STEP AWAY FROM THE PHD: dealing with time off

Hi PhD pals! How are we all today? I thought I’d finish up the week with a little follow up post. So hopefully by now you’ve sat down with your supervisor and had “the chat”. Maybe things are much better now. Maybe you’ve talked out all of your issues with your delightful supervisor and you’re feeling pretty good. On the other hand, the result of “the chat” may be that you have decided that it would be best to take some time away from your PhD. That’s where I am at right now. I have been on medical leave for 6 weeks and my wonderful PhD convener has organised for me to take a suspension of studies for a few months until I get back on my feet. Apparently this suspension can also be backdated to cover the time I have had off so far so in the end I won’t have lots any time at all. Hooray!  However, this leaves me on the edge of a yawning abyss of months of unstructured time . I don’t really do well with weekends, let alone months of free time. Time away from your PhD can be a pretty scary thought so I thought I’d share some of the ways that I’ve learned to cope.

rainy glasgow

(Sometimes it will be rainy and horrible. It’s a metaphor for life y’all.)

It’s OK to wallow. Take a few days to writhe about in despair or numbess or apathy or rage or whatever you happen to be feeling. Recognising the need to take some time off can be a painful process. You might suddenly notice how low you’ve got, you might need a few days to lie in bed and have a good cry. Don’t rush this stage. It took me about a fortnight to stop feeling like a complete failure and start trying to move forwards.

It was the best of times; it was the worst of times. Some days you will wake up feeling on top of the world.  A great weight has been lifted and you can spend your day doing anything you want to do. You might feel like a bit of a fraud because you feel perfectly fine. You will laugh at things on the radio, smile at your significant other, clean the flat and wonder if this is what normal people feel like all of this time. Other days you will have a terrible, horrible, no-good, very-bad day, or week, or month. This is totally normal and eventually the good days will outnumber the bad, but it takes time.

Don’t you…forget about me. Now I’m not entirely convinced that this “go away and heal” model of mental health recovery is the best. If work is part of the problem, surely it should be part of the solution? Your supervisors may recommend that you take some time completely away from your work and your department. I think that losing contact with your department while you are off is likely to make your return more difficult and stressful, but what do I know?  Taking time off doesn’t mean that you should stop seeing your work friends. Maintaining contact with your workmates is important for two reasons. Firstly, you will still feel like a part of the PhD community. Remind everyone of your existence, invite them for coffee, go to their Halloween parties and student hillwalks. It will be much easier for you to go back to work if you still know all of the in jokes and there is no awkwardness. Secondly, by staying in touch, you are rendering mental health issues visible for other students. Don’t hide away until you feel normal again. Let people see you and talk about you and, by extension, their own mental health. Promoting a culture of openness about mental health means having conversations even when it’s awkward and we don’t feel like it.

dukka bread

Keep on running, keep on running! What are you going to do with your time off? Hiding at home and watching endless episodes of Castle is not going to help you feel better (NOTE: it will make you feel a bit better for a little while). Time away from your PhD is time for you to recover and start to cope with real life again. It is not extra time for you to secretly work on your PhD.  Step away from the PhD. Stop reading about it, stop thinking about it, stop obsessively checking your work email (I am totally guilty of this). It’s really hard to take a complete break from something as all consuming and omnipresent as your PhD, but you need the rest. “But what else am I going to do with my time?”, you cry. I hear you. Remember back in the mists of pre-PhD time when you did things for fun, because you enjoyed them? Try doing some of those things. I suddenly remembered earlier this week that I love making bread! So I made a focaccia and some dukka bread. Unfortunately I have the worst cold so I can’t really taste them, but they looked pretty good! I’m learning to fall in love with running again. In May this year, I ran a half marathon and it felt amazing. Look how happy I was!  Now, I can’t believe that I managed it, or that I even had the confidence to try, but I will get there again. Do what ever you have to do to start to enjoy life again. Make a list, catch up with old friends, spend time with your partner or your family and have some fun!


How will you know when you’re feeling better? This is a tricky one because nobody apart from yourself can tell when you are ready to get back to your PhD. You might feel totally rested and refreshed after two weeks. It took we two weeks to be able to get out of bed. It’s taken me 6 weeks to start having some happy feelings again. The real test for me will be  opening that last attachment from my supervisors rubbishing my stupid bloody research questions and deal with their criticisms calmly. Once I can do that, I’m probably ready to start thinking about going back to work. It’s looking like I won’t be back at work until the new year, which is probably sensible. Winter is a difficult time for me.  I hate Christmas. It’s the least wonderful time of the year. It’s a completely and utterly miserable time for so many people, made even worse by the enforced joviality of office parties, festive shopping and TV specials. You will probably have your own recovery landmarks. The decision is yours. Don’t rush it, you have got this time off because you need it.

Well gang, I how you all have a fun and restful weekend and that you manage to get some time off from your PhD.

One response to “STEP AWAY FROM THE PHD: dealing with time off

  1. Great post. I agree with you about it perhaps not being the ideal model, but I so wish that I had been advised to take time off at a low point in my PhD, or to even have been presented with the option to consider it, although I acknowledge that I might have been too embarrassed to take that step at the time. Not taking a few months off then feels like it ended up adding about a year to the whole process overall. Definitely something I’m going to mention to my future PhD students right at the beginning…. The resistance to taking time off at all, whether for a weekend or a term, is such a destructive part of the PGR mindset 😦

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