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How long does it take to do a PhD in the British system?

As mentioned in my post on how long it takes to prepare and teach a graduate course in the British system, I am in the habit of tracking my time. That means I have complete data for how long it took to complete my PhD overall, as well as a break-down (‘breakdown’ being an ideal word to use when referring to doctorates) of the individual tasks. This post will hopefully prove a useful guide to those considering doing a PhD with a UK university, though of course, different people work at different speeds, and there could be quite a bit of variation depending on your project. For that reason I’ve included some contextual information below.

How I track my time

When I’m timing, I include only ‘productive’ time; if I change tasks, even for a few seconds, or I get up to stretch, grab a coffee, scream into the void etc, the timer is off. So the data I give here doesn’t include downtime or procrastination. Any other exclusions are noted in the ‘by year’ section below.

I find that I am consistently able to do 4h20 of mental work a day, every day; the average office worker manages ~3, so I feel okay about this (and also, down with presenteeism!).

I use Toggl desktop timer to track my time; it can be adapted to the pomodoro method, but that’s not really my jam.

How PhDs work in the UK system

In the UK system, you typically apply for a PhD program after you have finished a Masters degree. Normally you will have finished with distinction or close-to in order to be considered. You prepare a proposal of what you would like to research, apply for a program, and if accepted, apply for funding or scholarships. It differs from US systems where you do the Masters and PhD as a block, or from continental systems where research positions with defined goals are advertised and you slot yourself into them. From that perspective, it offers a bit more freedom (and more confusion? Definitely more confusion. Floundering, certainly).

Once accepted, you basically start, then keep going until you finish the thing. You have two supervisors, and at my school we met with our primary supervisor at least once a month. All PhD students and academic staff met once a week for two hours during term-time, taking turns to present and discuss our research at least once a semester.

At my school there was limited training (see ‘Time taken by task’), which for sure made it a bit more stressful; on the other hand, we didn’t have ‘comps’ as in the US system. In essence, you identify what you want to do, how you can do it, then teach yourself what you need to be able to do in order to accomplish that. (I know that friends at other British universities have had significantly more training, so my experience doesn’t speak to everyone’s.)

Normally you have a three year ‘registration period’ where you conduct your research; then you can have up to two ‘continuation years’ where you can’t collect more empirical data but you can write. And write. And re-write. My gosh. I submitted about halfway into my continuation year (June 2021), though also had three months’ extension because of the whole global pandemic that came in and messed with data collection, life, and everything else.

Once you submit your thesis, it is sent to two examiners: one from within your institution (though they can’t have had significant input into your project) and one from somewhere else. When the examiners have had adequate time to read and reflect, a viva (defence) day is set; mine was in mid-October 2021.

But wait! There’s more!

In the British system, it’s typical to have to do corrections after your defence; during your viva, you can be passed without corrections (I’ve known two people total who have done this), with corrections (minor tweaks), revisions (major tweaks—this was me), or you can be invited to resubmit and try again (i.e. the defence is failed).

My time tracking below covers proposal writing, doing the project, and corrections.

Other obligations

I received a scholarship to do my PhD. This meant I didn’t have to pay fees for the first three years, and also received a monthly stipend for that time. (Yes, the registration period is four years by default; yes, this creates financial pressures and is an exclusive practice that disadvantages some groups more than others.)

The scholarship also came with the obligation to teach up to 20 hours a week. In practice, I didn’t ever do this; I was scheduled to teach ‘fundamentals of dissertation and research’ for one semester and was otherwise assigned to TA for substantive subjects. This was more interesting, but more of a pain, as you had to actually do all the readings (unlike the Masters students you were teaching…). In my third year, I was lecturer for one subject, and part of that deal was that I wouldn’t have to do any other teaching for the year.

Teaching hours are not included below, though I do have that data. Accordingly, you will see differences in how much time I spent on my PhD in the autumn semester in 2018 (TA-ing for two subjects), 2019 (teaching one subject), and 2020 (no teaching obligations).

