What is Grad School Actually Like? (Day in the Life of a PhD Student)

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Before starting my PhD, I had lots of questions about what grad school is actually like. I lived with some PhD students during my master’s degree, but many of them had fairly atypical experiences. And, when I looked online for more information about what grad school is like, I didn’t find much.

Now, everyone’s experience will be different depending on your university, department, and the country you’re studying in. Hopefully this will give you a taste of what a typical week was like during the first year of my PhD (pre-pandemic) and can help you decide if going to grad school is right for you.

So, what is grad school like day to day?


Wake up at 9:30…ish. The beauty (and danger) of doing a PhD (unless you work in a lab) is that your work schedule is pretty flexible. This gave me time to do some part-time consulting alongside my PhD for some extra spending money (London isn’t cheap!). I didn’t have any lectures on Monday or Tuesday, so, on those days, I focused on my consulting work.

By 10:00 am, I’d get down to work. I worked about 15 hours per week in total and tried to finish a good chunk on Mondays so the rest of my week would be easier. I usually worked until about 7:00 pm, with an hour-long lunch or errand break in the middle of the day.

I’d have dinner around 7:00 pm and then either see friends, relax (i.e. re-watch Bob’s Burgers for the millionth time), or do a bit of PhD reading or admin tasks.


Tuesday’s were pretty similar to Monday’s, except, if I did well on Monday, I only had to work seven hours!


On Wednesdays, I had a two-hour lecture beginning at 11:00 am. In the UK, it’s abnormal to have mandatory lectures during your PhD but, as I’m part of a doctoral training program, I audited several courses in my first year.

I always had big dreams of waking up early and getting some work done beforehand. However, usually about all I managed was to *maybe* pick up something for lunch on the way to campus.

After the lecture, I usually grabbed a quick bite to eat and headed to the office to eat with friends. PhD life can be pretty isolating (particularly now), so it’s good to have regular social time (and commiserate with peers when necessary). 

After a quick lunch break, I got down to PhD work. During the first year (until the summer), I primarily focused on reading around my topic and drafting a literature review. We also had additional essays and assignments as part of our training program, so I'd read for those as well.

On Wednesday afternoons around 4:00 pm, my research group had a meeting. Generally, one person would present their research, a new idea, or a paper for discussion with the group. After the meeting, I’d head back to the office to do a little bit more reading until any plans I had for the evening. 


Thursdays were largely the same as Wednesdays except, instead of a two-hour lecture, it was only one hour. I tended not to have any meetings on Thursdays, though sometimes I'd meet with my supervisors or my doctoral training program for an hour or two. In the first year, I only really met with my supervisor every couple of weeks (and sometimes less often).

On Thursday evenings, I attended a lecture series relevant to my research topic. Often, there were some refreshments afterwards which was a nice treat!


On Friday, I had another class from 11:00-1:00. After this, I did my general lunch routine in the office and then decided how much work I needed to do that afternoon. On light work weeks, I’d sometimes quit a bit early and head to the pub with some friends. We also had drinks in the office every few weeks on Fridays. This was a good way to make friends and bond with my cohort.

Saturday and Sunday

In the first year of my PhD, I took weekends off, and I would generally recommend this. I think the easiest way to have some semblance of work-life balance during your PhD is to treat it as much like a normal job as possible and give yourself some time to fully switch off.

Things are obviously quite different now, so I’ve also written a separate post about what doing a PhD in computer science is like during the pandemic.

Hopefully this helps you decide whether or not a PhD is for you! For further help with this important decision, check out our post on the top 10 reasons you should (and shouldn't!) do a PhD. If you're already planning on coming to the UK to do your PhD, check out this article.

Comment below if you have any questions!

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