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Typical day in the life of a physics grad student

  1. Jul 7, 2009 #1
    I am going to be starting physics grad school in August (UT-Austin physics) and was worried about a few websites that I read claiming that a typical physics grad student could expect to work anywhere between 40 and 60 hrs a week on course work in their first year. I am worried because I am lazy and could not see myself working that much. I was wondering, in your experience, what a typical day in the life of a grad student would be. If enough people agree with the aforementioned work week, then I will try to acclimate myself to this crazy schedule as soon as possible so that I'm not screwed over in my first semester.
  2. jcsd
  3. Jul 7, 2009 #2
    Depending on what classes you're taking, and how much time you're spending on teaching and/or research, 40-60 hours of total work sounds pretty reasonable. Some people do more, but that shouldn't be necessary. If you want less than 40 hrs of work a week, you're going to be awfully disappointed in both grad school but in the working world. This ain't supposed to be easy.
  4. Jul 7, 2009 #3
    My first year I worked an average of 63 hours per week. This included my coursework and teaching responsibilities. The good news: it gets a lot easier once you pass your PhD qualifier, especially if you work for a professor who has the money to fund you. Nowadays my work week is closer to around 40 hours. So I guess it's a year of torture followed by a more reasonable schedule.
  5. Jul 7, 2009 #4
    (I think I just posted an answer to your question about summer reading.) I just finished my first year in graduate school for mathematics, which will be comparable to a physics program. The course load is extremely heavy, as the others have verified. I would just try to do what you are doing in trying to do some summer reading. No matter what preparation you do though, it will be tough and you don't want to be burnt out before you even begin. The first year is a very long year, but definitely enjoyable. Get used to trying to work with others on homework. I'm bad at this myself, but it can help save some time and unnecessary struggles. My main advice is don't fall into the undergraduate habit of saying something like I'll just skip this tough part and learn it later. This will never work and will hurt you when it comes time to study for your qualifying exams.

    Also, I would be careful in what courses you pick to study. They should provide some guidance. I saw that you are signed up for a topics course. I don't know if that's a graduate or undergraduate course, but I think it is a little unconvential for an incoming first year student to take a topics course. Programs usually want you to take a certain amount of sequence courses in the first two years, so I would make sure you are following their recommendations for what courses you take. These are also usually meant to prepare you for the program's qualifying exams, which are the first goal of a graduate student before research related activities.
  6. Jul 8, 2009 #5
    "If you want less than 40 hrs of work a week, you're going to be awfully disappointed in both grad school but in the working world. This ain't supposed to be easy."

    I understand where youre coming from, but no one really posted what they study or do for that 40 hours. I couldn't possibly see myself reading sakurai for 4 or 5 hours a day and then moving on to, say, peskin and schroeder for another 3 to 4 hours.

    I guess another thing to consider is that my department has a dirty little secret - we don't have qualifying exams (for some reason). We are expected to take quantum, stat mech, classical, and electro as classes and, when we are finished with them (we are given 2 years), we are expected to give an oral qualifier based on research in the field we hope to study.

    I will admit to being afraid that i might be lazier than my peers.
  7. Jul 8, 2009 #6
    I wasn't trying to be snarky (okay, maybe a little), but as a fellow lazy person I do want to get the idea across that 40 hours/week is not at all unreasonable. If you're taking three classes, then that means roughly ten hours a week in-class, and an extra ten hours a week per class beyond that is pretty believable; not on reading so much (unless you're the kind of person who reads and rereads very carefully) but on problem sets, especially for the kind of class you're talking about in the other thread. And that's before teaching or research, unless you're on a non-research fellowship.

    I'm familiar with UT's system, as I was accepted there and seriously considered going. I don't know whether their system means that those four core courses are harder than the average; a coworker who got her PhD there doesn't seem to think so, but of course she doesn't have anything to compare to.
  8. Jul 8, 2009 #7
    Thats good to know. I wasn't sure if people were counting the time they were in class. Class will eat up 9 hours a week.
    I read that as an undergraduate you are expected to work 3 hours out of class for each hour in class/week (I would've been lucky to get myself to study 3 hours a week as an undergrad!), but for grad school its 5 hours. That is the kind of thing that worries me. That would give me a total of ~55 hrs a week of only focusing on school work! While I would never quit or give up because of that, it does worry me to think that I could easily burn myself out after 2 or three weeks. I guess thats the reason I started this thread - to see whether or not this work ethic is observed by most grad students. Seems to me that a lot of people study longer, but that is understandable as they are forced to prepare for qualifying exams. How does the typical person deal with a severe case of burn out? I tend to stop doing work completely for a week or so, but I don't think I will be allowed to do this as a grad student.
  9. Jul 8, 2009 #8


