Time & The PhD

I was thinking

One day, I got a piece of paper and tried to figure out how long I spent on my PhD. This was because of the oft-repeated idea of the 10,000 hour rule that people attribute to Malcolm Gladwell, i.e., to truly become an expert you have to spend 10,000 hours of practice at it. Having completed a PhD, was I now an expert? If I could figure out how many hours I spent on the PhD, then perhaps I would have an answer!

I wasn’t being entirely serious, but it was interesting to me. So I got a piece of paper and started doing maths.

Estimating is Easy

An easy way to estimate this would be:

Total Hours on PhD = Years * Weeks per year * Days per week * Hours per day

Years: I started in October 2004 and submitted in April 2008 – approximately three-and-a-half years.

Weeks per year: 52 weeks in a year. I took four weeks of “time off” over summer, a week over Easter, two weeks for Christmas and New Year, and then public holidays, the odd day here and there. Call it 52-9= 43 weeks per year.

Days per week: I had a definite “no weekend” policy. Monday to Friday was when I worked, and I worked at the office. 5 days per week.

Hours per day: I got to the office most days just after 8am, and left at around 4:30pm. 8.5 hours


  • I would spend the first hour reading webcomics and looking at blogs.
  • At 11am, we would meet for tea in the common room for around half an hour.
  • I typically ate lunch at my desk, but wasn’t working as such (30 minutes).
  • A little break around 3/3:30, probably another half an hour.
  • A couple of days per week I would have something else going on – a tutorial, a gym session, or a five-a-side game – averaging at least another hour per day.

How many hours?

Thus 8.5 minus an hour, minus half an hour, minus half an hour, minus another half an hour, minus an hour. And if I’m really honest, the half hour from 4pm onwards was mostly just clock-watching. So minus another half an hour, making four-and-a-half-hours per day.

So how many hours did I spend on my PhD?

Total Hours on PhD = 3.5 years * 43 weeks per year * 5 days per week * 4.5 hours per day

A grand total of 3386 hours and fifteen minutes. Not an expert then!

Of course, the 10,000 hour rule has many critics, and my intention was not to hopefully show I was an expert. But it did make me ponder when I first did this: PhD time is odd. Time spent is a poor approximation for “work done” and yet it is something that a lot of people focus on.

It also made me wonder if I had spent my PhD time as well as I could have. It was important to go to the gym – I miss it now – just because I was trying to beat my previous efforts on the cross trainer does not mean that part of my brain wasn’t trying to think about Kauffman polynomials. Time in the common room was not wasted, it’s important to maintain and build communities (even if we were often talking about the latest episode of 24).

Productivity, time spent on research, the work-life balance – these are big concepts that fly around postgraduate researchers and academics all the time. Over the next few days I’ll be sharing a couple of reflective posts around these themes; I’ll be offering no solutions, just some questions and some thoughts I’ve had. If you’ve got thoughts, then please share them in the comments.

Thanks for reading!

Nathan (@DrRyder and @VivaSurvivors)

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