What does a typical PhD schedule look like?
April 14, 2012 12:38 PM   Subscribe

What does a typical social sciences PhD's work schedule look like?

I'm a single mom who's considering doing a PhD. I have been trying to find out what a "work week" looks like for a PhD student, but haven't had much luck. I can't figure out how much time is spent in class and teaching - activities where you must be physically present - and how much is spent where I could be working from home. (Kids are in school.) In fact, I can't find out how many hours I would be investing in the experience overall, let alone on or off campus. The only programs that seem open to talking about that sort of thing are education, counselling and nursing, where there are lots of women, but I'm not interested in any of those subjects.

FWIW, I have a ton of research/writing and teaching experience and, though it's been a few years since undergrad and my masters, I was usually at or near the top of my class. I'm a very fast reader and writer - I finished the verbal section of a graduate admissions test in half the allotted time and scored in the top percentiles. I share that to indicate that I'm not someone who usually gets bogged down in the main pursuits of school. I've been out of the academic loop for a while, but people continue to suggest to me that I should look at doing a PhD and it's always been in the back of my mind.

I'm not sure how to get this information without sounding like I'm wanting to slack off, which is not my intent at all. I'm just trying to understand the impact on my family and whether it's something I would even want to do. I'm not looking to pursue a tenure-track position with the PhD, so jobs for grads and all that are not a big interest for me. I am mainly interested in what my life would look like as a student - so that I can see what my kids' lives would look like. For example, would picking them up at 3pm some days of the week be completely out of the question?

posted by Chaussette and the Pussy Cats to Education (13 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
Grad school is at least a 40 hr/week job, and for most people that is closer to 60. Classes that you take make up a relatively small amount of that (6-8 hrs/week in class for the first 2 years, maybe). Depending on your funding, you may be spending another 3-8 hours per week teaching. Both teaching and taking classes can of course require a lot of out of class time (2-3 hrs/week for every hour spent taking or teaching a class, most of which you could probably do at home). You may have to keep office hours for your students as well.

However, the heart of any PhD program is research. Research can and will expand to fill all remaining time. Depending on what social science, you may need hours per week to do surveys or interviews, plus a likely need to travel for those or for access to libraries or other records.

And then there is all the time that you will spend reading and writing, which could conceivably be done at home.

None of this is to discourage you. I survived grad school, and you can, too. But, realistically, it is going to take a significant amount of time and your schedule may not always be as flexible as you would like. You could certainly schedule in days when you pick the kids up at 3, but you may find yourself making up that time late at night or on the weekends, and you may have times when your advisor says "I need this today" and you are stuck figuring out what to do with the kids.
posted by hydropsyche at 1:11 PM on April 14, 2012

I was a single mom during my anthro PhD. Ours was a pretty family-friendly department, and I had several fellow grad students who had babies as well in the years after my first-born appeared on the scene. The amount of time you actually need to be on campus will vary somewhat as you progress through the program, and also depending on your funding package and how many hours you are given as a TA/RA. The number of hours in class is similar to undergrad--figure on 12 or more actually chair-hours, plus a bit of buffer time.

You say you don't want a tenure-track position and so "jobs for grads" are not a big interest for you, but you also ask how much time is spend teaching, so I'm a bit confused as to whether you plan to have an assistantship of some sort or are just planning on paying for this out of pocket? Assuming you are interested in an assistantship, that's another 15-20 hours, about half of which must be performed on campus if it's a TA (the rest will be prepwork and grading). You also need to allow a few hours a week for the library, meetings, etc.

If you have a good commute, it's mostly possible to take care of your on-campus obligations during the "mommy shift" from 9-3 or so, assuming that you've got arrangements for another 15+ hours or so a week when you can do studying and writing in relative peace and quiet. The biggest problem you might run up against is afternoon seminars. My kids were still in daycare when I was still taking my coursework, so I just had them in FT and didn't have to pick them up until 5:30.
posted by drlith at 1:13 PM on April 14, 2012

For example, would picking them up at 3pm some days of the week be completely out of the question?

Not a problem, unless you had a class or were teaching at 3pm on those days.

A normal schedule (over a four year program; people often take longer, obviously) would be something like two years of taking classes and (unless you had a sweet fellowship with no work requirements) TAing or RAing at the same time, then a year of research where you don't take classes but you might be teaching unless you were doing your research elsewhere, and then a year of writing the dissertation where you again are not taking classes but will presumably be TAing/RAing.

In the first two years, your weekly schedule is likely to be three or so classes (so needing to be on campus during those class times), plus TAing a class, meaning that you are committed for those classroom hours, also. And there are often weekly, biweekly, or monthly departmental events (eg a speaker series) that are "optional" but really you need to be there, so add in another hour or two a week for that. And you might have an hour or two of office hours, depending on what kind of class you are TAing and what the expectations are, and maybe weekly TA meetings with other TAs or the prof. That's the locked-in, scheduled part of your life, and it will total out to a lot less than 40 hrs/week, but will be spread out inconveniently. You also have many hours of reading, writing papers, grading assignments, preparing for your qualifying exams, things like that, but you can do them at whatever time and on whatever day you want, no one cares.

