“So, do you get time off doing a PhD? Or is it, like, all the time?”
We were at a party, right before Christmas. There was a weekend of intensive partying in the last heady weeks, and I was feeling like I’d reached the final miles of a marathon and desperately wanted to see the finish line.
There is a running metaphor for everything in life, I swear.
It was a weird question, and it took a minute to answer. Usually, people assume if you’re doing a PhD that you’re a student, living according to the semester rules. Strangers to the academic system think you must be getting all those long summer breaks and chilling out with all that great vacation time.
A PhD, not so much.
I wasn’t sure how to answer, because a PhD does feel like all the time. The boundaries between what’s obviously work (writing, researching, reading) and what’s not (thinking about what you might write, exploring ideas, figuring things out while you’re doing something else) are so vague.
Somebody came to my rescue that week with a tweet giving the official guidelines from my funding body. The AHRC recommends that PhD students take around 40 days off per year. Sounds like a lot, doesn’t it? That includes times when the university is officially closed (over Christmas and Easter), state holidays, bank holidays, and then 28 days of vacation time.
Taking time off is essential, but hard. By the end of last semester, I was shattered. I could barely concentrate. Symptoms of cPTSD were worsening, which happens when I’m tired. The strike action, and the building stress of the fight behind it, all contributed to feeling run down and rather broken.
On top of that, academic culture has a toxic attitude to rest. It can feel like we’re in a competition to prove who’s worked the hardest, who’s doing too much, because there’s so much to do. Taking time off, taking care of yourself, feels like gross indulgence when you could be reading. Only some activities count as acceptable in rest time. If I say I spent two weeks reading fiction and playing Horizon: Zero Dawn, people look shocked.
But that’s what I did. And it was the best thing I could have done for myself. It’s given me an insight into how damaging it can be if you’re working all the time, and taught me a few new lessons about self-care in the difficult final nine months of a PhD.
If you’re going to take a break, it really has to be a break.
I had allowed PhD-related activities to bleed heavily into my relaxation time. I read Classics-related books, a lot of non-fiction. While I thought I was relaxing, what I was doing was working when I was resting. My mind never got the chance to step away. We even took holidays that were heavily Classics-based. Last year we went to Rome and Hadrian’s Wall in our holidays. Rome is amazing, don’t get me wrong, but it’s not a break if you’re studying the statues and thinking about fitting them into your thesis somewhere.
Do pointless things.
We don’t live in a culture that espouses the value of doing things just because. Everything feels like it has to have a purpose. For a while, I did a weekly goals post on r/PhD. I added a section about what activities I’d do to take a break, and I noticed in myself and the people who replied, a tendency to do things that, while great fun, were always achievement focused. I run, I write fiction. All of those come with their own goals. Over the break, I reduced the amount I ran and stepped away from big personal bests. It was about maintenance and pleasure. We ran to a pub for a meal, caught the tram home.
Laziness is worse than pointlessness. My partner, who has the same worries as me when it comes to relaxing, mentioned that he felt we were being lazy. We slept in until past 10am, we chilled out on the sofa. He bought a VR headset and I played Horizon: Zero Dawn. We still did the washing up and cooked, because these things have to be done. It struck me as interesting that we thought of this in such a negative light, that to give our bodies and minds time to heal was somehow wrong.
Come back gently.
Jo VanEvery, who runs tri-weekly writing sessions for academics, is the expert on this. While I was working on my Masters thesis, one of the early January sessions involved spending time just taking stock. Where are we now, what needs to be done next? January feels like leaping into deep, freezing water. It’s a shock to the system. I did come in early, but today is all about figuring out where I am, and what needs to be done next.
The view from here…
I have nine months left before my funding runs out. I have four analysis chapters, and my panel think I can produce a full draft by my summer review. It’s tempting to work all that time. To put off rest until those nine months are up. Having struggled through the last semester to the point where I had to take a complete break, this time I am making a commitment to rest, that this will be done, but it will be done without losing my mind. I’d like to enjoy this bit, because I have loved doing this work, and it is one of the greatest opportunities any person can get. It is magic, after all.