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Life as a physics graduate student

  1. Mar 20, 2008 #1
    Hi everyone.

    I'm just wondering - I've heard lots of rumors about physics grad. school, and how hard it is, etc. I have no problem dedicating myself to studying, but am worried about family issues. What I'm wondering is -

    - how many hours on average per week will I be working? 40, 60, 80?
    - what if I have a family - i.e., if I am a parent of a young child, how hard is it going to be to spend time in the afternoons and evenings with my child?
    - is it 2-3 years of coursework, typically, followed by 2-3 years of research, or am I off? For the family, is it usually a bit better (in terms of having time to spend with them) after the coursework is done?
    - am I crazy to try to go into a physics graduate program with a family? do lots of other students do it?
    - Would the odds be better if I did a math graduate program instead (i.e., in terms of having more time to spend with the family)?

    Opinions are highly useful.
  2. jcsd
  3. Mar 20, 2008 #2


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    It depends on the topic and how organised you are.
    If it's experimental and the **** dewer needs topping up every 6hours over the weekend - lots. If it involves computers in any way expect >> 80.
    And what field work wil be involved? 1 week trips to conferences, 3 months at CERN, 6 months overwinter in the antartic?
    Again depends on how organised - grad students with kids left the lab at 5/6 and presumably did some thinking in the evening, those with no life web surfed (usenet surfed in my day) until the early hours.

    In the UK it's just research with some classes mixed in. In the US the first couple of years are mostly classes - it depends on the instution.

    I knew a few - most did very well. Mainly because they were better organised and more motivated.
  4. Mar 20, 2008 #3
    I think it is definitely possible to have children as a grad student. But it helps if your partner is the one doing the majority of the childcare. And it helps even more if your family is able to chip in financially. I don't know a single female physics grad student with kids, but quite a few of my male colleagues have started families. They all manage to have a pretty decent social life and spend time with their partners and children.

    One hard thing I think about having kids as a grad student is having to move around a lot when the kids are just getting to school-age - if you do two postdocs your kids will probably have to go to three different schools.

    I found graduate school to have a much more civilized work load than undergrad. You still work hard, but the pressure is more evenly distributed - you dictate your priorities instead of letting assignment deadlines dictate for you.

    During the first two years of my graduate work I did about 60 hours a week. That tapers off as your program progresses.
  5. Mar 20, 2008 #4
    I got married and had a son while in grad school. My son was born last summer and I will be defending next month.

    My experience:

    -first 2 years finished all my major coursework- spent 50-80 hours a week depending on how much effort I needed to put into that weeks homework and how much special attention I needed to pay to teaching that week. I always took Saturdays off to give myself a day away from physics- I think this really helped me not get too insane over physics and get burnt out.

    Next 2 years (years 3 & 4)- really focused on research (I have an external fellowship that allows me to not have to teach)- spending 40-60 hours a week on it. Went to a handful of conferences (4 days is average for a conference) each year. I had the most flexibility here- results were all that matter, so I could take a Tuesday off if I wanted to sit on the beach or sail as long as I was getting results to present to me adviser.

    Last year (my son was born)- as a grad student I was able to take 2 months and really help my wife out after my son was born. I have a great adviser who was very supportive of me taking time away from work. I would come in for a few hours every day and evenings when things were quiet I would work or pass out depending on how much sleep I got the night before :) . For a while I was working from home 3 days a week to take care of my son as you get paid MUCH less than what is needed to pay for health care and an apartment. Luckily we found a family friend to watch him 3 times a week.

    I work from home one day a week (as does my wife). Now that he is crawling and I am writing my dissertation the world has blown up around me- chaos reigns. When I am watching my son alone, I get almost no work done. So I have to make up for it evenings and weekends.

    Overall, grad school is both a time filled with freedom and lots of work. You have to be dedicated or it is not worth the effort. It can be done with a family- but it puts that much more stress on the situation. But it also makes all the effort worth that much more in my opinion.
  6. Mar 24, 2008 #5
    Weekly hours worked: Lows can be 20to40 hrs. Thats rare though, and dependent on your state of mind....if you've just done some long and heavy work you should take it easy now and then. Typical is 40 to 60, max is about 100...hrs qualifying exam time...really getting into your project etc. I basically wake up, take an hour enjoying my morning coffee and reading up on global news, go to school and stay there until I'm ready for bed. I prepare food 'en masse' on Sunday to last me the week so I don't waste time with food breaks. I don't take weekends and I rarely do anything else. I take every 3rd weekend off however. I also filter in a 1hr workout every couple of days.

