The Power of a Post-Vacation Glow

            Many people believe that getting a PhD is like an extension of the college experience: you take classes with people that have similar interests as you, you live on or near a college campus, and you still eat microwaved ramen for dinner. While all of these things are true, there are important differences between undergrad and PhD student life that, left unnoticed, could be harmful to your chances of success or even your mental health. One of these is the need to schedule your own time off from the academic grind.

            As an undergraduate, colleges or universities will schedule time off for you: along with several holidays, you typically get at least one long break in the fall, spring, and summer where classes are not in session. And while many students take on additional courses, jobs, or internships during these longer breaks, they are still often seen as opportunities for students to step away from their usual coursework. As a PhD student, you unfortunately don’t get these same pre-determined breaks. In this way, a PhD is a lot like that typical 9 to 5 job: you are expected to work on your thesis year-round and, outside of holidays, it is up to you to discuss with your advisor when you get time off. For the often overly-ambitious and probably overly-anxious PhD student like me, this set-up could quickly turn into a situation without any real vacation time at all before you even realize it. However, this past month, I took a much-needed long break away from my PhD to travel to Europe on my honeymoon, and I returned with a new appreciation for the benefits of feeling that post-vacation glow.

More energy and motivation

On average, it takes 4-6 years to earn a PhD; in my program, it takes most people at least five. This is a long time to dedicate to one research topic! So, like in many other jobs, it can be very easy to experience burnout as a PhD student, especially once you’ve reached your third or fourth year as I have. In coming back from my long break, however, I was surprised to see how eager I was to return to my thesis project. While I greatly appreciated being able to sight-see and relax on vacation, by the end of it I felt that my brain was ready to be stimulated again with new, complex problems to solve. My mind also felt much more rested physically – the lack of any pressing deadlines meant that I could get a full-night’s sleep every night. As a result, I came back to the lab feeling energized to complete the tasks that I now also had much more motivation to tackle.

A boost of happiness

Although a PhD student’s work schedule varies depending on many factors such as their personal preferences, advisor(s), and home institution, it is pretty universal that a PhD requires many hours of work per week. In my experience in biology, students work at least 40 hours per week and the hours fluctuate a lot depending on the status of their experiments. An unfortunate consequence of this is that personal relationships can suffer. In my home, my partner also has a demanding full-time job, so sometimes it feels like we end up spending little time together in a seven-day work week, despite the fact that we live together. Our vacation, however, was a time for the two of us to spend our undivided attention on each other and make our bond stronger. In addition, all the hilarious stories we collected during our travels were really fun to share with my labmates when I got back to work, so that helped me bond with them too and made me all the more happier to be in the lab again.

Closing thoughts

While it may seem obvious that taking time off from work is beneficial, many PhD students go too long without a break, worrying that it will negatively impact their productivity or cause them to fall behind. In reality, however, I have found that taking a long vacation has helped me feel refreshed and happy to continue my thesis work. The science seems to support the physical and psychological benefits of vacation time too: people who took vacations more frequently were less likely to have severe complications from heart disease or develop depression than those who vacationed infrequently. In the future, I won’t wait for a big life event like my honeymoon to take a break from all the hard work and rigor to instead spend quality time with my partner or friends, and I hope you won’t either.