A typical day in the life of a healthcare PhD student

general phd Jun 12, 2023
Sun rising over a field


I struggle, I really do. By this time, I’m usually awake for an hour already. Venturing outside the duvet seems dangerous, there is the cold weather to deal with and most frightening of all, my PhD work. It is safer to stay under the protection of a woolen duvet. At this point, the shame mounts and I finally drag my sloppy ass into the bathroom for a ritualistic morning erm… excre… forget it, there is no good word for that.



I don my gym gear, pop a caffeine pill and some vitamins and skip out of the house for the iron temple. If I am lucky, I get to focus on a good workout, unmolested by thoughts about my research. As my work deals with philosophy, literally everything around me triggers an existential crisis. Otherwise, I think about food, food makes me a happy boy.



I usually make it to the office around this time. As I announce my arrival by ambling through the double doors, other students stare in deep judgement. See, these people started working around 7am or 8am. I really hate mornings so I tend to perk it up by going to the gym. I make a chocolate protein shake and pour it into dry oats. My friends chastise me for this but I usually glare back and bark “this is an authentic Singaporean breakfast”. It really isn’t. I just cant stand cooked oats because it looks like lumpy vomit.

I get to my desk with my vile breakfast and have it while I reply emails that I have neglected from a week ago. This usually lasts 10 min, I am not that important, most of it is deleting spam emails about a shady conference in a Chinese province led by a Nobel laureate.

I start work with a check list for the day. I lay out what I need to do for the day, keeping in mind that it has to be realistic and attainable by the end of the day. This is often underestimated as this post will show. Planning for the day helps me focus on the immediate tasks rather than day dream about deadlines that can wait. Also, I put my phone on silent and throw it into the last drawer at my desk.
Before lunch, I focus on higher order tasks like writing, conceptualising, analysing etc., basically anything that requires 75% and more brain power. This is my most productive period and I can get many things done. There are days when I actually finish my to-do list before lunch and just head home to rest.



Oh look its food time again. I skip into the kitchen or pop down to grab my tummy a sandwich. Usually I drag my good friend Dal to have lunch with me. In my first year, I was a really sad sap. I would go into the kitchen for lunch with my laptop. I would then put on a YouTube lecture on a philosophical concept while I ate. I didn’t have friends then and I was an epic nerd. Over the years I’ve learned to work smarter. Now I have lunch with actual people. I give myself 30 - 45 min for lunch. Then, its back to the grind.



This is when I tackle the less taxing tasks like editing my chapters, referencing, planning the next chapter, transcribing my interviews etc. My post-lunch, post-gym crash usually hits me around 1430 so there is no point in trying to read a difficult article or write anything. I rather let my brain rest for a bit, take things a little lighter.

I tend to schedule meetings around this time as well because people are more willing to meet after lunch and I also do not want to spend my most productive hours in the morning sitting in long meetings. I also like to get my research admin done during this time, head into the library for a book, book rooms for data collection or work on my other non-PhD projects like conference organisation. Switching focus helps keep me awake during this time and also gets my brain thinking about other stuff while my research simmers in the background.



ITS SECOND WIND TIME, YASSSSS. Around this, Im re-energised and I get back to smashing the harder tasks that I did not manage to complete in the morning. The staff members on my floor start to head home during this time, and all they see is me working hard on something and working late, +10 points to Griffyndor!

This is usually a tricky bit because I need to make a decision on whether the task I start can be completed before the day ends or I have to stay late. If I get excited about something, like writing a chapter, I tend to stay late into the night. I’ve been known to stay overnight in the office once, to finish a paper I started writing at 4pm.

As a researcher, I am binge-er. I do not believe in snack-writing (where you write a small set amount of words each day). It takes me a while to get into the zone of writing and once I am in the zone, I ride it for as long as I can.



I usually finish the day around this time, if not earlier. I head on home for some sweet sweet rest, put on some trashy TV, shoot some players on Overwatch or meet my friends for dinner.
Quite often, I continue working because I have something to complete. I enjoy the satisfaction of completing big tasks so I tend to stay later just so that it can be done before I hit the sack. If I decide that its going to be a work evening, I pop out for some dinner to eat in the office. The night time security guard usually looks at me with pity while I head out and back again. We are very good friends because of the stupid number of late nights I pull there.



This is usually the time my head stops functioning if its a late one. If I cannot complete my tasks, this is where I concede, pack up and go home.

By this time, there is nothing more I want to do than fling my limp body onto the bed and sleep.
As a PhD student, I don’t like fixed hours. I sashay into the office close to midday but stay late into the night. However there are also days when I head home early or not turn up at all because there is nothing to do. I plan my days around my productive times to maximise my productivity instead and I work based on tasks completed rather than time-spent-in-the-office.

Im quite disciplined in my work. I do not do my Amazon shopping, schedule a haircut, do my life admin at the office. I find that it helps to lock my phone up or keep it out of sight, hidden behind my laptop. What really works for me is to keep physical boundaries between work and fun. As much as possible, I do not take my articles or books home to read or watch TV in the office. It helps me focus and rest better that way. Obviously it is not always practical to do that.

This is how I spent my day as a PhD student, and as an entrepreneur now, this really hasnt changed at all. How is your day usually like?