    Family: My buddy has 2 kids and does just fine. I see him up there at 3am all the time. He has a good wife however how stays at home. If you're wife is stay at home and understanding then there is no reason to let kids put you off. You're there hero dont forget. The PhD will make you even more of a hero to them.

    Crazy: All physics PhDa are crazy. Look, just do it or you'll regret it to the very last breath you take.

    Math: No, just as hard. If not more.
  7. Jun 11, 2008 #6
    It works so well unless, of course, you are the wife and your husband isn't willing to work at home (this is my case). Oh well, we'll make it all work somehow! :)
  8. Jun 11, 2008 #7
    I can give you my experiences. Of course being single and childless some of them are second-hand.

    My first year of grad school (i.e. 2007-2008), I worked about 55-65 hours per week. Almost all of this time was spent on coursework and TAing. My personal hint: if something has to give, sacrifice the TA work. They don't typically fire people for being below-average TAs. Your coursework, on the other hand, is really important.

    Not terribly difficult. One of my fellow first years has a stay at home wife and a young daughter. He makes time for family. Basically your social life will suffer a bit, but if you don't mind that, then yes there's plenty of time for family. In some ways academic life in general seems to be more accomodating to this (from my perspective, anyway). If you have to take a week off from work for some reason or another, you don't have some productivity nazi boss threatening to fire you or anything. My only suggestion here would be that if you do go home in the afternoons, make sure to at least spend some time getting to know the other students in your class. In my experience, working with other grad students is absolutely essential to doing well in your coursework.

    If all goes according to plan, the typical schedule in U.S. grad schools is two years of coursework followed by 3 to 3.5 years of research. I'm only starting my second year next fall, so I can't say too much. But I've noticed that it's a bit easier on the third - fifth years. One of the fifth year students even has two kids.

    As has already been stated, you're weird if you want to do physics, period. In all honesty, physicists are strange people. But having a family doesn't seem like all that big of a deal. Physicists (at least in my department) have families with slightly less frequency than average, but I think this has more to do with the strangeness of physicists than anything else. I know several grad students with family, and it seems to work out just fine. Heck, I work less than people I know in the corporate world. It's a bit crazy at times, but in my opinion it's much more fun than filling out TPS reports for a living.

    Couldn't say. I don't actually know any math grad students very well.

    Well, I hope this helps!
  9. Jun 11, 2008 #8


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    Wow, you guys spend a lot of time working in the US. So basically you just spend your whole time in the office when youre in grad school. And that guy above who says he does a maximum of 100 hours a week :yuck:

    Really? That's not true from my experience.. maybe proportionately more "strange" people, but it's incorrect to label all physicists "strange" or "weird".
  10. Jun 11, 2008 #9
    Yeah, it does sort of suck. Especially for me, since the qualifier is coming up in a couple months. Granted, I mitigate things slightly by slacking off on research and studying for quals when I'm supposed to be programming simulations. I still have about three or four hours of free time a day during the summer (as opposed to one during the school year). I suppose it's all worth it because ultimately, I actually enjoy my job. And that's why we all go through grad school, right?

    Maybe it's just different here in the States, or maybe just in my department. Some of my friends and I like to make lists of the "normal" people in our department. So far we're up to two. :smile:
    Last edited: Jun 11, 2008
  11. Jun 11, 2008 #10


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    Some are strange, some charming, some truthfull, a few are beautiful - but most are just up and down.
  12. Jun 11, 2008 #11


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    My experience is that as a grad student you have considerable leeway with your hours. In general you can work a "regular" 40 hour week if you want, or you can put in an 80 hour week. The difference is that you reap what you sew. The people who put in the longer hours generally finish faster. My experience was that those who were willing to put in a 40 hour week with the occasional weekend or late night were able to finish on time.

    One of the advantages of being a graduate student is that aside from teaching and coursework responsibilties you generally have the freedom to get up and leave when you want or need to. As others have said, you can work at home too. (Although with little kids I'm not sure how realistic that would be.)

