A week in the life of a doctoral student

September 23, 2015

What does a typical week in the life of a doctoral student look like?

Certainly, it can vary by research topic, stage of the program, and any outside demands on a learner’s time (employment, family, etc.). But no matter what, it always involves a great deal of time management and juggling.

Two Capella University PhD students who are at different stages of their degree programs shared what an average week looks like for them. Robert Patterson, who is pursuing a PhD in Nonprofit Management and Leadership, started his program in September 2013. Laura Gray, who is earning her PhD in Instructional Design for Online Learning, began studying at Capella in 2011 and will finish her PhD in 2015.

*NOTE: This interview was conducted March 2015. Capella no longer offers a PhD in Nonprofit Management and Leadership or a PhD in Instructional Design for Online Learning.

The coursework phase

Patterson, who is in the midst of the coursework phase of his PhD, also has a full-time job and a church position on the side. The weekly requirements of coursework necessitate careful advanced planning. Patterson’s typical week begins on Monday morning at 6 a.m., when he “calendars” his week: “I plan out every hour of that week, so I know exactly where everything will fit,” he explains.

A typical doctoral studies week, after his day job, takes about 25-30 hours and looks like this:

Monday: Complete the required reading and article research. If an assignment is due this week, begin the draft.

Tuesday: Hone in on the discussion questions. Patterson notes that in his field, it’s usually one question per week per class, but sometimes there are two. Revisit assignment draft.

Wednesday: Write answers to the discussion questions. Finalize assignment draft due on Sunday.

Thursday: Finalize and submit answers to the discussion questions.

Friday: Read other submissions. Students are required to respond to at least two submissions, but Patterson often prefers to read more. “The other learners can bring a lot of new ideas to me,” he says.

Saturday: If an assignment is due Sunday, then complete final revisions and rewrites. Research for peer responses and begin intensive study for future assignments. “Others may start future assignments much earlier in the week, but I can’t,” he says. “This is the schedule that works for me.”

Sunday: Finalize assignment (proof and validate reference list) and submit. Review peer responses and respond as appropriate.

The independent research phase

Gray, on the other hand, is through the coursework part of her PhD program and well into her dissertation writing. She notes that this phase is quite different from the coursework phase. “Coursework has a lot of little deadlines to meet—discussion questions, responses, papers, all through a 10-week quarter,” she says. “But the dissertation is much less structured. It’s up to me to set aside time every day and stick to it.”

When asked how much time she puts into her PhD program during the week on average, she says: “People won’t believe it, but I work about 6-8 hours a week.” But she also notes that she’s strict about putting that time in. “I rely on Google Calendar,” she says. “I’m a terrible procrastinator. It’s hard for me to get organized and concentrate. So I prioritize working smart over working hard. I schedule things hour by hour and stick to that.” While Patterson does his calendar work on Monday mornings, Gray does hers each night for the following day. The end result is the same: carefully planned days with tasks that need to be completed to move onto the next day’s work.

Both Patterson and Gray agree that time management is critical to staying on track, no matter which phase of the PhD process someone is in. “Remember that your work is a continuous thing, not just a once-a-week class,” advises Gray. “I worked with a dissertation coach who taught me how to break things down into little chunks. You don’t sit down to write a dissertation chapter because that’s intimidating. You sit down to work on a couple of pages.”

In short, the PhD process has many variables, but the bottom line is: put time in, just about every day, every week, to keep the momentum going.

Capella University offers PhD and professional doctorate degree programs in business, information technology, education, nursing, health care, psychology, counseling, social work, and public service. Learn more about Capella’s online doctoral programs.

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