A day in the life of a postgrad student

After many long and, possibly, rewarding years in education, you've taken the step to do a postgraduate degree. Only you'll know whether that decision turns out to be a brave or a daft one. In the meantime, why not fill out a day in the life guide, so those considering postgraduate degrees know exactly how much hard work (or otherwise) is involved!

Case Studies

Case study: mphil Musicology Student: HIGH LOAD

Brief day in the life of a student

Username: Riotgrrrl
Course of study: Musicology
Level of study: Mphil 
University of study: Cambridge

Overview of the workload and general comments The course is part taught, part research and is hardcore. There are 11-15 people taking it each year and on average one will fail. The pass mark is 60%, pass with 60%, high pass at 65%, distinction at 70%, high distinction at 80%. The PhD course is competitive with most who enter gaining a conditional offer but only a third finding funding. Students who want to go to Cambridge tend to know the workload is intense and it is arguably even more intense at mphil. Though don't let that put you off, you work hard for 8 weeks of the term but then (as long as you didn't doss in term time) you can have a break at Christmas. I'm finding the course amazing! There is a lot to do but you just get so much out of it and get to see the best or most prominent people speak. The musicology course tears music and everything you know about it to pieces and then from that emerges an educated understanding of what you know and what you don't and how this knowledge is conditioned. I can honestly say I am having an amazing amazing time. Cambridge itself is surreal and just an experience like none other. 
Yes, you will work hard, but everyone tends to have one activity that isn't music. For me, its Taekwondo, others its films, others its computer games. You don't have too much of a social life outside the department but this year (as well as I'm sure other years) we arrange things once a week like coffee or bonfires or anything. I know the detailed schedule won't see too much time for food/washing/relaxing but when you're actually experiencing the course, it isn't too hard at no point have I not understood the readings 100% and if you do misunderstand, the seminars will put you right! It is ace :) 

Describe a typical day for you. 
Typical day is to wake up at 7am and do one hour of taekwondo practice before biking into uni (either my college or music). 
Most days in the morning I'm either reading or preparing for reading, with Thursdays reserved for meetings. 
Afternoons are either working or in lectures, with Taekwondo in the evening. I try to call my girlfriend and sleep by 11 (though most days its closer to 12)
Its pretty tense but I try to have one day (mostly) off, or not work so hard one day at the moment. 

More in depth insight into the life of a busy mphil

Weekly organization routine 

  • Electronic organizer 
    • This is currently in Entourage, I have created a project for each of my modules with the deadlines written in. I then add tasks for each week and always have entourage up so if I have any thoughts during the day I just add them to my notes. Its a bit extreme as everything is colour coded and there are short cuts to my desktop but hey, I don't have time to route around.
    • Whenever an email comes in its colour coded to the project and the contact has a photo. I then reply straight away and add any meetings to my diary

Here is an example of one of my projects, Musicology and its Debates 

  • Paper organizer 
    • Each week I look at the weekly tasks I set myself mid-term (once I had a decent idea of all my deadlines and set mini deadlines) and then decided when to fit them into the week 
    • I then post-it note these into the week of my filofax below the post-it note of tasks 
    • I constantly update everything and sync the two together. 


  • As I said, this is extreme but the course at cambridge demands it. In order to actually have some sort of holiday, it is vital to keep on top of everything. At the moment, my immediate assignments are a presentation on the 4th of December (today is the 3rd of November), A thesis title and abstract for the dissertation on the 12th of January, 10 abstracts and a 2000 word essay for the musicology and debates lecture on the 15th of January. Apart from a reading list each week, most of the assignments are up to you to do, and so I have broke them into manageable chunks. 

Here is an example of a week in my diary 

A sample of the weekly routine 

  • Note: Every few weeks I also have meetings with my dyslexia tutor.
  • 3 times a week I tend to eat in College

Any advice you'd give to prospective postgrad students? 

  • Don't go to a uni because of the prestige, spend time researching your degree, the course, whats expected of you
  • When there, don't get behind, you'll end up constantly reassessing your work attitude but don't worry about that, don't expect to have a full proof organization plan from the beginning just see how it goes.
  • Make sure you have some friends and phone numbers and keep on talking terms even if you're busy. Not only does this keep you sane but if you are ill you need people to fall back on.