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    Ideal (first year grad student):
    - 05:30 wake up, work out for 1 hour
    - breakfast, shower etc.
    - 07:45 arrive early to office: check email, read science news for latest in popular research
    - 08:30 - 10:00 read ahead on course material, try sample problems, get a head start on problem sets due in later days
    - 10:00 - 12:00 lectures
    - 12:00 - 13:00 lunch with senior students, post-docs, and professors where research can be discussed in an informal, friendly forum
    - 13:00 - 14:00 lecutures
    - 14:00 - 17:00 undergraduate labs/office hours/marking time or do research-related reading
    - 17:00 - 18:00 supper
    - 18:00 - 20:00 complete homework problems, do any preparation work for the next day
    - 20:00 - 22:00 time with friends, significant other, volunteer work, or personal reading
    - 22:00 bed

    - what, how the heck did I sleep in until 08:00?
    - run to office, then realize that today the undergrad lab you teach started at 08:00 and you have to run to the other side of campus
    - 08:00 - 11:00 - lab, nothing works, computer crash, pre-meds want perfect marks for lab reports that wouldn't pass a 6th grade science class
    - 11:30 - you didn't think undergrads would finish the lab on time did you?
    - 12:00 - kick last undergrads out of the lab, eat fast food lunch, scramble to finish the problem set due at 13:00
    - 12:45 - 13:00 beg the professor for more time on the assignment
    - 13:00 - 16:00 lectures, experience first hand time dilation
    - 16:00 - 18:00 retire to office, surf web, procrastinate on homework
    - 18:00 - 18:05 best damned Chinese food on campus
    - 18:06 - 19:00 flag football game with your physics team: the Feyn Men
    - 19:01 worst damned Chinese food on campus
    - 19:30 - 22:00 homework
    - 22:00 - 23:30 you really though you were going to finish your assignments on a pre-planned schedule?
    - 23:30 - 00:00 try to read up on your research topic
  10. Jul 8, 2009 #9
    haha, i like it. Thats exactly how I wanted my ideal day to go, as well as how I know the real day will go. You must be a seasoned vet.
  11. Jul 8, 2009 #10
    When I first read typical day, I was like no way, is this person serious? I missed the ideal day label. Haha. I think it's usual for you to have more work assigned in terms of hours needed to complete it than there are actual hours in a week, so it's safe to say that you will never be ahead and will be lucky to be on time. For the most part though, I found the grading to be a little bit more relaxed, because the stuff is just plain hard.

    I find it interesting you complained about the pre-meds as I did too...until I had to teach business majors. As a math grad student, I actually found the pre-meds to be much more amicable and willing than the business students. So count your lucky stars that you don't have to read business major lab reports. :)
  12. Jul 8, 2009 #11
    Wow, 8am are you kidding me? I'd have to say I had a VERY different experience. Although I guess you could say I'm a professional slacker. I went to classes and only really did any work on my courses come assignment time which was a day or two before. I'd probably spend an all-nighter on most assignments which were about once a month per class. So basically I attended (most) classes and did maybe 10 hours of work a month per class. I got an A- to A average. To be honest I have NO IDEA what you would do for 40 hours a week per course. For my final exam in quantum 1 I basically read all of Sakurai and did every single practice problem in the textbook. And that's me at about 10 hours a month, so I really haven't a clue how people are logging 40 hours a week. I usually TA 2 course a term which is usually 4 hours of actually work a week (we're also paid for an hour of prep which depending on my duties I actually use (manning drop-in center I'll actually do their assignment before, guiding a lab takes like 10 minutes prep work). As for my typical schedule

    10am: Wake-up
    11am: Get to office, respond to e-mails, check my simulations/computations I put on last night
    12pm: Lunch at the local grad bar (phys students at my school drink a lot).
    1:30pm: Get back. If it's a TAing day I do my TAing, otherwise I start on whatever work I'd wanted to get done today, taking a break about every 30minutes-1 hour to stretch my legs and such.
    4-5pm: throw my simulations for the night on the supercomputer and go home.

    And I'm actually fairly productive (some people may find it hard to believe).
  13. Jul 8, 2009 #12
    I should probably add that I do computational physics and I can access my codes from home and occassionally at random points in the night I'll catch the working bug or get an insight and work from home.
  14. Jul 9, 2009 #13
    what do you do in your free time?
  15. Jul 9, 2009 #14


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    But, from your schedule, you only do a maximum of three hours work a day. Have you finished your PhD? If so, I think you're probably exaggerating a little!
  16. Jul 9, 2009 #15
    No, I'm a masters student. However, when I was in grade school people told me that my ways may suffice now but they would never fly in highschool, so I did the exact same thing in highschool and they told me my ways may get me by in highschool but they're never get me by in undergrad. So I did the same thing in undergrad and they told me that grad school would be substantially different. Here I am in my masters and I've already finished my coursework requirement with an A- or A average and I'm still doing the same slacking I've always done.

    In undergrad there were very addidous people who studied for 40 hours a week however I would certainly not say that's how you HAVE to do it.

