All humans need to rest, including PhD students. Why is it so hard to take a break?

A while ago, we asked Research Exchange visitors and Twitter followers to share their favourite ways of relaxing after hard PhD work. We had great responses, varying from travelling, playing computer games, watching Netflix, baking, enjoying various food and drink (but hitting the gym, too) and quality time with your favourite people (and pets, of course). It seems that we all know how to relax, but why do we then overwork so often?

Joining in the race?

The very beginning of PhD is stressful for many reasons, it is in particular hard to adapt to a less structured and self-managed pace of work. Coming straight from taught courses or a 9-5 job, it is easy to feel unsure about the amount of work you should be doing and expectations your supervisor and department have. Establishing working routine and hours might also be tricky if you are not lab or office based. Once the the PhD comes home, you could find yourself either doing next to nothing or attempting unfeasible amounts of work (of course, many people successfully do their PhDs from home, too). Asking your colleagues isn’t always helpful considering that everyone works differently and, even more importantly, we all have ego. Admitting you’re working less might make you paper lazy, and working more, you might come across as incompetent, right?

Overworking is counterproductive

Nonsense! We all work at different paces, no two of us or our PhD project are the same. There are time when we need to work harder, when we signed up for too many things or poorly managed your time, but that’s the case with many other jobs, too. Final stages of PhD might be especially tough, but this is also due to being focused on a single task for such a long time, not to mention the looming post-PhD uncertainty. However, I still believe that overworking at any stage is counterproductive. Apart from physical from exhaustion, it exhausts your mind and spirit too. PhD guidebooks agree that constant overworking is a sign that something needs to change in your PhD life. This goes without mentioning, not taking break and of-time will affect your health negatively and, as hard as a PhD is, I’m sure it is much harder to do it when your body isn’t playing along.

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Image credits: Falk Lademann / CC BY 2.0

Space for thinking, fun and support

Research is about solving problems and finding answers. Inevitably, this means dealing with the problems and, often, feeling like you’ve come to a dead end. Focusing all your energy and wake hours to overcome a single obstacle might not be the effective solution. Taking a few steps back can give us a better overview of the entire project and, I’ll have to agree with Tom here, sometimes the best thing you can do about your PhD is not to do it for a while. After a break, especially a longer one, our brain is refreshed too, and we will be more likely to find new answers (or notice a ridiculous mistake in that chart we’ve been working on the entire week).

It is so absurd and sad that we feel guilty in PhD-free moments. Humans need to play and have fun. Finding a hobby and activity you enjoy can fulfill this need when your PhD becomes more about coping than expressing, and help you live a healthy PhD life. It is great to do both things you terrible at and allow yourself to fail, but also something you can ace. Succeeding at a different area of life is fantastic, especially in the days when your PhD has hiccups, as it builds your self-confidence and prevents you from taking your PhD too personally. Of course, the social aspect is invaluable too. Building networks of support, not just those that can help you academically, but also those that nurture the non-PhD you.

Putting things into perspective

Talking to people whose everyday vocabulary doesn’t include words like dissertation, article, variables and study participants is a blessing I am as much grateful for, as for the company and compassion of those who use the dreaded words in every other sentence.

Recently (and on a day off) I’ve overheard a little girl say “The hill is broken!”, after several failed attempts to role down the slope like her bother. I found it very funny at the time but, reflecting on it now, she wasn’t completely off track. Sometimes it IS the (PhD?) hill, and not you. People and activities unrelated to academia help us remember there is a whole world out there, a world where out PhD is basically, as someone in my Twitterfeed recently wrote, a long essay with an exam in the end.

So take your diary/open your app, and schedule something you enjoy! Pen, not pencil, please. It’s ok, PhD will be there when you come back, I promise. 😉

Ana Kedveš  (@anakedves)

p.s. If you happen have tree house (or know where to find one close to campus), I expect an invitation in the comments section.