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What Should PhD Students Do in their Free Time?

“You do research; don’t let research do you.”


Here’s what most PhD students do (esp in bench-based PhDs):

  • Avoid doing things they know they have to do but don’t want to (e.g. running another repeat experiment because the error bars are still too big…)
  • Starting to read another paper and instead falling into the neverending Wikipedia search cycle
  • Avoid analyzing data they’re pretty sure will give negative results
  • Browse blogs and social media for distractions
  • Feel guilty when they don’t feel productive, so spending time in the lab or office doing things they’d be doing at home anyway


There’s what most PhD students should be doing:

  • Volunteering, interning, or contributing to a cause or project they’re interested in on a semi-regular basis outside of their thesis research (aka developing leadership and networking skills)
  • Practicing their writing and presentation skills in a purposeful manner, with an audience and feedback (aka developing effective sales and communication skills)
  • Doing some form of activity that improves their mental and physical health (aka not spiraling into pain or depression, which happens more often than people admit)
  • Staying in touch with the job market regardless of your year or research progress without feeling guilty (aka being a confident self-advocate)


It’s hard to feel ok doing what feels like selfish things in your free time, because there is often so little to separate your academic scientific work from the rest of your life. However, research is not your life.

“Believe it or not, your PhD years may be one of your most free years you will ever have in your life. Use them wisely!”


By Vay Cao, Ph.D.


Originally shared on Quora.


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