The PhD ‘Vacation’

Sometimes being a PhD student in world of workers and ‘shirkers’ can be tough at the best of times. With or without funding, an extortionate amount of money is paid for you to ‘attend university’ where you juggle the many demands of conferences, networking, research, writing your thesis, side projects, paperwork, organization, and teaching undergraduates. This would form a massive job for anybody, but under the title of ‘student’ it can be pretty hard given the stigma of being a student. I have been refused rental accommodation, received many casual comments questioning what is I do all day (the common thought is nothing), and been told that I have it easy only having 30 weeks of term time and thus getting to spend the rest of the year ‘on holiday’. The student stigma isn’t just outside of the world of academia – as a PG tutor in my department I am not included in meetings and am kept out of the loop of staff requirements and updates, making my job harder and seemingly little recognized. Whilst I’m sure that none of these are done on purpose (with the exception of my estate agent experiences!) and I know that some are even done in jest, it still makes being a PhD student a pretty hard experience. Especially when many people don’t seem to understand that the end of term time isn’t the end of work. Far from it.

In fact, for researchers of all levels, the vacation period from university often signifies a period of much more intense research and work – despite popular opinions. I would even say that this is expected of researchers, thus creating the ‘researcher’s holiday’ paradox. On the one hand, academics, researchers, and especially PhD students are viewed as shirkers with massive time periods of holiday; on the other, it is expected that this time will be spent deep into research and writing. Given the demands of teaching, paperwork, conferences, the vacation period is often one of the only times a researcher can actually get stuck in to the three Rs of reading, writing, and revising their own work. As a PhD researcher this work is especially important in order to establish a name for yourself, get to grips with academia, and get publications in order to be able to progress in the world of university research. And all this against an impending deadline of ‘the day the funding ends’ (!!!). But I think we need a new image of the researcher’s holiday. Far from the image of an academic looking in a dusty library for long hours at a time, or the social perception of a researcher lounging around in sunny climates, we need a balanced image of the researcher’s holiday which combines R&R with the three Rs. Afterall, a good rest helps you do your best work. And the image of the academic with no life outside of their books/archives/etc. is should be outdated and unhealthy.

As a determined, but very anxious PhD researcher, I find this combination particularly difficult to achieve. I’m on vacation from university now, and am enthused about my work and want to get on with my own three Rs. So much so that every moment I am now working on this, I’m in a mild state of panic / concern over the very fact that I’m not working. I cling to my puzzle book in the evenings to keep my mind busy so I don’t find myself wondering off to my office to ‘just check something’ or ‘just make one change’. Facing impending deadlines and a conference I’m currently organizing, it seems like I can constantly feel my heart beating away the seconds of my research vacation, for which I had such high hopes of working success. At the same time, working flat out during term time has left me exhausted and my inability to properly stop isn’t helping this. Objectively, I realize that this tiredness is probably from anxiety itself, and that I should take time off, remember that I have done ‘enough work’ (whatever that means), and then get back into the grain with renewed vigor. In reality, this seems more difficult. I worry that stopping means I won’t be able to get started again, that I’m not doing ‘enough’, that I won’t finished in time, or at all. Stopping is hard. But I’m going to give it a go. I have a long weekend seeing friends ahead, and I’m going to try and step away from my thesis – that shadow that follows me around – and have a good time. I’ll let you know how it goes.

How do you find your ‘vacations’? What methods do you use to stop and wind down?

One thought on “The PhD ‘Vacation’

  1. I’ve read this several months ago but feel that I can finally say something, particularly now that I’ve been back from a ‘proper’ holiday from PhD research, which involved being physically out of the country and away from my desk in the library. I think the agony and guilt of taking the holiday will soon subside once we’ve become more comfortable with our abilities and the knowledge that we’ve achieved ‘enough’ for the time being before going on that holiday. This was essentially what I did. I ensured that the entire thesis draft was submitted to the research committee and that I had about a week to wind down and re-discover that I had a life beyond the PhD. Then I started doing other meaningful non-PhD things before leaving; writing articles for websites and book reviews – in one week! The brain was still ticking fast and the thoughts had to go somewhere!

    It was important to tell myself and others that I was holiday and that I DESERVED it. Because on my return, I felt truly rejuvenated and ready to face another academic and hopefully very final year as a student 🙂

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