Is The 9 5 Phd A Myth

layout: post slug: is-the-9-5-phd-a-myth title: Is the 9–5 PhD a myth? categories:

  • Academia

On the day I passed my PhD qualifying exam (mid-2006), I told my wife that I was finished having a non-existant work-life balance. I decided to begin working “9–5” and let my PhD take as long as it would take. The stress and cost to my relationships wasn’t worth it.

The other day, though, I read an article by Matt Might called 10 Easy Ways to Fail a PhD, wherein he throws out the following quote:

Students that treat Ph.D. school like a 9-5 endeavor are the ones that take 7+ years to finish, or end up ABD1.

That hit a little too close to home—I’m six years in (the end is in sight).

On the other hand, you have Cal Newport, author of the well-known Study Hacks blog, arguing the exact opposite. Ramit Sethi wrote an intriguing piece on Cal Newport titled: How an MIT postdoc writes 3 books, a PhD defense, and 6+ peer-reviewed papers — and finishes by 5:30pm. In this post, Cal says,

This past summer, for example, I completed my PhD in computer science at MIT. Simultaneous with writing my dissertation I finished the manuscript for my third book, which was handed in a month after my PhD defense and will be published by Random House in the summer of 2010. During this past year, I also managed to maintain my blog, Study Hacks, which enjoys over 50,000 unique visitors a month, and publish over a half-dozen peer-reviewed academic papers.

Put another way: I’m no slacker. But with only a few exceptions, all of this work took place between 8:30 and 5:30, only on weekdays. (My exercise, which I do every day, is also included in this block, as is an hour of dog walking. I really like my post-5:30 free time to be completely free.)

I hear Cal and really love his blog. If you are not reading it, you probably should be. But if I’m being honest, I find his model generally implausible. While there probably are other people that can pull off his incredible level of signal to noise productivity, I tend to think those people are among the rare cadre of the exceptionally gifted.

Very few people land in graduate school well-prepared enough to hit the ground running immediately. I didn’t.

So at the end of the day, my experience has more closely matched Matt Might’s analysis above. I don’t have big regrets over my time in graduate school—while it’s taken longer than I ever expected, I have done loads of fascinating things (personal and professional) that cost me significant time. I wouldn’t quickly exchange these experiences for an in-and-out PhD.

But if you are wanting to complete a PhD in three years, my experience says your work life will be looking more like 7–7/M–S than 9–5/M–F. (More to come on my current working schedule.)

  1. ABD = “All But Dissertation” for my non-academia readers. 

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