Published in Ecology & Evolution

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In 2018, there were over 55,000 new doctorates in the United states alone ( Yet, most of the rest of the population doesn’t seem to understand what students do for half a decade or more to get that PhD. Although ‘doing a PhD’ can mean many different things depending on field, focus, institution, and goals, I think it’s worth giving some clarification, or at least examples of what PhD students do. I wrote down my activities for one week in Fall 2019 (attached below) to serve as a basis for understanding what I, as one example of a life-science PhD student, do all day for ‘work’. A few things stand out as common themes that permeate most of what I do. I invite others in the Ecology and Evolution Community to share what it is they do for work to help the public as well as fellow scientists understand the diversity of what PhD students, professors, and professionals in our field do on a day to day basis. I hope we can find common themes across our broad field(s) to better talk about what scientists and life-science researchers do.

Recurring themes/ major parts of doing my PhD: 

  • I’m always learning to do what I’m about to try (and leaning on others for help): I’m always contacting someone I met during some course, work study or conference for help. Sometimes I contact complete strangers from a google help group or contact an author. The responses I get are always generous in sharing protocols, code or advice. Sometimes I feel like I don’t know what I’m doing, but I’ve come to realize that my job is figuring out what I need to know and learning it. Then, I plan, try and repeat.
  • I edit and then edit some more: I squeeze in writing in all the small bits of time that I have: I don’t publish because my research is necessarily spectacular (I think it’s super cool, obviously), but because I stick to it. Even when it’s just the abstract or just the methods, I am always making edits. When I start a manuscript, I write down something, basically anything that comes to me, and then slowly revisit it over several months (or years). I print it out and read it out loud. Then, my advisor and I go over it a few dozen times. Then, I ask for comments from coauthors and collaborators. Next, you guessed it, I keep editing.
  • My ‘work day’ is heavily dependent on projects: sometimes I’m at the lab until 10 pm, on weekends. Some weeks I only go in to ‘work’ 2 or 3 days. Sometimes, I’m out of the country for months. I care about my projects, and do what needs to be done, but that’s very sporadic. In the off-times, I read, write applications, edit manuscripts, plan and plan again, and reflect. 

A few of the many “offices” of my PhD. My “real” office at my assigned desk, my tropical office, my greenhouse office, and my home work space, complete with distractions.

My activities for a week in Fall 2019


  • 8-9: Answer emails
  • 9am: Meet research technician (weekly update/plans/goals)
  • 12:30-3: Work on my root fungal and oomycete plate cultures (subculturing, taking notes)
  • 3-6: Meet my advisor (go through list of 10 items to bring up)


  • 9-10: Meet with lab manager and a post-doc in our lab about a greenhouse experiment
  • 10-11:30: Practice presentation; book a car for field work tomorrow; look up articles for a paper
  • 11:30-2:30: Present at a Graduate Fellowship lunch; trouble-shoot failing fridge holding samples for a project with research technician
  • 2:30-4:30: Quarantine myself in a coffee shop to make edits to a manuscript
  • 4:45-6: Gym
  • 6-7: Shower and dinner
  • 7-10: Work on fungal and oomycete subcultures again; weigh biomass from harvested greenhouse experiment


  • 7:40: Wake up
  • 8:00: Actually wake up
  • 8:00-9:00: Figure out multinominal models for a paper
  • 9:00: Breakfast
  • 9:15-9:45: Work on a presentation for next week
  • 9:45-10:15: Edit comments on a manuscript (from coffee shop yesterday)
  • 10:15-10:45: Speed read 2/3 papers for a different manuscript intro
  • 10:45-11:00: Look into bootcamp for a root length measuring software for harvested experiment
  • 11:00-11:45: Attempt to wrangle some statistics for the 9:45-10:15 manuscript
  • 11:50: Email advisor to meet about it
  • 12:00- 12:30: Go change my car’s catalytic converter
  • 12:30-1: Lunch
  • 1-2: Who knows what happened there
  • 2-6: Collect seeds at six of my eight field sites for another project
  • 6-7: Set out seeds, check some things in the lab
  • 7-8: Dinner and cleaning, snuggle with kitty
  • 8-8:15: Shower
  • 8:15-8:30: Make lunch
  • 9: Practice presentation


  • 8:15-11:59: Make 2 agars, 2 broths, analyze root length measurements for a project; prepare for interview tomorrow; sterilize tubes, make plates and clean lab
  • 12:00: Lab chat/meeting
  • 1-3: Black hole of something or other?
  • 3-4: Meet with advisor
  • 4-5:30: Go on walk with my husband
  • 6-8: Weight roots and shoots for the recently harvested greenhouse experiment
  • 8-8:15 Dinner
  • 8:15-10: Lab for more biomass weighing and subculturing


  • 8: Interview with the South American Mycorrhizal Research Network:
  • 9-1: Edit papers
  • 1-3: Work on content for Microbiome course for the Spring
  • 3-3:15: Chat with a coauthor on a rejected paper
  • 3:15-3:45: Greenhouse to hang lights
  • 4: Haircut
  • 5: Gym
  • 6-8: Work

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Go to the profile of Deborah Anne Coviello
over 4 years ago

Well written, easy to understand a day in the life of a Phd candidate and sharing the reality of the process.

Continued success in your journey. 

We can't wait to see where you land!