What does a PhD student do all week?  1

Whenever I tell people about my job as a PhD student they tell me that they could “never work on the same thing for four years!”.

Like doing your PhD is mindlessly slaving on one specific task, non-stop, for four years. I guess it’s one of the most common misconceptions about doing your PhD. While it is true that I am spending four years working towards one thing: my dissertation and defence, I am not working on one thing at all.

In fact, being a PhD student is a very diverse job with a lot of possibilities and quite some freedom to choose. After four (or three, or five) years, your dissertation needs to be finished, but it’s not like you can decide to start writing it on your first day.


Things that need to be done before you can finish your dissertation:

    1. You need to read about your subjectrequired-reading
    2. Your research needs to be planned
    3. Data needs to be collected
      1. Instruments should be developed (or found somewhere)
      2. You will spend time finding participants
    4. Data needs to be analysed (maybe you even need to spare some time for data cleaning)
    5. Results need to be interpreted
    6. And of course those results should be written down
      1. You will have to spend some time researching journals that you want to publish in
      2. You will spend endless hours polishing your text until it is perfect (although it never will be)
    7. You’ll have numerous meetings with your supervisor(s) to discuss all these different steps

All the tasks I just mentioned are related to your dissertation,but doing a PhD is much more than just your dissertation!

    1. What about conferencesord
      1. writing proposals
      2. preparing presentations
      3. attending
    2. Symposiums and other relevant presentations
    3. You can be an active member in your research association or in a special interest group
      1. If you are, you might be involved in organising events, like conferences or symposiums
    4. Or maybe following classes for your degree, and all the preparation and homework related to those.


Or maybe even some tasks that are not specifically related to your research / your PhD at all

    1. Like teaching
      1. preparing lecture materials
      2. teaching classes
      3. supervising master theses
      4. giving feedback /  grading products
    2. Maybe your department has some scheduled meetings.
      1. At ICLON our research group meets once a month
      2. The higher education department has a monthly staff meeting as well.
      3. We have the option to have lunch meetings and informally discuss a specific research issue with each other.
    3. Or maybe one of your fellow PhD students will ask you to look over some of their work to get a neutral set of eyes on things.
    4. When (if? ;)) your fellow PhD students finish their dissertation you will attend their defence
      1. Our research group organises trial defences as well
    5. Some PhD students get involved with the secondary activities at their institution like organising the Christmas party, or other social institutional activities.

So many different things to do!


Since I’m writing this from my perspective as an educational science PhD student, some of these tasks may not be relevant in your field, but there will probably be additional tasks.

Of course there can be periods of time that you are specifically focused on one (or a few) of the aforementioned tasks. Looming submission deadlines force you to write non-stop, endless streams of incoming data will keep you busy all day.


Most PhD students I know have a very diverse set of tasks, and a very Planning elaborate planning, because like Saskia said in her post, things that do not get planned, get pushed all the way to the back of the queue, or may be forgotten.

For the past semester, I’ve relied on this ten-page planner with deadlines and other important dates related to teaching, research (study 1/study 2) and other, like conferences.

Since the semester is coming to an end, it is time for me to start thinking about a new planner,  and so I’m procrastinating by working on this post instead.








In my next post I’ll elaborate a little on what I do all week!

Do you, as a PhD student, have tasks that are not on the list? Let me know in the comments!






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1 Comment

Most of the things your write are quite similar to my work as a PhD student. However, because I am doing my PhD at a company (Cito, Dutch institute for educational measurement) I do not have to teach classes or supervise students as I would at an university. I do have opportunities to participate in the companies’ projects, which are primarily related to research and development with regard to assessment. More specifically, I participated in an item writing group for mathematics items in a student monitoring test. Also, I was co-author of a report about students’ mathematical achievement at the end of primary school. With regard to supervising students, I have more a collaborative-co-worker-like relationship than a teacher-student kind of relationship. The advantage of such a collaborative relationship is that I get the opportunity to learn from the intern as well, and the work we do for, for example the data collection for my PhD project, really feels like teamwork. This compensates the lonely feeling you sometimes get when writing your dissertation.

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