How to schedule your research work – is working on weekends really necessary?

Research projects are usually quite long, or optionally super long. Long term goals require work input for an extended period of time. During my PhD I definitely felt the pressure from my peers and others to work long hours. But I never understood the purpose of having a rule to stay in the office for many hours regardless of productivity.

Many research labs are proud of that long hours approach. Often people who choose this path do not realise that this approach is a loan. Sooner or later, they will have to pay it off, otherwise they will burn out or get sick.

I also saw a few people who gave in and actually worked all day everyday and guess what: sooner or later they all had to pay for it. One person got so sick, that they had to take a few month away from their PhD to recover.

Instead of adopting a unsustainable long hours policy, I would advise anyone who does research to actually experiment a little bit with a few schedules, and choose the one that best fits them and their project. Here are some options:

“Normal” job: working 8 hours from 9 to 5

This option requires you to work on a schedule you would be working on in many industrial companies. You come in the morning, stay a certain and constant amount of time, and leave in the afternoon, Monday to Friday.

This schedule allows you to have a clear structure to your life on a daily basis which probably also overlaps with the structure of many other people in your life. To be frank, if you are a parent, this may be the option you are forced to adopt as your working hours depend on the hours your children are in preschool or school.

Treating your research job like “normal” job requires you however to portion your project into the chunks that fit these 7-8 hours daily. All your experiments, writing, thinking, and meetings have to be squeezed into these hours.

If you are a PhD student, this option can be great for you. This option will give you a clear overview of how much work you put in, and how fast are you progressing. This may be especially good, if your PhD project does not require long experiments.

Also, if you are a PhD student, you usually have your supervisors in the same department or institution, so the need for scheduling meetings across time zones is unlikely. Even if you have an international advisor, they are usually in advisory role, so the need for meetings is scarce rather than recurring.  

If you are a little bit later in your research career, you start to develop collaborations all around the world. The technology is super useful to facilitate that. However, there is no cure for the time difference between the countries. Therefore, having very stiff working hours may leave you with few options to schedule meetings with your collaborators.

Working “after hours”

This is a variation of a “normal” job, where you are still working for 8 hours a day, but your hours are after/before the normal working hours (e.g.,  6pm to 2am). Sometimes it is easier to focus on your work when everyone else has finished and went home.

Graduate students usually are packed in a room together, which is super great for support and fun, but may be a huge distraction too. If you are a person who needs silence to really focus, then this option may be for you.

I know at least several PhD students who have written their thesis after hours. They worked normal work days throughout the first two years of their PhD (PhD in New Zealand takes around 3 years) but they went into after hours mode on the last year specifically to write their thesis with less distractions.

The after hours option can be useful if you use a very popular piece of equipment or your experiments take a long time. The queue to use an equipment during night will certainly be shorter. The support of technical staff or peers will however be unlikely with this option, so you have to factor it in.  

Of course scheduling meetings with other people in your institution/country who work normal work hours will be difficult when your hours are not standard. On the other hand, meetings with international collaborators may become easier to schedule.

Working on weekends, taking days off from Monday to Friday

This option requires you to give up your weekend, but may have some benefits to it. If you struggle with booking equipment you need during a work week, it may be easier to use it on weekends. This option gives you also a peace and focus as the option of working after hours, but without forcing you to change into an owl.

This option has a variation too. I have several friends who would work 10 or 20 days in a row, including weekends, to then take a week off and travel or spend time with their family. They preferred to focus more intensely on research for a certain relatively short period of time, to then take longer time away from their PhD.

Split day

This option literally splits your work day into two separate sessions. You work several hours in the morning, go to do something else around lunch (not work related), and come back to work later in the afternoon or evening.

This option allows you to do some shopping, physical activity or meet with friends in the middle of the day, to come back to work later in the afternoon. The plus of this option is that it allows you to enjoy the time outside in the middle of the day, not only morning and evening.

Splitting the day into two working sessions allows you to start fresh in the afternoon. If you have written something in the morning, having 2-3 hours break, may be enough for you to edit the same piece in the afternoon.

Also, it may help you to structure your work in a way that you do one type of task in the morning, and the other tasks in the afternoon. For example, you may set up your experiments in the morning and let them run, and in the afternoon you spend most of your time writing. That way you can assure that you progress your work on more than one component of your project at the same time. That way you kind of have two work days in one day.

Mixed schedule

If you have more than one project going on at the same time, setting up an efficient schedule which incorporates specifics of all of them, may be life saving. Data collections to all your projects may require you to vary your work hours. Also, fitting in all the analysis and writing in the most optimal way, may save you a lot of time and frustration.

Think how can you mix all the above work scheduling options within each week to best fit all the tasks you want to accomplish. If you have some relatively easy and repetitive tasks to do (e.g., referencing), you can schedule them for the times when you are waiting for your experiment or analysis to finish, or know that you will be tired and unable to do creative work anyway. You will be amazed how efficient you can become when optimising your work with mixed schedule. This is my favourite type of schedule as it allows me to do more in less amount of hours.

The minus of the mixed schedule is that there is no routine to your life, at least not that obvious. Each day is different, what may be exhausting for a long run. This option is not for people who thrive under a strict routine.

With this schedule, the more mixed it is, the more prone you may to forget about self-care. Therefore, it could be beneficial to also think about scheduling other things like physical activity and time with friends.

Sidenote

Don’t feel that you have to stick to one of the above scheduling options for your whole life, or even for one project. Feel free to mix all these models to fit exactly your needs at the moment. At the end of the day you have chosen research because you are passionate about answering questions and solving problems. Also, you probably think about your work most of the time anyway, so you don’t necessary need to sit in the office all the time to feel like you progress. The most important thing is to find what fits best for your productivity and health. To sustain high productivity for a long time, you need a sustainable schedule, sustainable for you – that is the bottom line.

Summary

Do not give in into the “work hard = long hours” culture, imposed by some supervisors or peers. You do you, and always think how your work schedule will affect you in a long run. You use the opportunity of doing research for work, and learn how to be productive, efficient, passionate, and enthusiastic but also healthy and happy. This is a great skill not only in your research work but also for life.  

Thanks @sci.with.rhi for inspiration to write this post (28.01.2019) 🙂

What is your favorite scheduling type? Would you have any scheduling hacks to add to this list?

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