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How much free time do you have in graduate school (engineering phd)?

  1. Jan 24, 2014 #1
    Hello PF.

    I recently was accepted to a PhD program in nuclear engineering. I am planning on attending for the duration of my phd. I just wanted to ask from those of you who have successfully completed graduate school...how much time does it take? I did a research program last summer so I know that they expect at least 40 hrs a week during the summer of research since you aren't taking courses...but during the full semesters when you have a full course load and your own research, and possibly a RA or TAship to boot, how much free time can I expect to have? A few months ago I visited the UC Berkeley campus for a prospective student gig, and I was surprised to hear a CS graduate student say that he had time to go out and have fun on the town almost every weekend. The impression I get from graduate school is that this would not be the case, does that sound right?

    Don't get me wrong, I am perfectly willing to put it whatever amount of work my PhD requires, but as a person who likes to plan out his life more or less, it would be nice to have a sense of what my weekly schedule will look like in grad school.
    Last edited: Jan 24, 2014
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  3. Jan 24, 2014 #2

    Vanadium 50

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    I was in physics, not engineering, but grad school had a baseline of maybe 55 hours a week. However, there could be large excursions on top of that.
  4. Jan 24, 2014 #3
    That is a lot, but doable. I honestly probably put in about 40 hours a week now as a senior undergrad.
  5. Jan 24, 2014 #4

    Simon Bridge

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    :rofl: How much free time do you have in graduate school (engineering phd)? :rofl:

    The concept in bold-face does not exist at postgrad. Barely exists at postdoc either.
    There may be time which you get to choose which bit of your work to concentrate on ... you may even be able to steal a bit of R&R time away each week but it is just that: stolen. Anyone who thinks their time is ever free is doing it wrong.

    Also forget about such quaint notions as holidays or sick-leave or any kind of a social life.
    You can sleep when you are dead and your family will wonder if you are. It is difficult to overstate how time-intensive postgrad work can be - especially the first couple of years.

    I knew people who worked all the time, and some who worked little. How much discretionary time you have depends on your supervisor and what you are studying. Make no mistake: part of the test is managing your discretionary time.

    ... the real question is not how much time the college/course will demand of you but how much you demand of yourself. How good do you want to be?

    The upside is that it is really peaceful on campus when everyone else is on break... and nobody steals your coke.
  6. Jan 24, 2014 #5


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    You'll be able to go out on weekends if that's what you're worried about.

    You'll find that the time that people put into it varies a lot from person to person and by where they are at in their process. When I was doing coursework, I wasn't expected to get too much done so far as research went. I had to select a project and do some background reading (and really this kind of thing should be fun). For the most part when the courses were over the research was a like a full-time job. Yes, there were times when I was in at first light and there until midnight. There were times when I felt like I didn't have a lot of down time, when I felt like I didn't have time for basic chores like buying groceries or doing laundry. But looking back I managed to fit in time for volunteer work, I managed to hold down a part-time job through most of my PhD, I managed to work out on a regular basis, I dated my future wife, I went on vacations, and I won NaNoWriMo every year. Oh, and I did my laundry too.
  7. Jan 24, 2014 #6
    In undergrad I actively participated in student organizations (particularly student government). Is there time in grad school to do this, even if it's just one?

    Yes, I am afraid I may be lost to my family for a few years...*gulp*. Do you think a first year would have enough time to participate in student government?

    Wow, I didn't even think this was allowed? And how could you possibly have time for that?
  8. Jan 24, 2014 #7

    Simon Bridge

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    I have known post-grads who were politically active.
    Not many... unless you count the class rep. Take a look at your student govt and count the post-grads.

    I had a part time job outside college during my masters, also taught and wrote a text book. I had to resign from most everything in thesis time though and had to run hard to catch up. I also didn't have any life outside that... just lucky that there were women in my year or I'd have been a wreck.

    Everything is a trade-off: other people went to conferences where I had a job for eg.
    If the economics are taken care of you get to worry less - less stress rather than less work. That's usually the trick to managing your time. If it reduces stress it is good.

    Thing is - you also won't notice the time vanishing. Especially if you are in a field you love: all this will feel like heaven.
  9. Jan 24, 2014 #8


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    Aside from helping out a friend with a campaign for student council president one year, I have ne experience with student politics. I would probably avoid signing up for anything you can't easily drop though - particularly in your first year.

    It depends on the school and your supervisor. In my case it was a commitment of about 6-8 hours per week. I worked as an auxiliary officer for campus security. During my static shifts (guarding specific sites on campus) I got most of my marking done (and this was both allowed and encouraged). The patrol shifts were just plain fun. This did take it's toll on my progress though. I finished about 6 months later than friends I started with and I strongly believe the part-time job had a lot to do with that. I wouldn't do it differently though. I loved that job almost as much as I love my current one.
  10. Jan 24, 2014 #9
    That's very interesting as I am passionate about university policy and politics in general, but I would not want it to get in the way of learning plasma physics which I am equally passionate about (I did research and took a course in it in undergrad, and hopefully will be doing it in grad school). Even at that, if being in student government added another 6mo-1yr to my PhD I would be fine with it because it is a great experience.
  11. Jan 25, 2014 #10
    Hi Hercuflea,

    My experience seems to be an exception here but nonetheless: I went to grad school at a top 100 university in the world (according to just about any rankings [yeah, yeah, they're all worth squat]) and a world-leading department for my subject. I lived in flat of postgrads, in a building of postgrads, in a complex of many-floored buildings of postgrads.

