some like to work in the postgrad workspace, some like to work in coffee shops &c. Most people's long-term experience is one of slow, small-scale pieces of work gradually building into a bigger argument, with occasional wild goose chases along the way (and especially eary on).

    I hope that's helpful -- do say if you have more specific questions.
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    (Original post by QHF)
    Literature PhD here, but this is a difficult question because almost all of us only do one PhD, and it's dangerous to generalise from just that. My experience was that my PhD meant harder, longer hours than when I had full-time jobs, but not terrifyingly, all-encompassingly longer or harder. A key issue is that work & thought can spread themselves out inefficiently across your whole day -- you have to self-manage, and you can struggle to get enough done during working hours, and your problems will follow you home and into your bedroom and bedevil you as you try to sleep. Humanities postgraduate work is one of the stickiest kinds of work and it's very hard to get away from it. Coping with the fact that (for most literature PhDs) parts of the process will be barren and unproductive or actively involve taking wrong turnings is also hard.

    You can (and should) still take holidays and have time off. This will make you more productive in the long run. You also can (and should) still maintain some kind of a social life, though this will need to be managed much more deliberately than when you were an undergraduate.

    As for the library vs. home or whatever, this depends on your preferences and the demands of your project. Archival work will demand that you go to particular places at particular times, but if you're not messing with manuscripts and records you will probably have to work out times and places of work that work for you. At my institution some postgrads in English like to work in the library, some like to work at home, some like to work in the postgrad workspace, some like to work in coffee shops &c. Most people's long-term experience is one of slow, small-scale pieces of work gradually building into a bigger argument, with occasional wild goose chases along the way (and especially eary on).

    I hope that's helpful -- do say if you have more specific questions.
    Thank you so much for the reply - that's been incredibly helpful.
    I do have other questions but I really don't know where to begin, I guess I'm still struggling to get my head around what a literature PhD actually entails (apologies for how stupid that probably comes across), but what I really mean is, for example, at the university I'm currently at, a PhD is expected to be a piece of work at around 100k words - is this similar to your situation?

    If that is the case, are you simply working on essentially (I know this is hugely dumbing it down but...) a very,very,very large essay/dissertation - only one that is thousands upon thousands of words? As I think what I struggle to get my head around with this is how does one break down such a thing over the three years? Does your supervisor give you goals (e.g. complete x number of words by x date?), or are you entirely left up to complete it at your own pace? Are drafts marked etc?

    Lastly do you mind me what your PhD topic is? How far are you into it? Are you enjoying it?

    Once again thank you for the reply & apologies for the lengthy questions!
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    It sounds like you could benefit from talking to PhD students in your department. Also your university library will have a collection of previous students' PhD theses which you can access: call some literature ones up and see how they're structured and what they attempt to do. You could also see if the library has any books like Dunleavy's Authoring a PhD (which comes from a political science context, note) -- books like that are by no means cure-alls, but they might give you a better sense of the task.

    (Original post by Himeros)
    I do have other questions but I really don't know where to begin, I guess I'm still struggling to get my head around what a literature PhD actually entails (apologies for how stupid that probably comes across), but what I really mean is, for example, at the university I'm currently at, a PhD is expected to be a piece of work at around 100k words - is this similar to your situation?
    I think 80K to 100K is pretty standard in the humanities, yes.

    (Original post by Himeros)
    If that is the case, are you simply working on essentially (I know this is hugely dumbing it down but...) a very,very,very large essay/dissertation - only one that is thousands upon thousands of words?
    That's not a bad way of looking at it. In fact, one of the things that hinders some PhD students is that they get too idealistic about it: the thesis isn't meant to be your life's work or your finest achievement -- it's big, and it has to meet certain criteria, but once it meets those criteria you should finish it, like any other piece of assessment.

    On the other hand another model for what the PhD thesis is is the academic monograph: a thesis is a bit like the first draft of a monograph. The relationship between theses and monographs is a bit like the relationship between long master's essays and journal articles.

    So perhaps it's good to think of the thesis as something between the two poles of 'just a mindblowingly long essay' and 'an academic monograph'.