I also worked. This was for a few reasons:

  1. Financial pressure. The PhD stipend (or ‘reimbursement’, as my school prefers to call it) was not enough to cover costs. At least, not for a grown-ass woman in her 30s. In principle, had I lived in a share-house and eaten worse food, and not participated in things like conferences, I would have been able to survive on it; however, this would not have been healthy. Moreover, I would not have been able to save money to pay fees or to stay alive for the continuation year and beyond. Fair enough if you’re some independently wealthy old chap back in the day who can have Grand Ideas in the bath and get a doctorate on that basis; pretty much all the rest of us will have to rely on working or on the support of partners/family. (See image per @cjesusvalls below.)
  2. I was concerned about losing momentum in my career.
  3. Doing a PhD is slooooowwwwwww and iterative and I need to achieve things every day; working let me do this. As such, it was an essential measure in keeping me sane-ish, though it did render my workload absolutely bonkers. Between the PhD, work, and teaching, there would be months in a row where I didn’t have any days off, and didn’t even have time to get to the supermarket; this naturally fed into the perfectionist and workaholic tendencies common in academia. After I no longer had to teach, I clawed this back a bit: first to working just 6.5 days a week, then 6. And once my thesis was in and I was fully vaccinated, I quit my job, went “screw all this”, and took two months off (that will have stretched to nearly a year by the time I start my new job).

Of course, if you have the option, I would absolutely never recommend working alongside a PhD; the experience is inhumane enough without adding to your workload. I will say though that my PhD took more cognitive effort (what I call ‘brain juice’), whereas my work took more strategy and decision-making (what I call ‘decision juice’). That division in mental labour helped, but still. Nothing I was doing was healthy. Add a global pandemic and living by myself to the whole situation and you can just about imagine the state of me by the time of submission!

A bit about my project

My PhD is in International Relations, i.e. a social science. I researched the ways in which blame makes villains in politics, using the Brexit campaign as a case study, and was all about theory development. It was suuuuper interdisciplinary, drawing from polisci, IR, psychology and social psychology, victimology, and literature studies. And because I was looking to generate theory, I took an abductive approach (embedded in critical realism), so I kept covering and re-covering theory and data, expanding what I was doing each time. I decided to show this ever-expanding process as a spiral, which I present for you below (start in the centre and work out):

‘The Research Spiral’ from my thesis. It centralises the ‘effects of blame’ then iterates through cycles of theory and data. SE = survey-experiment; FGIs = focus groups and interviews.

The bottom half of the spiral (dark blue) focuses on ‘puzzling over theory’, while the top half puzzles over data.  It shows four full cycles of theory development, data collection, and (re)analysis, including that from my MA paper (not included in timing below, though it took 48:07h to write in January 2016. Yes, I really, really do track what I do).  It also indicates the turn to inward-facing retroductive inference that questioned the conditions under which blame does and does not work to make villains (yellow). (This sentence is straight from my thesis, and you are just going to have to forgive me for how it reads.)

Methods-wise, I used mixed methods (lit review, analysis of campaign data and newspaper articles, a survey-experiment, and focus groups/interviews in-person and online thanks to covid). I used qualitative content analysis with both qual and quant aspects for the campaign data; focus group/interview data was analysed qualitatively; responses to the survey-experiment were analysed through both quantitative and qualitative lenses.

Total wordcount for the main document excluding tables, citations, footnotes etc was 110461; this was 433 pages. I also had 259 pages of annexes attached to my submission.

I include all this information to give context; PhDs that are more linear may take less time, for example, and there would naturally be some variation per subject. I did apparently decide to create a huge pain for myself by developing an overly-ambitious project. (Though at one point, I planned on a comparative study with Spain; at least I was sensible enough to drop that!)

Time taken by year

2015

Time spent on PhD, 2015. Y axis max: 10h.

In 2015 I started considering my PhD proposal; I spent a whole 4:22h on it. This was during the second semester of my MA, which I started in January 2015 and finished in June 2016. This preparation preceded a paper I wrote on blame in January 2016, and I was still lost and confused about what I would do; I wondered if there was something in the tools from management/organisation theory and the structure of the EU. (Don’t blame me for sounding boring; my first degree was in management.) The chap who eventually became my primary supervisor was like “uhhhhh”, and I moved on.