Case Studies

Case study: PhD molecular biology (1st year): Medium load


Brief day in the life of a student

Username: Athena
Course of study: Molecular Biology 
Level of study: PhD (probationary) 
University of study: Cambridge 

Overview of the workload and general comments

My PhD course is reasonably unusual, in that it's a four year PhD course that begins with six months of laboratory rotations - every new PhD student has to complete three rotations, with at least one to be experimental (wet lab) and one to be informatics (dry lab). So a project may cover anything from mapping gene expression in zebra fish, to creating a new protein-fold prediction algorithm, to associating SNPs with common disease traits.

Describe a typical day for you.

If I drive to the lab, I can sleep til 7.30ish, but if I need to get the bus, it's up at 7am in order to walk the mile and a bit to the bus stop. I've gone back to my secondary school routine - pack my bag the night before, with my notebook, any papers I've taken home to read, access card etc. If traffic is kind, I go with my caffeine-addict coursemates to grab a hot drink to start the day off, otherwise it's straight to the office to face the deluge of emails a large department creates and to see whether the script/command line option/programme I sent going the day before has run correctly/at all. Mornings tend to be about analysing the successes and failures of the day before, and then either proceeding with the next step in the data analysis/generation or fixing whatever went wrong and going for a mid-morning coffee with other students in my building while the computers do their stuff. Occasionally, I may even catch sight of my supervisor, although I'm more likely to email them my problems, or ask the other PhD students, post-docs and supervisors who work in my office for help. Sometimes there's a spare 45 mins to pop to the (heavily subsidised) campus gym.

Lunch is a time of divided loyalties - sit with coursemates (gossip, sarcasm and a chance to talk about our projects) or with the lab (a different kind of gossip and sarcasm, and occasionally having to make polite but strained conversation with the older faculty).

Afternoons are talk central. Group journal club (once a month). Faculty journal club (once a month). Compulsory PhD journal club (fortnightly). Talks from PIs (compulsory, two two-hour walks per week). Extended group meetings (once a fortnight). Group meetings (once a fortnight). Three different seminar series that seem to go on every week, are generally interesting, and which we are "encouraged" to attend. Talks from graduating PhD students... You could easily - easily - spend eight hours a week in talks, a whole day out of your week. You can also only skip a certain number of these talks... In short, afternoons are not a time to plan to be productive, which can be frustrating. There's usually just time to set something computationally-intensive going to run overnight (see mornings) before braving rush hour once again.

Evenings, therefore, have to be used for any extra reading you want to be get done, and for things like tidying your room/flat, going to buy food (if, like me, you hate supermarkets at the weekends and resent spending your time off there) and having something like a social life. I try to play sport of some kind twice a week, although it's only been once a week recently, mainly because sport seems to clash with having a social life - going to the cinema, going out for dinner, hanging out in the college bar, house parties... But, often, fun that finishes in time to be in bed for 10.30-11pm, unless you want to be a bit of a zombie in the lab. Having never worked 9-5 before (I've done evening shifts, hourly work and a degree that just expanded to fill whatever time you gave it), I find the (for me) early start - commute - solid working day routine to be really pretty tiring. And it seems to provoke more vivid dreams that I'm used to...

Any advice you'd give to prospective postgrad students?

  • I'm grateful for the rise of the four year/integrated masters/rotational PhD. In science, it can be hard in certain fields to realise exactly what work is involved in generating the kind of data you're interested in - I know now that the researchers I thought spent a lot of time in the lab tend to get their collaborators to do that bit, and are actually crunching data on the computer a lot of the time, which doesn't suit me at all! Having the chance to try out several projects before you pick your PhD is really helpful for that, and can introduce you to areas of science you might not have met before.
  • Even if you are tired by your course, still try to go out and make friends on other courses (even if they're, gasp, undergrads!) - it's been vital to my sanity to go off and talk to people who are nothing to do with my 9-5 life!