After you are done with the coursework requirements, then the only locked in parts of your schedule are teaching classes, plus the same departmental things; you'll figure out which are optional and which aren't. A lot of not-really-optional events are held during evenings and other times that assume that you are either childless or have a spouse who stays home and takes care of the kids; single parents I knew really struggled with those expectations. You'll have huge expectations on your time (eg researching, exam preparation, writing, etc) but again that will mostly happen on your schedule, so things like picking up the kids should be easy.

But remember also that there are huge variations between places; what I'm describing is for a place with good funding and limited teaching expectations. If your program has poor funding or heavy teaching duties, then you will need to add in those hours. Grad school is child-friendly in that you have a lot more control over your time than you do if you are working a regular job, but it's not child-friendly in other ways (like the low pay, inflexible evening and weekend events, and the need to travel).
posted by Forktine at 1:15 PM on April 14, 2012 [1 favorite]

I would suggest emailing faculty you're interested in working with at the schools you're hoping to apply to and asking them if they could connect you with students who have balanced parenting and grad school, as I think the answer will depend on the program. At least to the faculty in my program, who all have small children, I don't think this would sound at all like you're wanting to slack off. Instead, it will sound like you're taking the commitment seriously and planning ahead. A program that would see you as a slacker for looking into this is probably not a good fit for you anyway. One way to frame it is below:

Dear Dr. So and So,

My name is Chaussette, and I am very interested in your graduate program. I have had a long-standing interest in [INTEREST] and I think your program is a great fit for these interests. I am hoping to get a better understanding what I could expect as a parent in your program. I was wondering if you have any students in your program who have children that would be willing to share their experiences with me. They can reach me by phone at [NUMBER] or email at [EMAIL]


From my experience in a clinical/community psych Ph.D. program, the first year is very structured with classes (I had about 12 hours of classes that I could not choose per week plus mandatory seminars and meetings), and after that is pretty flexible depending on the nature of your responsibilities. I'm in my third year, and I have about 16 hours minimum per week that I MUST be on campus, but these are mostly commitments that I had flexibility in choosing for myself (e.g., classes and practica that I wanted to take) rather than fixed program requirements. This changes week to week as meetings get added. I would personally be more concerned about managing the workload (as the work never really ends) than the flexibility of being home vs. somewhere that I have to be physically present. Also, the faculty/grad parents I know in the academy often work away from home, as they find that it can be hard to get real, focused work done with kids present. YM(probably will)V.
posted by quiet coyote at 1:16 PM on April 14, 2012

Also- to evidence the variation in programs, mine is pretty different from Forktine's. People usually take 6 years to finish the academic component, followed by a year of internship. We take about 5 intensive classes both semesters during our first year and anywhere from 0-2 classes every semester thereafter, plus one practicum a year in years 2-6 (which is supposed to take 7 hours a week, I believe), plus 1-3 brownbag seminars on Friday. Whatever you're paid to do is supposed to take up 20 hours a week. I am funded to teach a service-learning course, which involves 4 hours of classroom time a week, plus an hour meeting with my TAs, plus meetings with students, plus being on-call 24/7 for client crises. When I'm in the training part of my course, I spend a lot of time doing class prep and grading. After they have clients, I do a lot of supervisory/administrative stuff. I also spend 12 hours a week writing papers for publication. Programs with more of an emphasis on applied work would spend more time on seeing clients and less on research.
posted by quiet coyote at 1:27 PM on April 14, 2012

Well, it is really intense.

For the first couple of years, you'll be in course work and you'll have little control over the timing of your classes. Sometimes you'll have to be there at 9am, other times, classes will be in the evening. You'll be in class for 3-4 hours X Number of classes. Then reading in a social science PhD program is usually 3 hours of work outside of class for every 1 class hour. The reading will be really time consuming and there will be homework for methods classes.

(3 classes is the norm, so 12 + 36 = 48 hours a week)

If you're TAing or RAing, the expectation is usually 20 hours of work. Sometimes it is more. Sometimes it is less. If TAing, you'll have to do 2-3 hours of office hours each week, then you'll have to be physically at the class for 4 hours a week (plus transit). And then you might have an hour of meetings. Then when you have to grade, it takes up a ton of time. (And if you have a sick kid, you still have to grade those damn papers.)

(plus 20 hours a week)

And then you'll have obligations like colloquium or other meetings. That's usually ~3-4 hours every other week.

(plus 2 hours a week)

And then you'll be asked to meetings with your advisor. And you'll need time to do your own work.


So - yes, picking the kids up at 3pm won't be something that you will be able to do with certainty. And more importantly, you will need the time to do work.

