A Day in the Life of an MIT PhD Student

I think the title itself is a misnomer. There is no “typical” day for me. Whenever people ask me, I give really vague, unsatisfying answers because the truth is that the PhD life is hard to describe without actually experiencing it. However, this isn’t going to be an post about my PhD life, but rather it is an attempt to describe what happens in my PhD life. What really motivated this post was a conversation during my weekly Roughdraft Ventures pitch meeting. One of the other partners asked me, “What is a day in the life of Frank Wang?”

I spent some time thinking about good ways to organize this post, but let’s not waste these valuable Medium words, so I can keep the read time to a minimal so that people can’t use my post as an excuse to procrastinate on their daily work.

Let’s start by describing the different days I might have. There are days I am at a conference. This is a pretty standard day. I go to talks, catch up with people in the community, and hang out with labmates while trying to squeeze in work in the middle. There are days I’m not at MIT or MA because of vacation or travel for a variety of reasons. These days are just as unexciting. I’m usually catching up on email or backlogs of to-dos as well as hanging out with friends that I don’t see that often. I think these times tend to be very productive because I don’t have the distractions of a typical work environment.

Finally, there are the days that I am in MA. These can be further subdivided. When there is a conference deadline looming, I am mostly spending all my days writing the paper or coding (these days are typically 12–14 hours with small breaks in the middle), ignoring obligations that aren’t absolutely necessary. The reason for this is that required obligations provide a good context switch and having long periods of time to work is really valuable for focus especially there is a concrete task.

However, when there isn’t a deadline, which is most of the time, I have created two types of days for myself. I try to have work days and meeting days. Of course, as you might know now, this is still ambiguous. But generally, work days are days where I do none of my extracurricular activities (i.e. Roughdraft Ventures, MIT security seminar, etc.). These days, I’m either reading papers, writing code, or meeting about research. These are most of the days during the week. On meeting days, I do most of my non-research related meetings and emails. These days usually coincide with talks or large events, which make it difficult to do work continuously. When I was still taking classes, I would have class days, which would be days when I had a class and would do homework. These sometimes also doubled up as my meeting days.

My nights and weekends vary. On Monday nights, I go to Roughdraft pitch meetings where we decide what companies that our group met during the week receive funding. Sometimes, I go to an event or out to dinner with friends. Sometimes, there is a cool event, and I end up going. Most nights, I’m usually hanging out and trying to squeeze some work in to make my days easier. I try not to do too much work on weekends. I usually spend one day doing very little work, and one day doing 3–4 hours of work. In the mix of all this, I try to mix in exercise a few times a week whether it be in the morning or at night.

I think PhD life is more similar to a job than to school. These time allocations work well for me, but I am constantly adjusting and figuring out ways to balance my life and be more productive. Don’t get me wrong. I do have slow days where I feel like I don’t do anything. Most of my life also involves prioritizing what I want to do. I’m constantly asking myself, “Should I be reading this paper or should I be writing this Medium post?” There’s a lot to do in a PhD, and research rarely appears out of the air (though sometimes I wish it did). Whenever I don’t have a concrete task, I always try to do whatever is most productive. That general policy has worked out for me.

I don’t know if this has demystified my life in any way, but I know I probably allowed you to procrastinate for 4 minutes. At a high level, this is what happens. If you want to know the nitty gritty details like what kind of coffee I drink, what I eat for lunch, what I talk about with my labmates, to be honest, that’s just a bit weird, but I can write some more posts on these topics in the future.

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