2016

Time spent on PhD, 2016. Y axis max: 10h.

In July 2016 I’d submitted my MA dissertation and was off in the Ardennes teaching English; I spent 2:41h working on my proposal, and apparently, more time attempting to become Snow White:

Yes, I removed comments from the post cos #privacy.

Ultimately I decided to extend the research agenda from my MA paper for European Union Politics and Governance, which the marker had said would “make a good topic for a long-term research project”. Sold.

Missing from my tracking is time spent on my actual proposal, which I put together in November and early December 2016. I would guesstimate I spent around 20 hours on it; Sara Hobolt of LSE was also kind enough to have a half-hour call with me to provide pointers. This time is not included in reports on this page; nor is the time I spent trying to bribe her with cookies to talk to me.

2017

Time spent on PhD, 2017. Y axis max: 75h.

Missing from the above is the hour I spent interviewing for the scholarship in March 2017; it also doesn’t include time submitting my application (though this wasn’t extensive). As such, the 164:27h tracked in 2017 cover when I actually started doing the PhD. You can see that the y axis has changed from max 10h to max 75h.

At this time I was focused on my literature review. I also spent 98:53h teaching in the autumn semester.

I had already been volunteering at my job from March 2017; I pulled back in October, and in November, said that actually I’d like a proper job and to be paid. While it didn’t become official until March the following year, I was doing the role by the start of December, and so scrambled a bit to onboard to the systems I did not yet know. This took December’s hours down.

2018

Time spent on PhD, 2018. Y axis max: 60h.

In 2018, I had three months off in summer. (I joke!) While I did have some time off to go on a road-trip through Canada with my bestie, I spent a few weeks in Peru working on my Spanish for the comparative case study I eventually dropped; I also did two weeks of classes in Madrid in January. None of this time is included. As such, the total tracked hours are 338:39h.

You can see a slight difference in hours between the start and end of the year; this was due to teaching load in Q4. I spent 179:56h teaching in 2018, with a bit over 114h of that being in Q4. In that time, I spent 107 and a half hours on my PhD. Again, teaching is not shown on these charts, only PhD hours.

2019

Time spent on PhD, 2019. Y axis max: 95h.

In 2019, my only teaching obligations were at the end of the year, when I convened the Negotiation and Mediation module (see this post for data). Most of that teaching was in October and November.

My PhD hours therefore went way up in 2019, hitting 701:43h, and nearly doubling my 2018 time.

In March I took a sabbatical from my job for a month and pumped out the first draft of my theory chapter, hence the increase in hours. I took a week off everything in July to go walk part of the Camino de Santiago from Budapest; I then headed to Singapore for a few days for work in early August, which is why my July and August hours were down.

2020

Time spent on PhD, 2020. Y axis max: 100h.

With no teaching obligations at all, my PhD hours again increased in 2020, to 790h. I was in the UK in March doing the first of my focus groups when covid hit; as such I did my first group in-person in London and then skedaddled back to Brussels. I had to adapt my methods to online, and mixed in interviews as well; work was also a bit bonkers with the move online. Nevertheless, not being able to go anywhere or see anybody meant I didn’t have much else to do, so PhD (and jigsaw puzzles!) it was. By the end of the year, pretty much the whole thing except the conclusion had been drafted (stress on draft).

(At the end of August, with covid restrictions temporarily lifted, I flew to Portugal and spent two weeks walking from Porto to Santiago de Compostella then Finisterre in Spain. That helps explain the dip in late summer.)

2021

Time spent on PhD, 2021. Y axis max: 150h.

Crunch-time! I spent the first part of 2021 drafting and re-drafting and re-re-drafting and wanting to murder people and re-re-re-drafting. I submitted on June 11, doing 85:34h that month alone. That is, in 11 days I did close to what I accomplished PhD-wise in Q4 2018.

July and August were minor admin tasks; October was prep for my viva and then the viva itself. November onwards shows time spent on corrections. Ugh.

2022

Time spent on PhD, 2022. Y axis max: 15h.

