How to achieve a work/life balance when doing a PhD

Published on 27 October 16

The reality is that there is no such thing as an “average PhD week” and how you arrange your week will depend on a number of factors:

Workin’ 9 to 5

There are examples of researchers who successfully (and with dedication!) are 9 to 5 workers. Many believe it IS possible to achieve a work-life balance even when doing a PhD. For example, there are many research students who have to commit to strictly 9 to 5 for all kinds of reasons such as family commitments and they still manage to get their PhD.

Your personal preferences

9 to 5 doesn’t work for everyone – you may prefer a more flexible approach rather than committing yourself to set hours, maybe you have a part time job or prefer to work later on in the day. Find out what works for you but remember it is best to have a loose timetable to ensure that you have proper time off even if you don’t rigorously stick to it.

If you ask current PhD students, you will get a range of estimates from 35 to 70 hours. It can’t be denied that a PhD is hard work and there will be different demands on your time, especially if you undertake teaching or other university-related activities. However, as with all things, there is a balance to be struck.

Some students do want to put in 70 hours a week whilst they are able to sustain a high-level of motivation, and that’s great, but what is not great is to feel pressured into it.

What you have agreed with your supervisor

Do they expect you to be on campus for a certain number of hours per week?  Remember that physical presence does not necessarily mean productivity.  If they don’t – work out if you want to be on campus – do you prefer to work in spaces with other students? On or off campus, maintain a good working relationship and make sure you schedule regular meetings to keep in touch with them.

Your attendance and subject area

Are there core hours that you need to be in the office or are you content with meeting at regular intervals without the need to “clock in”? Were you allocated a desk in the department or do you prefer working from home? These arrangements will evolve as you go through your PhD. If there are some concerns about your progress then you may be asked to be in more often.

In the social sciences, arts and humanities, there is a lot more variation. Most students will adopt a flexible approach with time spent at home, in the department, at the library and in other research sites.

As for science-based PhDs, you will most likely be in the lab every day, except for when you are writing up.

Whatever discipline you are in, be flexible.  The stage that you are at will depend on how you manage your work like balance, for example, your week will be structured very differently when you are writing up and there will be peak times in activity.


Lastly, don’t feel guilty for taking time off! Enjoy a well-deserved break and recharge your batteries, you will feel better for it and be more productive as a result.

Meet our students! Hear from current postgraduates, from a range of different subject areas, as they tell us about some of the opportunities for personal and professional growth that they've experienced here at the University.

Are you a new PhD student who started in July or September? Come and meet other new students at a Welcome event to be held on Thursday, 3 November at 5pm. Register to attend here and hear from a panel as they share their insights and experiences on making the most of Manchester.

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