Thursday, December 10, 2009

When Grad School Gets Crazy...

Anyone who has completed a semester of college has known a few "crunch times" where a big project or paper or test consumed a significant portion of your life. Most career choices come with at least a few of these sorts of times where a lot needs to be accomplished in a limited time. Some careers have very regular, rigid schedules, while others vary strongly between busy times and relaxed times. Grad school in physics (and probably many other fields) is a career choice that leads to a lot of flexibility most of the time and an extremely demanding schedule every now and then.

Here's my experience in a nutshell. On average over the 2.5 years I have been in the doctoral program in astrophysical sciences at CU, I have worked about 45 to 50 hours a week. On average I have a lot of flexibility about when I start and end my days, but I usually arrive on campus between 7:30 and 9:00 in the morning and head home between 5:00 and 6:30 in the evenings. I work a few hours a week from home on evenings or Saturdays, which rounds out to about five nine- to ten-hour days a week. However only probably 10 to 20 of those hours are scheduled, meaning that I can take a morning off to go hiking or have a long lunch with my wife every now and then.

However, the downside is that every now and then things get really crazy. The biggest sustained period of insanity in my graduate career was the month of November this year. I had a deadline to finish a research project for the second part of my comprehensive exam and it forced me to work roughly 80 hours a week for the whole month, with roughly 60 hour weeks in October as well. It was not very fun.

I wanted to ask of my fellow bloggers and our few remaining readers how you deal with those times. For me, survival came down to three things:
  1. I enjoy my work, even though I had to remind myself of that at times.
  2. I have an extremely supportive wife who picked up a lot of my slack at home. It's tough to find time to clean or cook when one works 15 hours a day, 6 days a week.
  3. I don't work on Sundays for religious reasons, so I had at least one day a week to decompress and be reminded that comps 2 really isn't that important in the grand scheme of things.

I assume I'm not alone in the madness that happens in grad school, so when have you been stressed to the limit and how are you not living in a log cabin on a mountain in Montana right now?


  1. Nick, great observation.

    I have exactly the same experience. In many ways I get to choose a lot about my schedule, however, I also have times each week where a lot is demanded very quickly.

    I haven't had to work an 80 hour week yet, although 60 happens every so often. (I may have worked 80 the week before my comprehensive exam, but that was a big exception.) I think I usually work a 50 hour week where each day I work different hours depending on the current demands.

    This flexibility has been helpful. There have been times I really needed to be at home and so just stayed home knowing I could just work harder later. (And I do.) There have also been times I've had to tell Esther it is going to be a while.

    A supportive wife is #1 help for me. Life is so much easier when you have a person helping you get everything done each day, that's for sure.

  2. Nick, this is a great post. You'll probably never see this comment, because I am so late in posting it that you probably won't read this comments section again (unless you have the updates emailed to you). My only real excuse for said lateness is the very reasons that you pointed out, but I digress.

    To me, just like you said, a supportive wife and remembering to keep things in perspective are really the big ones. I have often been known to come home having decided that I want to move to Uganda / northern Idaho / Mars / some other locale as devoid of graduate school / politics / politics in graduate school / etc as possible. My wife patiently reminds me that life is just hard no matter where you are or what you do, and that things really will work out if you work at it. (Sometimes this takes a lot of convincing.) As I keep having to convince myself, it really will work out. "This too shall pass."


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