I think, given my mental state, that this is a perfect time to blog about holidays.
To put this into perspective, I feel like I got off a transatlantic flight two days ago. I haven’t been on a plane in a month, though, so this is entirely the expected outcome of working 70 hours in 10 days without a break. Yesterday was my first ‘day off’, but I didn’t exactly ‘take it off’, because we were ordered not to come into work. Today I was in for four hours, felt like I was slogging through waist deep mud, and finally packed it in as a lost cause. There is no point doing work when you’re not up to snuff. It’ll either take you four times longer, or you’ll have to redo it.
So we get on to the topic of holidays and the PhD. There will come a point when you need a break. It may be after three years, it may be after three months. Everyone is different. If you need to take more breaks than the next person, don’t apologize for that. Every department should give you the number of days (non-national holidays) that you are allowed to take off while still doing your PhD. My department only limited the number in my third year, at which point I’d already taken off more days than was strictly suggested. You are, after all, there to do a PhD.
But sometimes, you need to take holidays. Consider them mental holidays, or sanity days, or whatever, but you need them. You are going to put yourself through considerable hell doing your PhD, even at the best of times, and your body, brain and emotions are going to suffer for it. So take a break.
When to take a break is usually the biggest issue. You might know you need one, but maybe you have field work coming up and you can’t fit in a few days off in the middle of them. Maybe you have a chapter due, and you really have to finish that first. My best advice is to take the holiday before you well and truly need it. It’ll be of more use to you that way, then waiting until you are so overworked and tired that your holiday will not be long enough to recover.
You don’t have to go away for three months. You don’t even have to go away, but if you have a hard time turning off and stopping yourself from working if you’re ‘at home’ then go. Even if that’s just to the next city. Get away from your office/department/house and take the time. Distance yourself. Try not to feel guilty about doing so.
Sometimes people need to take a sabbatical in the middle of their PhD. That’s okay to, though if you’re an international student on a visa, it does create problems. Talk to your university/supervisor/border control first, before you just decide to head off for a few months. If you can take a sabbatical, and your advisor agrees it’s a good idea, then do it. Distance yourself, do other things, give yourself time to well and truly contemplate life, the universe, and everything.
If you can only take holidays, though, but feel you need the ‘sabbatical’ idea, then save up your holidays and go all at once. Get as far away as you can afford to, for as long as you can go. I’d recommend not going home. Home creates it’s own demands and issues and people asking you ‘how’s it going?’ like that isn’t the most hateful question in the world. Try to go away where you will actually be alone (or with people you like and who understand).
Or you can do what I did. I went walkabout for 5 weeks in my second year. Literally. I needed a break, and I was desperately in need of some distance, and more than anything I was seriously considering quitting the PhD. I needed to take the time to sort out a lot of things in my head, and understand where I stood, without feeling like I needed to just get on with the PhD. The point was that I wasn’t sure I wanted to get on with the PhD.
I went walkabout. For five weeks. For 650km. With only a rucksack of a few items on my back, and just enough money to stay in the very cheapest places, eating the cheapest food, I set out to walk the Camino, from France, across northern Spain, to Santiago. And it was fantastic. I mean, I spent nearly 3 weeks in agony most of the time, and I was always cold or too hot, and I never got enough sleep, and I ate the same thing nearly every day. But it was the best thing I could have done. I was too tired to think about my PhD. I was too tired to worry. I could only focus on putting one foot in front of another, when to eat, how to get warm, and whether I had enough energy to wash my socks. It’s the little things in life. It’s what I needed. I needed to get away from everything, and walking across a country was the best way to do that.
I’m not suggesting you do that. That might be the worst idea ever for you. But it worked for me. I learned a lot somewhere on a trail in northern Spain, but the thing I learned the best, and the one that was most important, was that the PhD would not break me no matter how hard it got. And knowing that? Makes a huge difference.