Friday, May 25, 2012

Friday Fun: A Week in the Life of a Grad Student

As a graduate student, I don't punch a clock or fill out a time card. Although I have a faculty advisor, I don't have a boss - no one is keeping count of my hours. Most of my work time is spent doing a variety of tasks related to research or teaching, and these often change from week to week. I love the freedom and diversity of the academic life, but the lack of structure means that at the end of the week I'm often unsure of how exactly I spent my time. I like to get a good nights' sleep, so that certainly helps... but for the other 15 or so hours in my day, what exactly am I doing? This question intrigues me and for the past several months I've been thinking I should keep a log of my happenings to see how my days are spent.

So I finally did it back in April. I created a word doc dedicated to the cause, and updated it every time I changed tasks Monday through Friday. I also kept a quick count of how much time I spent working on the weekend. It wasn't the most ordinary week with canceled meetings and a weekend visit to my hometown. But really, is any week "ordinary"? So I figured I'd just go ahead and do it while I was motivated.

What did I find? Well, first, I confirmed what I already knew - a lot of my time goes into getting a good nights' sleep. Monday through Friday I slept an average of 8.5 hours each night, and I think that is actually on the shorter side (I prefer a solid 9-9.5, don't judge me). But when I was awake, I found that I spent about 36 hours working (including 90 minutes over the weekend) which accounts for about 1/3 of my day. I also found that I actually waste less time surfing the internet and watching tv than I thought I did. Only 11% of time was spent on entertainment and socializing, and large chunks of that were spent on what I like to think of as healthy activities: reading before bed (45 to 60 minutes most nights) and socializing (about 30 minutes a day). The rest were spent on the necessities - buying food, making food, eating food, (you get the picture), and exercise. I don't live in Berkeley so I did have an hour and 15 minute commute each way three days of the week, but 25 minutes are spent walking (I put them into the exercise category) and I typically work the other 50 while I'm on the train, so I included that into my work time.

To be honest, when I started calculating these numbers, I was feeling a little embarrassed that I only worked 36 hours. I think many of my fellow graduate students work well over 40 hours per week, and I'd hate to be giving a bad name to graduate students everywhere!  But then I thought of a few reasons to feel better about my level of productivity. First, most graduate students and professors teach at least one class each semester, but this semester I am not teaching. For graduate students at Berkeley, teaching typically consists of leading three small weekly sections (50 minutes each), attending lecture twice a week (an hour and a half each time), holding office hours (2 hours each week), answering email queries from stressed out students, prepping for sections, and grading tests and papers. This 10-20 hour per week job is expected to be done on top of research, so that adds quite a bit to the weekly work tally (though I'm sure the research slides a bit when the teaching load is high). Second, although the US abides by a 40 hour plus work week, I don't think people spend every minute that they are at work actually working. If the number of status updates I see on Facebook are any indication, people are spending quite a bit of their work time doing non-work activities. And finally, for those of us who spend a bit of time each day doing non-work activities at work, recent research suggests that being allowed to do some leisure browsing may actually boost productivity (likely because it gives your brain a much needed break - we can't just work work work without burning out).

But on to the question that I was more interested in - what exactly does "working" entail for someone like me? Some days I feel like I'm answering emails non-stop... is that really where most of my  time goes? Turns out the answer is no. I only spent about 5% of my 36 hours answering emails. The majority of my time (46%) was spent prepping and analyzing data, and integrating my results. This work was focused on two projects - putting together the results from several different studies I'd run in the previous couple of years, and analyzing the data from a new experiment for which I had just finished collecting data. The second biggest chunk of time (28%) was spent writing and editing. During the week I recorded, I was writing two papers, revising one paper, and editing a paper for a student. Everything else I did (emails, meetings, keeping track of ongoing experiments, and miscellaneous work such as reading over a grant review or looking up literature citations) was a rather small chunk of time. In all, more than 90% of what I do involves sitting at my computer. No wonder why I feel like I spend more time with it than with my husband!

You might notice that there is no category for classes. I took most of my classes my first and second years of graduate school, and have only sporadically taken a class here or there since then. I do attend two colloqiua each week which count as classes, but for some reason this week they were both canceled.

I feel like I should conclude this post with some cogent and meaningful statement linking my findings back to psychology, but really I just did this because I was curious to see what I did from day to day, and I am posting about it because I like to share unnecessary info about myself with others. I did find recording my activities to be illuminating and am glad I did it. Though now I am left wondering how similar my experience of a typical week is to others.

Graduate students - how many hours per week do you spend working? Is your work activity break down similar to mine? For those of you who have more typical 9-5 jobs, how many of those hours do you think you spend actually working?

Coker, B. (2011). Freedom to surf: the positive effects of workplace Internet leisure browsing New Technology, Work and Employment, 26 (3), 238-247 DOI: 10.1111/j.1468-005X.2011.00272.x


  1. Amie, this post makes me feel so much better! I started grad school last fall, and during my first semester I started keeping a log of how I spent my time. (I did this because I wanted to make sure I was setting aside enough time for research.) I was feeling really self-conscious, because according to my data, I was really "only" getting about 35-45 hours of work time. I was thinking, I'm a grad student, shouldn't I be working 80 hours?! But I really felt maxed out and like I couldn't do any more. I realized this was mostly because I wasn't counting commute time (about an 45 mins each way), food breaks, necessities, SLEEP (I thought I was the only one who slept that much), etc. In case anyone is interested in an easy-to-use app for "checking in" and "checking out," I use "Time Recording" on my Droid. Thanks for this post!

    1. Glad to hear I'm not the only one! I also struggled with feeling like I should be working every waking hour, and always feeling like I wasn't doing enough. However, I eventually realized that although I will have really busy periods of work (studying for qualifying exams, putting together grant applications, etc), on average, I want to have a balanced life. I also think I've learned to be efficient with my work time - I'm always surprised by how much I can accomplish on my 50 minute commute, so 6-8 actual hours of work each day = getting quite a lot done.

      I just think that our lives are only going to get more complicated and busy, so now is the time to establish work-life balance and be okay with having fun too. I don't want a life where I'm expected to work all weekend every weekend, so why should I set myself up for that now??

      Thanks for the app recommendation! I might have to try it, though I am a little afraid that counting my time could be like counting calories - making me too aware, concerned, and stressed about whether I'm making the most of each minute. Do you find that happening when you use it?

      Thanks for reading!


  2. I laughed out loud because I also sometimes use an app to count calories :). But yes, I think constant logging work time made me more stressed, which is why I stopped recording it last semester. However, I've started using the app again this summer. Just like calorie counting, for me it is a useful practice every now and again, just to recalibrate. I like your point about forging a life balanced life now. Fortunately for me (in some ways), it is impossible for me to work 80 hours a week. So I have to figure out what to get done and then be as efficient as possible, much like your 6-8 hour work sessions. thanks again for this post!

  3. THANK YOU for this, Amie! This is great to know. One forum cited an estimate of 126 hours per week--I kid you not! I start on Thursday and was unsure as to what I should expect. Thank you again.

    1. I had to calculate if there are even 126 hours in a week. I have never met a grad student who worked 18 hours per day seven days per week. I think you can rest assured no one will expect that from you.

      Best of luck with grad school!