PhD students: Where, when and how do you study?
January 3, 2013 7:49 AM   Subscribe

PhD students: Where, when and how do you study?

Hi everyone, I've just started a PhD at the University of Greenwich London and am getting into the swing of things, trying to do put in 8 hours of work a day (9-6 or 11-8).

I am currently working from my girlfriends place and occasionally in the British Library as both are closer than my university library and I am in the process of moving.

I was wondering, out of interest, where other PhD students work? Also tell me a bit about your work routine / regime.

posted by FuckingAwesome to Education (16 answers total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
(I'm not a PhD student, but I was a masters student last year whose office and college were both full of PhD students.)

Everyone differs. There seem to be a few common categories:
  • The "office drones" turn up to their shared office at ten every morning, go out for lunch, stay until five, and then leave.
  • The "library hogs" turn up at 8am in the best library seat in town and lay claim to it all day, often drowsing off after a big lunch while everyone else is working on a tiny little desk that's all that's left over.
  • The "night owls" wake up at 3pm, eat breakfast, and then slouch over their desks in their room until 6am surfing the internet interspersed with frantic work bursts.
I'm only being a little facetious.
posted by katrielalex at 7:53 AM on January 3, 2013 [6 favorites]

I like katrielalex's categorisation. I've tried all three in my long uh career as a grad student.

The worst period was as a night owl, and I can say that was the least productive. The lack of division between work space and living/sleep space was not good for me. I think a succesful night owl would need a plush work space or a strong sense of inner calm that I lack.

I started as an office drone, but a major case of imposter syndrome put paid to that. Also my desk was too small and I found my home department poorly ventilated.

Eventually I started a long period as a library hog. This has been the most succesful. I have an anti-social motivation to get in for 8am to grab a seat near a laptop plug. I try to get up at 6.20am and exercise in advance. Afternoons are always more difficult, though I eat a small lunch. I think it would be much better if I were able to take a brisk walk at lunchtime say, but I usually have a lot of heavy stuff (bag of books, laptop, huge metal coffee flask) with me, so it wouldn't be practical. I wonder around inside the building a bit instead. I work until between 4pm and 7pm, depending on other arrangments, my productivity that day, deadlines etc.
posted by mister_kaupungister at 8:11 AM on January 3, 2013

If you are me, you don't work nearly enough for the first few years then the last 1.5 years is a nightmareish, hellish, horrifying nightmare of hell.

But that's not what you asked! My most successful friends include a guy who comes into the office at 7am every day, and has a very regular routine. He works at his desk in the shared lab space and leaves early ish. He's very regular with coming in at 7. And... a woman who works at coffeeshops on her mac. She delivers/produces big time so nobody cares where she works. She comes in for meetings and that's it. I personally work at my desk, at lab. It's a bit of a trek home, so I sleep over here a few times per week especially now in the last semester. So the routine is - go to work, bring extra clothes, shower here, order in food, sleep on the couch, work during all waking hours. I try to sleep between 3am and 9:30am while the office is empty, and occasionally I take Ambien to make that happen. I also wear noise cancelling headphones for quiet.

One thing that helps my productivity a lot is having two huge computer monitors. If you are doing any computational work, that is a big plus.
posted by kellybird at 8:14 AM on January 3, 2013 [1 favorite]

I'm at a small institution which is only very slowly developing its research departments. The only workspace allocated to us right now is a hotdesked computer suite which is not so nice to spend time in. Myself and some colleagues have put in a request for a shared workspace, but that is going to take a while to be sorted out it seems.

So, I usually end up working at home. Once a week or so I go to a bigger university library to get some books and have a change of scene. I haven't been great about doing any kind of 9-5 schedule, as I work better in afternoons and evenings. My study style is most like katrielalex's 'night owl'.
posted by veids at 8:14 AM on January 3, 2013

I fall into katrielalex's third category, sort of (I wake up at like, 10, not 3). I work from home, and my most productive hours are definitely at night. I'm trying to change this, because it is annoying for emailing and getting to meetings at regular times.

I exercise every morning or I won't do it. I have a separate working space in my apartment that is just for work. I try really hard to go in the other room when I need to goof off, and I do my Internet surfing on an iPad, not on my computer. That helps.

I also go to a coffee shop during the day about four times a week. It's nice to be around other people. I often meet and work with other phd students there.
posted by k8lin at 8:15 AM on January 3, 2013

My strategy was to carve out work space wherever the hell I was -- hence my dissertation acknowledgements gave massive thanks to entities such as Ground Zero Coffee Shop (across the street from my long-distance girlfriend's place) and Badger Bus Lines.
posted by feral_goldfish at 8:17 AM on January 3, 2013

Oh, to add - we don't have workspace in the department, really. There is a room with six computers or so that is shared by all 50 phd students and it's usually pretty social in there, so I prefer not to be an office drone. :) I am totally unproductive there.
posted by k8lin at 8:17 AM on January 3, 2013

I had great luck in the library, and was totally unproductive almost everywhere else. What worked best for me was securing private space in the library (not always easy) that I could leave and return to throughout the day with PLANNED breaks for meals/exercise away from my desk. Most days I'd try to do a regular morning-to-afternoon schedule, which extended to evenings in the crunches.

