General Education

How Many Hours A Week Should I Work on My PhD?

How Many Hours A Week Should I Work on My PhD?
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Molly Pennington, PhD profile
Molly Pennington, PhD August 28, 2014

A PhD takes a lot of work, and many candidates find it hard to find the time they need. Get the low down on how much you can expect to be working.

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Maintaining a healthy balance of work and personal life is one of the biggest challenges you’ll face when you’re working towards a PhD.

You may be teaching a class or two, balancing committee work, and maybe even working a “real” job at the same time. You may even have a child or two, whiledealing with every manner of drama and crisis that comes along with living life as a grown-up.

Regardless of the volume of busyness in your life, you still have to find time to write that dissertation.

Most PhD programs set aside two years for writing and research. Usually it’s assumed that you’ll spend a year on research and the second year writing. This amount of time can fluctuate considerably depending on your program and the nature of your research, and also on your work habits, stamina, and passion for your topic.

How many hours per week will I be working?

In the ideal scenario, you would have a set two years to work full-time, devoting about 40 hours a week to your project. If you were at a desk from 9 to 5, five days a week, most of you could accomplish your goals without delay. If you only have 15 hours a week, it’s going to take you longer. If you can put in 50-60 hours per week, you can shave a few months off of that two year timetable.

The problem is that many PhD students procrastinate, or they have work or family obligations that don’t allow them a wide swath of empty time to devote to their project. If you want to succeed, you’re going to need to schedule in consistent time. Try to carve out at least 20-30 hours a week. You may have to use early mornings, evenings, and weekends.

You have to, or you’ll be stalled as an ABD forever. ABD stands for “all but dissertation.” About half of PhD students never finish their degree, and many of them stall at the dissertation phase.

That’s not surprising. The dissertation stage is arguably the most challenging part of achieving the degree. Before you get to that stage you’ll complete coursework, take your comp exams, then propose a dissertation topic that needs committee approval. Some programs also have language requirements, certifications, or other projects and assessments along the way.

How can I stay focused?

Most successful students have strong support systems in place: financial, familial and academic. Having a good advisor and solid relationships with your committee members is also key.
But even with all these things in play, your dissertation can still take longer than two years. Keep in mind that you aren’t only writing. You won’t be able to sit down and reach your daily word count with ease. Because you’re not writing off the top of your head or brainstorming. Rather, you’re organizing, assessing, and presenting a substantially large amount of research. And, you’re composing an original and thorough argument based on that research.

So a dissertation requires a huge amount of foresight and an ability to both synthesize a large amount of data or research and account for nuances.

If you take time off, a few months of avoidance or even a few weeks of vacation, when you return you’ll have to spend time “getting back in the groove” and re-familiarizing yourself with your own material.
It’s not the kind of thing that you can do the night before.

How can I live a normal life while writing a dissertation?

# 1. Build in time to get into work mode.

You’re at your desk and you’ve got three hours of writing time ahead of you before the baby wakes up or you have to get back to your other job. It’s probably more like two hours. Give yourself some leeway and warm up time. An harsh regimen is actually going to slow you down, so give yourself a built-in warm up. Browse Facebook, do some online window shopping, play Words With Friends, google something, then reread the pages you wrote at your last session. Ok, ready? Now get started.
It’s ok to give yourself breaks
within your work time. It will actually help you stay focused.

# 2. Allow yourself some time to not think about the work.

Read something non-academic once in a while, a blog, People magazine, a trashy novel, a menu. You have to pull yourself out of the world of scholarly jargon every once in a while, or you’ll go crazy. Go ahead and binge on a little TV. You’ll see the entire series of “Breaking Bad” — twice, and you’ll have very smart theories on what it all means. Don’t worry about those making sense. You’re on break. Now get back to your actual work.

# 3. Don’t expect non-academics to understand what you’re doing or what you’re going through.

In general, your parents, your neighbor, your spouse and the guy at the grocery store have no idea what a dissertation entails or what your research and theories mean when you talk about them. You can explain to them that it’s so hard and so important, and still they won’t understand and they won’t quite believe you. They’re thinking: “How hard can it be? Just write the thing already!”

No one outside of academia can ever really understand what a dissertation entails. So just let the topic go when you’re with non-scholars. Talk about the weather, the dinner menu, and what you like best about “Game of Thrones.”


MacPhail, T. (2014, March 6). The No-Fail Secret to Writing a Dissertation. Retrieved August 11, 2014 from Vitae.

Mead, J. (2009, July 17). Take Lots of Breaks to Get More Done. Retrieved August 11, 2014 from Zen Habits.

Schuman, R. (2014, August 1). ABD Company. Retrieved August 11, 2014 from Slate.

Shingle, P. (2009, October 16). A Regular Writing Routine. Retrieved August 11, 2014 from Inside Higher Ed.


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