A year as a PhD student, by the hour

Ever since working at a consulting company, I’ve been accustomed to keeping track of my time at work. It was at the same company that I spent days upon end doing calculations in Excel, making me an expert in the world of COUNTIFs, SUMPRODUCTs and named ranges. It was only a matter of time before I created a spreadsheet to keep track of my time at school and work, which I have done for the past few years.

While it takes a bit of upkeep, it’s great for looking back at what I actually did last year. It’s how I know that I spent about 1800 hours at work last year. Of which I spent 48 hours having coffee in our break room. (I would have guessed more.)

Here is my look back my first full year as PhD student. Here’s what an ‘average’ work week looked like (42 hours, including lunch and breaks), divided up according to how much time I spent on different projects throughout the year. (Including links to the posts I wrote throughout the year.)


My alarm goes off at 6 a.m. Microwaved oatmeal for breakfast while I get dressed.

Front row seat on the bus7 a.m. On the bus to Norrköping. Last winter and spring, I was a tutor in the bachelor program in Environmental Science. All my teaching was in Norrköping, an hour away by bus. I caught the bus on campus at 6:55 and spent the hour reading student papers. Once in Norrköping, I would meet each of my tutor groups for two hours each. (5 hours total)

12 p.m. Lunch.

1 p.m. Small stuff. I had few small projects throughout the year, such as trying to re-write my master’s thesis into a journal article (which I gave up on). Sometimes I would just take the bus back to Linköping and relax. (1 hour)

2 p.m. Preparing for seminars. I attend two of our weekly seminars, both of which take place on Tuesdays, so it wouldn’t be strange for me to spend a couple hours reading on Monday afternoon. (2 hours)

4 p.m. Time to go home. (If it’s December or January, the sun set an hour ago!)


A later start today.

8:30 a.m. Time to do some reading to prepare for Wednesday’s course seminar. (1 hour)

9:30 a.m. Fika (the Swedish word for coffee break). I’m a pretty regular attendee at the morning fika these days, but I missed a lot in the spring when I was teaching in Norrköping.

10 a.m. The weekly seminar called Technology, Everyday Life and Society. We usually discuss a draft paper that one of our colleagues is working on. (2 hours).

12 p.m. Lunch. (1 hour)

The shores of Vadstena, where the summer school was be held.

1 p.m. An afternoon spent organizing the STS Summer School that we held in August: handling applications, payment, answering questions, preparing the course handbook, etc.

3 p.m. The weekly info meeting for our unit. (30 minutes)

3:30 p.m. More work on the summer school. (4 hours total)

5:30 p.m. Done for the day.


Lazy start today. Sometimes I would get up early and do laundry. I might do course reading at the same time. I might just read the newspaper.

9:30 a.m. Bike to work in time for the morning fika, because one of my colleagues talks about their research each Wednesday. It’s a chance to learn more about research going on in the other seminar groups. (30 minutes)

10 a.m. Working on my thesis. I might be reading articles about smart cities, or meeting with my supervisor to get his comments on something that I am writing. (1.5 hours)

11:30 a.m. Meetings. This year I took over a chairperson of the department’s PhD council, which discusses issues relevant to PhD students. We have our monthly meetings at lunch and being the chairperson involves a bit of preparation. I am also part of our unit’s advisory board, which meets three times per term. (2 hours)

1:30 p.m. Course work. Maybe a course seminar for An introduction to science and technology studies, or more reading. (3 hours)

4:30 p.m. Done as much reading as I will do today. I bike home and go for a run.


8 a.m. At work early to work on my thesis. I have been better about getting to work early this fall, especially while I have been working on a literature review. Or maybe I was on the train to Stockholm or Malmö to interview someone at the municipality. (4 hours, including a half hour break for fika)

12 p.m. Lunch

Standing by a copper canister in a tunnel dug in the bedrock1 p.m. Another course seminar or time spent reading for our summer school. Or maybe a study visit to a nuclear waste storage repository. (2.5 hours)

3:30 p.m. Answer emails and clearing up some loose ends. (1 hour)

4:30 p.m. All my emails answered—I’m free!


An easy start to the day. It is Friday, after all.

9 a.m. More to do with teaching. Writing feedback about their participation in seminars, or grading their term papers. I also did a lecture for the master’s students this fall, so I could be putting together some lecture slides. (1.5 hours)

10:30 a.m. I switch from teacher to student and attend a course seminar. (1,5 hours)

12 p.m. Lunch.

