Updating Results

A day in the life of a PhD student

Elliott DE

Being a PhD student has numerous benefits, but isn’t a walk in the park. Read on for insight into what life as a PhD student is like.

A Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) is a momentous challenge that is exhilarating, stressful, and highly rewarding. To start this article, I will offer just a brief background of what a PhD is, my own research area, and what a ‘day in the life’ of a PhD student (i.e. me) looks like!

A PhD in Australia typically runs between 3 and 6 years, though there is increasing pressure from universities to ensure PhD students finish at the three-year mark, or only a little later. The days of PhD students lasting for six to seven years are long gone, as funding pressure means that universities need to get PhD students graduated and producing papers for the university. Typically, a PhD has three major milestones that you must pass in order to keep progressing in the degree:

  1. A confirmation
  2. A mid-term review
  3. A final review

These occur, respectively, in years one, two, and three. PhD candidates will typically get two attempts to get past these milestones, which consist of a paper/chapter submission to a university-appointed panel and a presentation, and if they fail on the second attempt, they usually will have their PhD terminated. Most PhDs can be taken without scholarship (i.e. without payment), though they are usually at no direct cost to the student (speaking of domestic students here). Sometimes scholarships will be available, and they usually range from $18,000 to $27,000 a year (non-taxed).

I am currently doing a PhD in political economy and feminist studies, where my project investigates the impact of International Monetary Fund and World Bank-led economic programs on women’s political and economic participation in conflict/post-conflict, with my case study being Ukraine. I actually had no prior experience in political economy or feminist studies, and I was lucky enough to be offered the opportunity through a previous research supervisor who was indirectly related to my current PhD project. My honours thesis (it is generally a pre-requisite that you have a first-class honours or a Master’s thesis) was actually in neuroscience, and most of my research experience prior to my PhD had been in medical/surgical research and legal research. However, the experience of my PhD, which included a huge and very stressful initial learning curve, has been absolutely fantastic so far, and has been one of the most personally transformative and empowering undertakings that I have ever entered into!

My ‘regular’ day is hard to pin down… as every day and week is incredibly varied! However, I will try to paint a bit of a picture for you.

  • I typically try to get to university between 8-9AM in the morning, where I will proceed to set up my study space in my office (we share offices with other PhD students, which just means I have my own desk), and then study between 30 minutes and one hour of Arabic (extra-curricular language studies!).
  • After that, I will use the rest of the morning to complete my PhD readings, which could be highly variable. For example, right at this moment I am interested in the impact of gas reforms on women in Ukraine, as I am attempting to write a chapter about the subject, and thus my readings are generally geared around the technical aspects of pipelines in Eastern Europe, the reform process since the fall of the Soviet Union in Ukraine as it relates to gas, and what it has meant for the population.
  • After pouring over this literature for the morning, I will take a break for lunch where I might also watch a lecture of interest in political philosophy or the like.
  • Then, I will go for a walk to the library on campus, where I will return some books and get some more (I love the library, and this is one of my favourite parts of the day!). I will then go back to my office, where I will then try to set aside an hour or two to write a bit of my chapter.
  • Then, in the afternoon, my research team might be hosting an academic or another visiting person who will deliver a seminar, which I will attend; or alternatively, my supervisors might want to see me for a meeting to check in on my progress!
  • Finally, I might also attend a lecture delivered by one of my research supervisors in the afternoon. At the end of the day, I will generally try to read a bit more around my particular area of interest to close out the day, before I leave at around 5 or 6PM.

To me, completing a PhD has been by far the most rewarding thing that I have done in my life (I am a medical doctor and law graduate too!). I have been very lucky in having the opportunity to undertake a PhD, and I have gone through a significant amount of personal development and learning and have had my entire world view shaped by my readings and research throughout my studies. My day may seem somewhat mundane to the outside viewer, but having the opportunity to read great literature, (try to!) write something that might make an impact in the world, and be tutored by world experts in their field, is something I would recommend you all seize with both your hands if you are lucky enough to get the chance!


Elliot DE is a current PhD Candidate, Medical Doctor & Law Graduate. He is also a Humanities Tutor at GradReady Preparation Courses.