This year I’ve spent 22:31h on the thesis. January’s hours were corrections (which I did while fevered with covid—wot), as were February’s. I sent the updated thesis to the examiners on 10 February, and my pass was confirmed on 22 March. I’m now preparing my documents to submit to the school’s archive, figuring out what needs to be redacted, and so on. There’s probably another hour or two in it. (Yes, I could have done it in the time taken to write this blog post; no, I didn’t want to.)

Time taken by task

I also wanted to show you the kinds of tasks I included as ‘PhD hours’. It took a stupid amount of data cleaning to put together, but here we go:

Time spent on PhD tasks. The need to take notes for my literature review was removed once I developed an automated workflow, which is why this seems relatively short.

There’s the odd bit of marking (16:40h) and some random teaching (12:03h) that’s snuck in here. Oops!

As you can see, the most time-intensive tasks were admin (464:27h), editing (399:55h), reading (370:16h), writing (279:51h), and conference attendance (270:08h). These were followed by data analysis (194h) and collection (166h). I was pretty into presenting at conferences, attending EUSA, ISA-NE (twice, though the second time I didn’t present) and -West, IPSA, the ECPR Joint Sessions, EUDisInfoLab, PSA American Politics Group AC (twice; presented once), a few UACES events, and I attended without presenting at the Society of Affective Scientists’ annual conference 2021. There were a few other random ones in there, but that’s the bulk of them. It’s through attending conferences that I gained exposure to new ideas, and more importantly, networked. Networking not only leads to friends and ideas, but to people to follow on Twitter, which leads to MORE ideas and more friends. The conference-to-Twitter pipeline is strong!

Like with teaching, admin was a huge time sink; answering emails, filling in forms, and other non-productive miscellanea. ‘Research Table’ is the weekly two-hour session I mentioned, where two PhD candidates present their research and gain feedback. I spent some 22:21h on preparing my presentations for Research Table. Guiltily, you can see I did one postdoc application, despite wanting to run away from academia ASAP; we all have moments of weakness!

Training was a bit over 75 hours over the course of the PhD; under this I included all training, not just that associated with the university. E.g. taking online courses and watching YouTube videos, or reading the user guide for my data analysis software of choice. I did have one memorable evening where I needed to learn SPSS and re-run all my data overnight; training includes everything I watched/read to be able to do that.

Comparing when I tracked ‘training’ hours with my calendar, about 36 hours were provided directly by my school (including attending 8 hours of classes with the MA students); a highlight was a full-day media training session. A further ~10 were made available to me as a PhD student at a British university. The remainder was self-guided.

Let’s zoom in on writing-specific activities: drafting, editing, and corrections. These totalled 766:35h, which, rather depressingly, is about an hour per page. It’s also approx 28% of all time spent on the PhD.

Time spent on writing activities.

Total time and breakdown

(Again with the ‘breakdowns’!)

With all the caveats, inclusions and exclusions I’ve made above, the PhD took me 2767:21 focused hours.

Dividing that by the 4:20h of focused time I manage each day, that’s 638.67 days. Based on there being 255 working days in the UK each year, that’s nearly exactly two and a half years’ full-time effort with no breaks or holidays.

Of course, that figure excludes time spent teaching and that spent working. I haven’t triple-checked to ensure my teaching hours are all correctly filed under ‘teaching’, so this total could be more; but it appears I spent 456:39h teaching. This is a further 105 days, taking the total load to just under three years (2.91y).

So, in principle, with no pandemic, no breaks or holidays, and not having to work, I could have just barely finished my PhD while teaching within the three years of my scholarship (though this ignores delays beyond my control, e.g. the four-month gap between submission and viva, month awaiting corrections, and two months waiting for my corrections to be approved. That would be an additional seven months without income.) But of course, to stay afloat I needed to work—and my hours spent working from 2017–2022 did exceed hours spent on my PhD. I’m not going to list exactly how much time I spent working, so let’s pretend it was the same amount of time as my thesis; that takes me to about five years and five months without allowing for any breaks or holidays. I did the bulk of this 5y5m’s work between September 2017 and March 2022 as seen above (4y6m). No wonder I felt overloaded.


Phew. That about covers it. If you have any questions, feel free to ask them below. I do hope this helps!

What do *you* think?

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