    (Original post by Himeros)
    As I think what I struggle to get my head around with this is how does one break down such a thing over the three years? Does your supervisor give you goals (e.g. complete x number of words by x date?), or are you entirely left up to complete it at your own pace? Are drafts marked etc?
    You break it down into small achievable chunks and do the chunks, one by one! The exact way that you work with your supervisor (or supervisors -- some people have two) is a product of negotiation between what you think you need and what your supervisor thinks you need, but most people are writing draft sections which they then submit to their supervisor, who will add comments and suggestions (but not a numerical mark). During my thesis, I ranged from times when my supervisor would send me off for two months to clear the ground and bash out a big chapter draft to times when I would be redrafting something and getting comments on it about once every week, depending on the phase of the work I was in.

    Most departments also have more formal internal checkpoint/annual review systems, so you're likely to have to submit draft sections for review by other scholars two or three times during the process -- this is so that the department know you're progressing and to catch any potential problems which have slipped past your supervisor.

    Believe it or not, most people find at the end that they have too much material, not too little. If you work steadily at it it takes surprisingly little time to write a PhD thesis. Which is good, because if you want to have any slim chance of an academic job afterwards you need to be filling out your CV by doing a range of other things: publishing, teaching, going to conferences, helping organise conferences, applying for grants for side projects, &c. (If you're not hoping to roll the dice on a career in academia, you can be much more relaxed about these things.)

    (Original post by Himeros)
    Lastly do you mind me what your PhD topic is? How far are you into it? Are you enjoying it?
    I kind of do mind, because talking about that publicly would make me too identifiable. I suppose I can say that I work in English, on English which is earlier rather than later. I submitted the completed thesis late last year and that I did enjoy it, though it was very hard work. And don't worry about asking questions, I don't mind that.
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    (Original post by QHF)
    It sounds like you could benefit from talking to PhD students in your department. Also your university library will have a collection of previous students' PhD theses which you can access: call some literature ones up and see how they're structured and what they attempt to do. You could also see if the library has any books like Dunleavy's Authoring a PhD (which comes from a political science context, note) -- books like that are by no means cure-alls, but they might give you a better sense of the task.



    I think 80K to 100K is pretty standard in the humanities, yes.



    That's not a bad way of looking at it. In fact, one of the things that hinders some PhD students is that they get too idealistic about it: the thesis isn't meant to be your life's work or your finest achievement -- it's big, and it has to meet certain criteria, but once it meets those criteria you should finish it, like any other piece of assessment.

    On the other hand another model for what the PhD thesis is is the academic monograph: a thesis is a bit like the first draft of a monograph. The relationship between theses and monographs is a bit like the relationship between long master's essays and journal articles.

    So perhaps it's good to think of the thesis as something between the two poles of 'just a mindblowingly long essay' and 'an academic monograph'.



    You break it down into small achievable chunks and do the chunks, one by one! The exact way that you work with your supervisor (or supervisors -- some people have two) is a product of negotiation between what you think you need and what your supervisor thinks you need, but most people are writing draft sections which they then submit to their supervisor, who will add comments and suggestions (but not a numerical mark). During my thesis, I ranged from times when my supervisor would send me off for two months to clear the ground and bash out a big chapter draft to times when I would be redrafting something and getting comments on it about once every week, depending on the phase of the work I was in.

    Most departments also have more formal internal checkpoint/annual review systems, so you're likely to have to submit draft sections for review by other scholars two or three times during the process -- this is so that the department know you're progressing and to catch any potential problems which have slipped past your supervisor.

    Believe it or not, most people find at the end that they have too much material, not too little. If you work steadily at it it takes surprisingly little time to write a PhD thesis. Which is good, because if you want to have any slim chance of an academic job afterwards you need to be filling out your CV by doing a range of other things: publishing, teaching, going to conferences, helping organise conferences, applying for grants for side projects, &c. (If you're not hoping to roll the dice on a career in academia, you can be much more relaxed about these things.)



    I kind of do mind, because talking about that publicly would make me too identifiable. I suppose I can say that I work in English, on English which is earlier rather than later. I submitted the completed thesis late last year and that I did enjoy it, though it was very hard work. And don't worry about asking questions, I don't mind that.
    That's been massively helpful, thank you so much. You've given me a great deal to think about!

    I think what I'm going to do is get in touch with some staff/PhD students at my uni and set up some meetings to find out more about the whole process/experiences at my university.

    Thanks again for all of the help
 
 
 
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