“No checking emails” we promised ourselves as we boarded the first of our three flights to Thailand. Easier said than done. A PhD will, if you let it, consume your life – I frequently fall victim to this, as though the PhD is sat on my shoulders whispering in my ear that I need to be working. In this situation, the PhD was whispering “But what if something important comes up?” I shamefully made it as far as our first changeover before I logged into my inbox.
Several months ago, my fiancée, Robyn, and I (optimistically) booked a 25-day holiday to Thailand for the Christmas period. Our logic was that she would be at the end of her first term of her PhD, I would have just done my second year upgrade, and most institutions shut down over the Christmas period so we wouldn’t be particularly missed on the other side of the world. The only thing we might need to think about was who would water our desk plants?
The reality was a frantic scramble in the weeks before we left to get any and all loose ends tied up. Robyn had a series of meetings down in Cornwall in the final days and it was looking like my upgrade interview could well be on the day we were due to fly out. Of course, there’s not a lot either of could do about any of this once we were actually out of the country, but that didn’t stop a part of us clinging behind to the PhD we were leaving behind.
From asking around other PhD students (and from browsing PhD comics!), this seems to be a common problem – we just can’t seem to step away from our love-hate relationship with our research. Some people couldn’t believe that we were willing to put the whole thing on hold for nearly a month, while others were simply envious and congratulatory that we had chosen to take the time away.
Those of you who read this blog regularly will have already seen the diverse nature of what I get up to, lots of it dependent on when is most convenient for the work I want to do and the people I want to work with, or else involving a last minute change of plans that means I suddenly abandon my weekend to travel across the country or even abroad for conferences, workshops and research visits. It means that at the start of a week my reading, note-taking and writing-up could take place on trains, planes, and buses, while in the middle of the week I might be blessed with a standard 9-5 working schedule, but by the end I am doing unpleasant overnight stints.
It becomes a job that could take up any and every hour of your day and what this inevitably results in, is that switching off from one’s PhD is near impossible, as you never know when (or where!) you might end up working, especially if an unexpected opportunity arises. It’s this tumultuous nature of the profession that actually appeals most to me as it keeps me constantly challenged. It’s probably also the reason I, like the others I study with, feel like they need to be working more than can reasonably be expected!
I am not arguing that this is by any means a healthy way to live and work – simply that this is the way it seems to be. I frequently encounter articles and blog posts warning of the mental health issues linked with academia, the breakdowns people have, and even the dangerous physical effects this lifestyle can have on your body. Alongside this, there’s the impact a PhD might have on your personal relationships or your prospects for doing certain things in the future. I recently read a post arguing why getting married and sustaining an academic career are simply not compatible – a bleak outlook in which one is expected to remain alone if they want to reach the top of their field. I don’t intend to delve into any of this here (but I have done here!); I just wanted to highlight the sheer wealth of negative effects a PhD, or any stressful job for that matter, could have.
The main problem with a PhD, I think, is that you are, to a large extent, ungoverned. You’re expected to arrange your own schedule, set your own deadlines (mostly), and generally the only person you have to blame if the work doesn’t get done is yourself.
This of course creates the paradox that you end up convinced that you have no time to take a holiday, and when you do take one, you worry about the time you’re losing by trying to destress. Exeter University regulations stipulate that each student is entitled to a very generous 8 weeks of holiday a year. When, where and how you take this is entirely up to you. There is no timesheet to fill in, no permission for time off work to request – you can simply book a three week jaunt over to Thailand completely at your own will.
Why is that a problem? I hear you ask.
Because if you have an entire department of students and staff working on these sorts of schedules, plus you’re interacting with public institutions (e.g. museums) who do work on a fixed rota, inevitably a lot of clashes and difficulties are going to occur, leading to the situation in which there is never a good time to go on holiday. Which might be a key reason so few PhD students seem to take any time off.
In the end, it took us about a week to finally stop listening to that nagging voice telling us to worry about things that we could do nothing about and actually relax into our holiday. And, inevitably, when we returned our research was still in the same dishevelled state we’d left it in, our inboxes had not imploded under the weight of unanswered mail, and those desks plants that hadn’t been watered were thriving better than if they had been watered regularly. Essentially, the world was still spinning.
Embarking on a trip away and leaving the PhD behind was surprisingly difficult, but incredibly liberating. And when I finally did sit down in front of my laptop again after nearly a month away, I was pleasantly surprised to find that typing an email felt foreign – apparently my fingers can exist without a laptop at the end of them! Taking a holiday from your PhD shouldn’t be something to be congratulated, it should be a requirement. As with anything, it’s necessary to sometimes step away from your work. The realisation that I can step back and everything won’t fall apart is an extremely gratifying one.
Sometimes that PhD on your shoulders insisting that you need to work is wrong, and that’s something I intend to remember for as long as I can!