    There are crunch times though - preparation for exams, conferences, defence, etc. The hours can get long unexpectedly. And from a financial point of view, it's very difficult to support a family without accumulating any debt.
  13. Aug 4, 2008 #12
    I'm new to this forum and I realize this thread is a bit old, but as a fourth-year physics PhD student who happens to be female and have two kids, I thought I'd throw in my two cents. In my experience, the breakdown of 2-3 years of coursework then 2-3 years of research is accurate. I spent more time at school (away from family) during the coursework phase (50-60 hours/week), since I found it extremely helpful to work/study with other students and extremely distracting at home in terms of getting coursework done. For me, the research phase has been more steady at 40 hours/week, and without the panic and rigidity of assignment due dates and exams, I have more flexibility to work in family time.

    I should mention that I have a very good situation: my (very supportive) husband co-owns a small engineering consulting company and works from home many days, so he is able to help with at least half of the child care responsibilities (sometimes more on the really bad weeks!). My children are 5 and 7, and have been in day care, preschool, and/or elementary school since I went back to graduate school (full-time). In addition, my research advisor is a laid-back person with a family of his own and is very understanding of my sometimes wacky schedule. (btw, picking the right advisor is KEY is you do decide to go for it.) I also have an external fellowship that has made my TA duties minimal and allowed me to focus primarily on my dissertation research.

    So, amazing flexibility, intellectual challenge, pursuing what you love, what could be the downside?

    It will be 5-6 years of juggling. I wish there were such a thing as "work/life balance", but it is really work/life juggling. I often say, I can be a good physicist and a good mom, but not on the same day. To me, parenting and grad school have at least three commonalities:
    (1) it's hard to stop thinking about them
    (2) you could always be doing more
    (3) you're crazy to undertake them in the first place. :-)

    Also on the downside, you can't get back the years that you're so busy juggling you don't have time for much else, which means missing out on something, whether it be parts of your kids' growing up, getting as much out of your studies as you could be, or that ever elusive social life. If I knew 4 years ago (before I started) what I know now, I would not have jumped into the PhD program; I would have stopped at a Master's degree (with thesis). (I do have a non-thesis Master's that I got "on the way" to my PhD.) I am just so tired of all the juggling, and not being as good as I would like to be at both (the physics and the parenting).

    As for a math program, I can't imagine it would be easier, but I can't say since I don't have any experience in a math department. I know one other student in my program who has a wife and child, and he seems to juggle like I do. I definitely don't think "lots of other students do it." That's not to say that you shouldn't; if you choose to, you should have a really good plan (for child care, division of duties at home, good work/study strategies, etc), and a really good reason. That is, make sure the end (the career you want to pursue afterwards) really justifies the means. Good luck!
  14. Aug 5, 2008 #13
    Hmm, I understand that a lot of physicists have lab work, or computer work to do as a bunch of you have mentioned. Isn't it true, just by the fact that most pure math students do not have to do any lab work or computer work that the hours aren't as bad? I mean I'm sure you need to pull in 50+ hours a week, but the fact that it is only coursework + TA and not coursework + TA + labs, doesn't that indeed cut down the hours?
  15. Aug 5, 2008 #14
    If you are implying that lab work or computer work (in what sense?) is research related, I don't really see how it matters what the research is as much as the fact that it is research and will be time intensive.

    Grad school is grad school (in science or math- I make no claims about the liberal arts)- it takes crap loads of time and if you are going to go to grad school do not delude yourself that somehow you are going to have it easy...
  16. Aug 5, 2008 #15
    One more question, when people say 50+ hours, that is 50 hours of studying outside of being a TA and going to class right?
  17. Aug 5, 2008 #16
    That is probably correct. TA and actually going to class should take up more than 20 hours typically.
  18. Aug 5, 2008 #17
    I can only speak for myself, but I meant total hours spent at school, doing all of it -- classes, TA'ing (I was a grader so that was only ~5 hours a week), homework, studying, etc. Some of my peers would be at school more hours than this, though they had more downtime (web surfing, hanging out, etc) built in to their day, whereas I tended to be more focused on getting the work done so I could get home to my family.
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