1 p.m. Administration. Booking travel for a conference, filling out expense reports, or reporting my hours to the department administration. Good thing I have this spreadsheet! (1 hour)

2 p.m. More reading to do for my courses. I spent an hour reading at work, then bike home and read there for a couple hours. (3 hours total)

5 p.m. It’s the weekend!

And that’s my week (and my year). 2015 looks a bit different so far: not as many courses, less teaching and administration. More focus on my thesis, including doing interviews. More on that in a month or two.


If you prefer numbers, here is some of the same information in statistics:

  • Taking courses: 474 hours, 26%
  • Teaching (including preparation and grading): 267 hours, 15%
  • Other work on my thesis: 201 hours, 11%
  • Preparing for and attending seminars: 158 hours, 9%
  • Lunch: 161 hours, 9%
  • Conferences, including travel: 46 hours, 3%

På vift

Our last course of the term took us travelling. First, two short tips: to a new city district being built beside the university, and to a passive house in a neighbouring town. Three weeks ago, we had a full-day excursion. Starting in Linköping, it took us 150 km southwest and then 40 metres underground. And then another 400 metres further down.

Large van in a parking lotTo start the day, I picked up our rental van and drove to the bus station to pick up my colleagues. We were six students and three teachers, and I got the honour of driving the nine-seat van all the way to Oskarshamn. If it only it was yellow.

Our destination was the site of the Oskarshamn nuclear power plant. However, we didn’t visit any of the reactors. Instead, we got tours of two other facilities: the interim storage facility for Swedish nuclear waste (40 metres underground) and the test facility for final storage of nuclear waste (a series of tunnels down to 450 metres), called the Äspö Hard Rock Laboratory.

The interim storage facility holds all waste produced to date by Sweden’s nuclear power plants. The spent rods, each about 3 metres long, are stored in pools of water that are 12 meters deep and located about 40 metres underground in the bedrock. The water blocks the dangerous radiation so that it is safe to stand beside the pools—which we did on our tour. It’s called an ‘interim’ facility because the waste is to be stored in these pools and cooled down over 30–40 years, before it can be moved to a final storage facility.

The final storage facility doesn’t exist yet in Sweden, and most countries that use nuclear power are also just in the process of deciding what to do with the waste. It’s challenging enough to manage nuclear fuel safely; the ‘final’ storage, however, should store the waste for 100,000 years. That’s how long it takes for the radioactivity to decrease so that it’s not dangerous to humans. The design of the storage facility requires figuring how to design containers that will last 100,000 years, finding stable bedrock where the containers won’t be at risk, and deciding whether to point out the site to future generations or to try to hide it well enough.

The most recent proposal in Sweden, called KBS-3, is the result of decades of work by the nuclear industry and criticism from environmental organizations. The facility will be built in the bedrock at the site of the Forsmark nuclear power plants located north of Stockholm. The test facility in Oskarshamn was built to test the concept and develop the technology needed for the real thing.

Standing by a copper canister in a tunnel dug in the bedrock

For the second part of our study visit, we got on a bus that drove us down through the tunnels to a depth of about 420 metres. That’s where the waste will be stored. It will be pulled up from the storage pools at the interim storage facility in Oskarshamn (after 30–40 years of cooling down), then dried off and encased in copper canisters like the one in the picture. These canisters are almost pure copper and are worth about $200,000 each. The canisters will be welded shut, transported to the final storage facility, placed into the bedrock and surrounded by blocks of clay. Little by little, the tunnels will be filled with clay as well. Once all the nuclear fuel has been buried (some time around 2100), the facility tunnels will be sealed with concrete and backfilled.

But is it safe? The proposal is being reviewed by authorities in Sweden. The idea of filling the tunnels with clay and backfilling the entrance is meant to reduced the risk of anyone ever coming into contact with the waste. But what if something goes wrong? Will the copper canisters last that long? Will future generations accidentally dig up the site when they are searching for a yet-unknown precious substance?

As it is designed now, the facility is meant to hold all the waste that will be produced until the current Swedish nuclear power plants are shut down. There are no plans to build new plants. No new power plants means no more waste, but it would also mean the end of an industry. Will anyone study to become a nuclear engineer in the future if there are no nuclear power plants? How will society maintain its knowledge about nuclear waste—knowledge that might be necessary to deal with a emergency at a waste site? While scientists and engineers might understand the decay of radioactivity over 100,000 years, the long-term effects of nuclear waste in society carry a lot of uncertainty.

‘På  vift’ is a Swedish expression that means ‘on the loose’ or ‘having an adventure’.