I think planning breaks every 3 hours or so is essential, even if it's just a change of venue to read in the sun or something. IMO, I benefited from nothing more than having all of my academic stuff expressly not laid out all over my living space.
posted by activitystory at 8:33 AM on January 3, 2013

I am lucky enough to have my own desk in a shared office in my faculty. I used to go in every day and work there between (roughly) 9 and 5 in order to be around other people who were studying. I also spent a long period working on my research in a laboratory so I would have to be university then too. Now I am writing up I tend to work at home (and sometimes in cafes) to avoid my hour-each-way commute, and because I find that being able to put on some quiet music and mutter to myself helps me write! I tend only to go in for meetings and other things I have to be in for, like teaching or whatever, and to collect papers, books, use certain software and so on. Wherever I am I try to go out for a walk at lunchtime to clear my head and get some fresh air. When I exercise it is normally in the morning before work, apart from an evening yoga class. I would advise you to try a few different things for a week or so at a time and see how you get on. If you get into a good routine now it will help a lot later on!
posted by lizabeth at 8:36 AM on January 3, 2013 [1 favorite]

I forgot to say... I find that working from home normally means I end up working later into the evening. I guess this can be both a good and bad thing.
posted by lizabeth at 8:37 AM on January 3, 2013

In the first few years of my program (before I had kids) I lived fairly far from campus and so would typically go in around mid-morning and hang out at various places around campus either in class or doing work of some sort (including TA/RA positions) until around dinner time. I had three main workspaces on campus: in my department (sometimes a desk in a shared office, as well as the computer lab and student lounge), at coffee shops, and in my tiny private locked study carrel deep in the bowels of the graduate library. That carrel in particular--wow, what an isolated, monk-like, austere, 1950s industrial cell where the only thing to do was crack open a book, read, take notes, and write. It was like--I don't know, being in a space capsule or missile silo. It was both a very productive space and also a little crazy-making.

I'd usually move around between one of these three spaces every few hours hinging on classes, lunch, etc.

I would sometimes do work in the evenings at home, but not every day.
posted by drlith at 8:41 AM on January 3, 2013

For me, the most productive years were when I got myself into the 'office drone' category, 9-5 each day. (I was fortunate that during the Big Push, i.e. the last year, I had a plush private office in the department due to a special admin-ish job that I scored. This allowed me to pace and mutter. But before and after that, I had a library stall that worked pretty well.)

Part of making the 9-5 thing work, though, is dividing that up into smaller chunks--and, if at all possible, blocking your internet access for the vast majority of that time (using Freedom or some such program). Otherwise you can convince yourself that you're a good student because you work 9-5, while dicking around for hours of that time. (Much as I did when I was a real office drone.)

I would usually concentrate on writing from 9-12 or 9-1. Then I'd have lunch, clear my head, and do different diss-related tasks for the afternoon. Somewhere I heard the advice that a person can really only write for 4 hours a day, on average. I took that to heart and used it to structure my day. Four hours of writing, then I'd read, freewrite, type notes, etc. Getting the writing done first thing made me feel accomplished for the rest of the day.

Last piece of advice: it helps to give yourself a strict "closing time." When I worked 9-5, I quit at 5, without exception. I did this partly to give myself an incentive--"Woo, happy hour!"--and partly to prevent myself from thinking that I could procrastinate during the day and always make it up later on. If you know you've got to stop at a certain hour, you don't waste time before that hour, on pain of getting to 5 and feeling The Guilt. I credit this policy with keeping me pretty happy during my dissertation. (There were exceptions, like when I had to grade at night, but in general this policy was practicable.)
posted by Beardman at 8:45 AM on January 3, 2013 [8 favorites]

I'm not a PhD student, but my lab has everything from undergrad to postdoc. I tend to end up working at my bench – it forces me to keep my bench tidy so I can work at it without being scared of exposing myself to EtBr or other chemicals.

We have an "analysis" office with some computers and space for our lab and the lab nextdoor to us. I don't really like working in there because it's too loud and distracting.
posted by Strass at 8:46 AM on January 3, 2013

I'm lucky enough to have my own office, but it is tiny and windowless so I go completely crazy if I try to work there all day every day. I'm a big fan of cafes, although it can get pricey. But, it's good motivation if I tell myself I spent $$ on a fancy coffee, and so then I've gotta work!
posted by rainbowbrite at 9:53 AM on January 3, 2013

Non-dissertation stuff that required internet (like preparing classes and grading) were done at home or in the office, but for actual writing, I got most of my dissertation work done at sit down restaurants without wifi: the fast casual sort, diners and such, where they don't mind if you linger for a while. I'd order a meal, start writing, eat while writing, continue writing for a few hours after I ate, perhaps order more food and repeat the cycle. This worked really well for me, especially when I was in the "write a little bit every day" stage of the dissertation. I managed to enforce writing a little bit every day by withholding lunch until I was hungry enough to do some dissertation along with it, and the lack of internet prevented distractions. I don't recommend it for everyone, though; it's very expensive.
posted by yeolcoatl at 8:49 AM on January 4, 2013 [2 favorites]

Sorry to butt in so late, just that I live in Greenwich married to a post doc who does exactly what you're contemplating. He can't go to the office every day so he sets himself up in the BL. Many days he runs into colleagues who also base themselves there. Added bonus, increases chances for collegiality.

He also used to love the atmosphere of the museum here in Greenwich. Added bonus of popping out to Saigon or the market for lunch.

He reported that wireless at the museum is terrible, but the outlook is great. BL wireless is spotty, but works better.
posted by BAKERSFIELD! at 11:49 PM on February 15, 2013

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