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PhD Life

Taking a break from your PhD.

Taking a break from your PhD can be unfamiliar and difficult. Sometimes we need a break to be imposed on us. But when we get some breathing room, what should we do with it?

Taking a break from your PhD sounds relatively simple but it can actually be a difficult thing to implement during your PhD. From a rationale perspective, most people understand the importance of taking a break. Of course, stopping what you’re doing, resting and clearing your mind are necessary to help avoid burnout. Burnout is so common amongst PhD students it’s concerning. If burnout is something you struggle with, this post might be worth flicking through.

Whilst completing your PhD there are often very few natural breaks or ‘pauses’ that force you to detach from your PhD. Typically, you get highs and lows throughout your PhD as work comes at different intensities over time. However, it’s quite easy to fall into the trap of over-working when things get busy due to poor time management or making use of the free time when things are quiet and over-working regardless. This cycle is indicative for PhD students and unfortunately, it’s not the best approach to take.

Therefore, taking a break from your PhD usually comes in the form of natural holiday periods – when your university or institution is closed or when your body gives out and you have no choice but to take a break. When this happens, it can actually feel quite alien or confusing as we don’t actually know how to stop. Taking a break from your PhD can be an uncomfortable experience if it’s not familiar. Ideally, you want to implement your own natural breaks over the course of your PhD as to help avoid burnout. When this isn’t possible, you might be gifted a breather from your PhD against your will.  

Having a break is a gift.

First and foremost, it’s important to emphasise that taking a break from your PhD is essential to be able to complete it well. It sounds really counter intuitive but putting things down and stepping back and allowing you to mentally and physically recover actually enables you to re-align your values, see the bigger picture, and motivate you to do even better than before. But the age-old question is, “what should I do in my free time?”, or “how do I make the most of this break?”.

Here, the main thing to do is allow yourself to do nothing. It’s difficult to stress how important this is. Doing nothing, literally nothing, is the perfect way to lower your stress levels, release some pent-up anxiety and maybe even think about what is and isn’t working in your PhD. Let boredom in as it often provides space for your mind and thoughts to wonder and allow you to re-focus your priorities. The only time this gets difficult is if imposter syndrome is pretty intense. During the holidays or when you’re taking a break from your PhD there’s a tendency to think that everyone else is working or doing more than you. Firstly, they most likely aren’t – everyone wants to pretend they’re busy or publishing a paper over the holidays, but it simply isn’t true. It’s often a façade. In the rare instances where people are actually doing this for some insane reason – they’re more likely to produce a piece of work that is below their standard whilst also neglecting themselves or their loved ones in the meantime. Taking a break from your PhD, whether it’s imposed or not, is a great time for you to reconnect and engage with your loved ones. Spending time to write a paper, do some analysis, read a few publications over the break actually takes you away from your loved ones. It’s common for PhD students to work on Christmas day, public holidays or other key events in the year. Of course, sometimes your friends and family don’t really understand the nature of your PhD – but it’s important that you meet them halfway and invest time in them too. Ultimately, they’ll be here long after your PhD and will most definitely be integral to you completing your PhD successfully. When things go wrong, if you have difficulty managing your supervisor, or you are stressing about finding a job in the future – they’ll be your support system that you can lean on. Do not waste these precious moments to do extra unnecessary work on your PhD.

Another way to make the most of a break during your PhD is to put things into perspective. If you take a break, will your PhD go anywhere? Honestly, no. You can pick it up and dive straight back in when you’re back. It’s been outlined in other posts that taking 7 or even 14 days out from your PhD where you do nothing won’t have a significant impact in any way shape or form in the long run. A 3-year PhD consists of 1,095 days – taking 7 days out is less than 1% of the duration of your PhD. If your PhD is longer, then 7 days will be even more insignificant than that. Rather than stressing about your PhD, take full advantage of the break and use the time to look after yourself, invest in your friends and family, or whatever else you want to focus on. Your PhD is an extension of who you are as a person, you are likely to have multiple interests and passions, indulge in these for a short while too.

If you need permission from someone or something to take a break – here’s your sign. This post gives you permission. Let it reassure you that taking a break from your PhD won’t matter in the long run. PhD’s are a marathon. Marathon runners do not run every waking day of the year. They rest, they refuel, and they re-charge. Remind yourself that when you’re taking a break from your PhD, you too need to rest and re-charge. Afterall, you’re in the top 1.1% of the entire global population who has a PhD. If anyone is more capable of completing it, it’s you. Taking a break won’t stop you.

Rest well – you deserve it.


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