It’s Monday, and I owe you a blog post.
Alas, it has been a rollercoaster for the last ten days and my emotions are simmering at interesting levels (either boil or off). It makes concentration rather difficult. In an effort to take some time, I ran off to a campground for a couple of days and managed to exhaust myself so much I’m still barely able to stay awake and I’ve been back for 24 hours (and slept for 9). Sometimes ‘getting away’ doesn’t always have the affect you hoped.
But I need to write something, and what better to write about (instead of the post on methodologies) than what to do when Real Life interferes with your PhD.
First, it’s okay to stop. Stop whatever you are doing and access the situation. Is the interruption something that will be a few days long? Or is it something that might seriously undermine the next year or more of your PhD? (Sick parent, pregnancy, severe illness, etc). How long the interruption will be has a big effect on how you should deal with that interruption.
I know people who seem – for some reason beyond comprehension – to believe that if they do not work every single weekday of their PhD life they are doing it wrong. I think we’ve had a lengthy conversation about work schedules already (see here and here), so please believe me when I say that if Real Life interferes for a week or two, just let it. Go deal with your RL issue and then get back to your PhD when you’re in the right frame of mind. A couple of weeks are not going to break you (or your thesis). And if it happens right before a deadline, immediately have a conversation with the people who set the deadline about changing it/moving it. Everyone in academia understands that there can be things that will interrupt research, but unless you are open about it, people are going to assume everything is fine.
If the break needs to be longer (for instance, if you were diagnosed with an illness that needed treatment or surgery), then be very upfront about this with your advisors. Talk to people. Tell them what is happening, what the expected outcome is, how long it might last. It is probably best to take either sick leave (if that’s an option for you) or a sabbatical (which will be an option if you’ve never taken one before). If you are a foreign student in a country, then you need to think about visa issues. Likely, you’ll have to return home because many countries don’t want you to stay if you aren’t a full-time current student, and sabbaticals mean you aren’t technically a student – but taking a break from being a student. Keep this in mind, but if this is the only reason you can’t take a sabbatical, you probably need to access how much time you are going to be away from your PhD. A couple of weeks is fine, a couple of months is going to be problematic. But don’t let that stop you taking the time. For whatever reason you need it.
I know people who have had to take time away, and they worry about ‘getting back to it’. If you are passionate enough to want to do a PhD, you’ll find that passion again, even after a time away. And, in fact, time away may actually help. As I’ve said, I took a short sabbatical from my own work, and it’s the only reason I was able to come back and finish the thesis. I needed that break for mental health reasons.
But whatever part of RL that interferes with your PhD, it’s all right. It happens. You aren’t a failure. You aren’t bad at this. You aren’t a sorry excuse for a PhD student. RL happens. We like to think it doesn’t, because we like to think that academia is RL for us, but being a student puts you slightly outside of the norm, and things do interfere with being a student in a different way than they would if – for instance – you were full-time employed as a professor. Then you can take grievance absences, sick days, sabbaticals, and it’s sanctioned. As PhDs, you fall somewhere outside this spectrum, and you have to realise that although that doesn’t mean you aren’t entitled to the same sort of thing, you might have to come about it in a different way (take a break from your PhD, instead of a sabbatical, for example).
But a sick mother, or an illness of your own, or the death of a loved one back home are the most important thing. The PhD should come second when these things happen. Just like work would come second.
I am reminding myself of this because I have done absolutely no work in the last 10 days. And that’s okay. I feel guilty because it’s a default reaction, not because I actually should feel bad. I shouldn’t. I’m taking the time I need to and I’ll get back to work as soon as possible.