    Everyone I met had time for socialising. This includes more than my circle of friends, but people I'd meet once, at parties or bars etc.

    I lived with, or was friends with, or met, people across master's and PhDs, across business (MBA), physics, English, philosophy, law, politics, finance, public health, engineering, geography and more. The most common issue about part-time jobs was that there weren't enough to go around. I know of only one person who did not get a merit or distinction out of all that lot.

    Some even spent spare time preparing for e.g. medical or law school, devoting a couple of hours most nights, atop their actual course, gym, and socialising.

    Make no mistake: you will probably have to do a lot of work, and some of it will be hard. You will know already that as deadlines or exams approach, it gets intense. Now, maybe it's a cultural thing (I wasn't in the US - will you be?) but I don't recognise at all the sort of sadist's badge of honour descriptions of grad school, be it for myself, classmate or cohorts. Again, they were across arts and science, academic and vocational. And we all did pretty well with grades, managed to go get drunk every weekend, explore the surrounding environment and cities, and some hold down part-time work.

    My 2 cents, which, due to inflation, may be worth less, or worthless :) (I went only a couple of years ago.)
  12. Jan 25, 2014 #11
    same here. Admittedly there was people who did little socializing but that seemed to be less about having the time to socialize and more about having a hermit personality.

    In grad school it is easy to use research as an excuse not to socialize if you dont like people since research is so open ended
  13. Jan 25, 2014 #12
    Interesting, I expect my first year to be a little more stressful than most since I am switching fields from my bachelors to my PhD, so I will have to take some physics/eng courses to catch up. Do you think that these graduate students you mentioned did not spend much time on the material because they were just smart and good at taking exams in class, or do you really only have to study a few hrs a week for graduate courses? I have a 3.85 out of 4.0 in my undergrad math major, but I study my *** off to get it.

    And yes I am talking about US schools, but I may have the opportunity to get a master's degree in physics in England through the US Fulbright fellowship, so I am keeping that in mind as well.
  14. Jan 25, 2014 #13
    This is my experience more or less at a well ranked program (UChicago) in Chemistry. Particularly the parts I left in above.
  15. Jan 25, 2014 #14
    I'm glad some others have chimed in to perhaps reassure (and hopefully not mislead!) you about things.

    I don't think it likely one will do well studying only a few hours a week in grad school; sorry if I gave that impression. I'd say that my experience, including of the people I knew, was that if you treated it like a flexi-time job doing 35-hour weeks, including classes, labs etc. you should have no problems. I don't think I ever did that many except leading up to deadlines.

    It just occurred to me that grad school in the US is quite different than in the UK, where I went. If I understand it, you will have classes and coursework for several years before focussing solely on your thesis? That might mean more hours for you.

    A physics PhD friend had 0 classes (PhDs here generally don't). But they tried to be in the office from 9-5 (read: 10-4) in the week. Still had time for weekend beer and pizza outings, football and chess!

    My utter *guess* is that the people I speak of did well since more than a few were upskilling after a few years in work. So the software engineers, the financial accountants, the clinical professionals, the architects etc. were used to rising early and getting a day's work done in a day. In fact for almost all, it meant later starts and shorter weeks than their jobs.

    [For balance: we had a 24/7 library and it was common to see people go in pyjamas with a toothbrush (we had shower facilities etc. and couches for napping) to pull an all-nighter. Invariably this was a) people who left it until the last minute, or b) very diligent students who worked like mad. No one I knew ever slept at the library.]

    I don't know anything about GPAs, sorry.

    I'd suggest meeting up if you make it to the UK, but you know how these things go: someone always ends up on the evening news... :P

    Good luck!
  16. Jan 25, 2014 #15
    Thanks for the advice, and for the record, what field was your PhD in?

    About the US system...Yes we generally take 2 years of masters-level courses in the beginning of our PhD. But this means that here you can go straight from a bachelors to a PhD in with no masters. I understand that in the UK and Europe, masters is required to enter a PhD program, but master's is mostly or all coursework and PhD is pure research. Granted our system is probably a little strange but from the looks of it, it looks like someone in the US could theoretically finish a PhD in much less time than in Europe where the course schedule is more rigid, going from bachelors to PhD. But a lot of us take our time in undergrad, I for one took 5 years to get my bachelors because I changed majors, but I took full time course loads in the summer semesters to catch up. There are pros and cons to both systems I guess. And yes meeting up with someone from PF would be cool if I went to England.
  17. Jan 25, 2014 #16

    Simon Bridge

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    Oh FWIW: if you are in a situation where there are lots of other post-grads in the same place, you'll get more social time. It'll be easier to steal time because everyone is right there. Much of the socializing will involve the work though... it's what you have in common. If you get good at this, it will be hard to tell if you are working or playing. You do need playtime to avoid burning out: time-management see?
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