You will certainly have to work late hours and get up early in the morning to make this work.


I work ~60 hours a week, if not more, and it has taken its toll on my health. And mind you, that I have my working style down-pat and I'm not taking courses anymore, I'm teaching them.


But really, if your goal isn't to do a TT job, I don't think that the pain of getting a PhD is worth it -- and I would say that if you were single too. Speaking as an academic mother, I wish that I didn't have to do this life pressure to my child.


If you want, I can put you in touch with some friends that are single moms of multiple kids that have tried doing the social science PhD thing.
posted by k8t at 1:38 PM on April 14, 2012

Just an anecdotal point, but I knew a woman with young children (forget what ages, but young) who completed a geophysics/geology PhD at MIT and not only managed, but was one of the most productive and most successful grad students there. Now a tenure-track faculty at an Ivy League school. So, its possible.

The most inflexible hours are those spent in class -- either as a student or as a TA. With a previous master's, you may find that you have fewer course requirements. With good funding, you'll have fewer TA responsibilities.
posted by bumpkin at 1:39 PM on April 14, 2012

There's definitely a range, and a lot of flexibility. In my cognitive psychology/cognitive neuroscience lab, we have one psychology student who probably works about 40 hours, including TAing, classes, research, and office hours. (She's only finishing up her second year though.) On the upper end, one guy will work 12 hours a day 6 days a week. Though he's a neuroscience MD-PhD, so I guess he's used to it. Everyone is funded, but is expected to also apply for individual training grants.
posted by supercres at 1:40 PM on April 14, 2012

It depends greatly on your funding arrangement and the kind of research your program does. TAing is a huge time drain but mostly scheduled. If your research in anthro / epi / soc field work, then the schedule is extremely variable and comes with the risk that your program will just not work. If your research is data husbandry and analysis or theory then of course you can mostly do it at home.

The total amount of hours put in tends to be large, which makes doing it part-time a nearly indefinite task. I'd estimate that classroom-years (often 1-2) full time students put in 40-50 hours a week and research years more, trending up to 60+ as one tries to wrap up the dissertation or reaches a climactic phase. My institution has substantial pressure to get quality work done and get out, which may account for the hours, but I hear its much the same elsewhere among top institutions. I see hacks with PhD's, and assume they didn't put that kind of effort in, so it must be possible to avoid it.

I cannot imagine a justifiable reason to obtain a social sciences PhD other than pursuing a TT or industry job which requires it.
posted by a robot made out of meat at 1:49 PM on April 14, 2012

Also a lot of academic parents (especially Moms) have a bit of a sense that they need to over-do it in terms of participation and attending non-required activities - especially the ones that aren't required but people get bad reputations if they never go. Like... "Look, I'm here." I've found that there is a need to demonstrate that kids aren't "holding you back" so to speak.

If this is real or not, I don't know. But, I certainly have heard many-a grad student and faculty member grumbling about non-participation by the parents. And this sat with me in my own parent-academic balancing. (I remember a colloquium where 2 of us were wearing babies in the back, bouncing them to sleep, not paying any attention, but I was there DAMNIT.)

Sometimes I wonder how much more productive I could be if I wasn't a parent. I think that being a parent has helped my productivity BUT
1. I am done with coursework
2. I am not single
3. I have 1 kid and he is very young

If 2 of those 3 things weren't true, I don't think that *I* could have done my social science PhD program.
posted by k8t at 2:10 PM on April 14, 2012

Thanks. You've all given me more info than I've been able to get elsewhere.

Not making 3 o'clock pick-up most days of the week would be a deal breaker for me. I currently run a small business (which I can set to autopilot if I go to school) and had been thinking a PhD might be a good fit. I don't "need" a PhD and maybe it isn't a good fit right now. I've been fortunate to fit my business around my life since my kids were small and was unsure whether that was something one could do with academia. It doesn't sound very flexible, although maybe I should take a look at whether I could indeed find a way to swing an education PhD or something that allows p/t study.
posted by Chaussette and the Pussy Cats at 3:59 PM on April 14, 2012

All of the courses in my phd program start at 4:40 or later. The latest course ends at 10:10pm.
posted by vitabellosi at 4:32 PM on April 14, 2012

Anthro PhD checking in to say that, for my coursework years, my schedule was ~9 hours a week in class, ~2-3 hours a week blabbing with students/faculty or attending the department's weekly seminar, and then ~20 hours a week of reading and writing on my own at home. I had a stipend and no teaching duties, although I opted in for unpaid teaching experience, giving lectures and grading tests for my advisor. This stuff really depends on the program. If you're limited to programs in your area, maybe send a note to the chair saying you'd like to visit. But if they're serious research programs, note that locals are at a bit of a disadvantage: one aim of a serious research program is to attract candidates from a worldwide pool of people with very specialized interests that match the program, and you may really need to catch up on that specialty.
posted by Monsieur Caution at 7:51 PM on April 14, 2012

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