    NOTE: It also depends on whether you're experimental or not. Expermentalists seem to have to spend a LOT of time in their lab where they're acting as little more then a warm body.
  17. Jul 9, 2009 #16


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    Well, then I doubt your schedule will cut it when you come to do some research. All the studying you've done in the past has one thing in common: you're studying known information for an exam at the end of the course. The same doesn't hold true when you're researching.
  18. Jul 9, 2009 #17
    I have been researching for about a year now. I've even got some papers in the pipeline.
  19. Jul 9, 2009 #18
    Plus I think my stated day is entirely commiserate with that depicted in phdcomics :)
  20. Jul 10, 2009 #19
    I think I will post my typical day maybe two weeks into grad school, just to see how close it is to the "ideal" day posted earlier.
  21. Jul 10, 2009 #20


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    Obviously different people have different systems that work for them. Physics is one of those subjects where it can be difficult to estimate the amount of time you have to put in. Sometimes, if you "get" a problem set, you can solve it in no time at all. Other times, you can struggle for days with a single problem. There will always be people who seem to be able to get good marks with less effort, but in the majority of cases I've seen poor study habits eventually catch up with you.

    Siyphsc, I you may want to post something at say 2 weeks in, and then somewhere well into the middle of the first semester, as sometimes the first few weeks can be rather slow.
  22. Jul 10, 2009 #21
  23. Jul 11, 2009 #22
    In my case (and in the case of other graduate students I knew) core coursework was generally competed in one year:

    First semester: Quantum I, EM I, Classical

    Second semester: Quantum II, EM II, Stat Mech

    Students were allowed to take longer (two years), but were generally considered then weaker students by both the professors in the department and by their graduate students peers (perhaps taking a Math Methods course the first year and putting off E&M).

    Course courses for us were 1 hour lectures, three times per week, or 9 hours. On top of core coursework, you will likely have a TA or RA position. For such positions, you're generally expected to put in 20-30 hours per week.

    I found my first term TA position easier... but it does depend on what class you are TAing, and what type of TA position you are assigned (lab TA, recitation TA, grading TA, or a combination of the above), your required attendance (if you're a lab TA how many hours of lab you actually teach and whether you must set up the labs, and if you're a recitation TA whether your professor requires you to attend class lectures, do grading, prepare quizzes, etc.). I know my TA position was easier than most (I taught 2 labs twice a week for a total of 10-12 hours... and grading of lab reports was easy and minimal).

    When I became an RA my second term, I'm sure I tried to put in at least 30 hours a week in the lab... to get on the learning curve under a graduate student who was preparing to defend and contribute enough that i could be listed under a publication that he had in the works.

    Throughout this time, I took my coursework seriously and worked all the problems of some very long homework sets assigned by the professors VERY diligently and neatly (rewriting the problem and then my solution, with explanations off to the side margin if they would be helpful, about things like units, why a result made physical sense, etc.) making them excellent study-guides for tests. I even received compliments from upper-level graduate students who graded for these graduate classes... and had one request at the end of my Jackson EM course that I make copies of my homework sets... since my solutions often took a different way than the professor's but ended up with the same correct result. A homework set 20-30 pages in length would not therefore be uncommon... and most courses would have one homework set due each week. Try producing 60-90 pages of perfect homework each week at the graduate level -- in other words, no easy math here, and often some fairly nasty math (some problems I remember in E&M used elliptical or toroidal coordinates!). In fact... I think I didn't even get to "read" the text... no time for that. Most of my "spare" afternoon and evening time was spent producing these sets.

    Some electives were also required, but were generally taking by graduate students one at a time in the later years (during the time more research was being conducted, and often trying to select courses that were complimentary to your main area of research under the recommendation of your research adviser). At that point, however, you should be spending at least 40 hours in the lab... probably more like 50 if you want to really get results and keep your adviser "happy" with you (plan to arrive before he/she does and then leave after he/she does). When the experiment or program code is running happily on its own getting results for you, you should be analyzing other results, reading publications, working on your own journal article or preparing presentations/posters for research conferences / internal grant reviews, etc.

    In my opinion, slacking off during physics graduate school is a bad idea, especially if your plan to later seek a tenure track position. Have you met and talked with any untenured professors and seen the time they spend writing grant applications, doing research, teaching classes and performing university service on committees -- all to get enough "evidence" built up to get tenure? I've seen tenure track faculty, even those at small private schools that emphasize teaching over research, still put in about 60 hours per week.
  24. Jul 12, 2009 #23
    That seems excessive. How would you have time for all of this? I recognize that I may very well have to do this in order to be successful, but geez.

    Another worry of mine is that my girlfriend will be going to grad school elsewhere (in NY, im in Tx). Has anyone had experience with starting grad school and maintaining a long distance relationship?
  25. Jul 12, 2009 #24


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    Unless your professors were especially sadistic, it sounds like you did way more work than necessary... I don't think I ever turned in a homework set longer than 8 pages, and I certainly didn't spend all my "spare" time on homework.
  26. Jul 12, 2009 #25


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    The shortest my problem sets were was 4-5 pages, most of the time went 6-9 and and about as often as 4-5 pages went 10-13.
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