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A PhD Student’s Tips for Actually Enjoying the Holidays


A PhD is demanding and time-consuming, whatever subject you’re in – and that's even more true right now. So what do you do when the holiday season comes around? Wherever you are and whoeever you're with, how much of a break can you take? Sofia shares some advice for PhD students looking to get away from their research for a bit during the festive period.


No work during spring break. No work for three months in the summer. No work over Christmas?

For many students, the PhD is probably our first contact with a normal full-time working environment, including the right (and requirement) to take holidays. In some cases, this can even mean entitlement to 4 to 5 weeks of leave per year, covered by your studentship. Awesome! In a normal year, you'd get to travel and visit friends worry free. Hopefully you'll still get to go home and gain five pounds by eating all of grandma's pies.

Things might not be quite back to normal in 2021, but still. . . it's a chance to rake a break, right?

. . .if only you didn’t have that grant submission deadline approaching. . . or that pile of books and journal articles you just checked out for your literature review. . .

And here is where the trouble starts. What happens when you dream of resting by the fireside, sharing a coffee with friends and family (over Zoom if necessary) and at the same time you have nightmares about the experiments, reading or draft chapters you’ve left behind at university?

Trust me, I’ve been there.

My PhD Christmas

I come from Greece and I am doing my PhD in Medical Science in Austria. This means that, even if it only takes 2.5 hours by plane to travel between the two countries, I do live abroad. The fact that I currently live away from home means that, when I can, I use my holidays to visit my family. And since it’s not that convenient or good ‘value for money’ to travel for just 4-5 days, I usually plan to take longer holidays, like for 2-3 weeks.

As a result, I have had to deal with the result of leaving my daily lab routine behind, without proper planning, suffering from guilt and anxiety throughout my holidays and finally coming back and having to deal with a chaos of tasks and responsibilities. It happened once. I didn’t let it happen twice.

So let’s see if some of my tips can save you the trouble (and maybe you can have some extra drinks during your holidays with cheers to me!)

Tip #1 Do what has to be done

Some PhD tasks cannot be postponed – particularly if, like me, you’re working in a lab environment. So, before you leave make sure that you have concluded all the experiments you need to. For example, use the cells that you need out of your cell culture, freeze some vials for future use and get rid of the rest. Or else, if you work let’s say with mouse models, make sure that no handling or harvesting is left for later and may interfere with your days of absence. Last but not least, be a considerate lab-mate and don’t leave anything pending that will cause trouble to your colleagues. For example, refill half empty buffers or re-order antibodies that they may need to use while you are away.

Timings may not be quite as strict if you’re working in a non-lab environment, but it’s still important to find a sensible stopping point. Finish that article you’re reading or that text you’re critiquing. And don’t check out every book in the library in the hope of somehow doing three times as much reading as you would during term time (you’ll only stress about it and deny other students access to those resources).

The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic might make all of this a little trickier, so it's even more important to try and plan ahead for that clean break.

Tip #2 Organize your next steps in advance

This applies to you especially if you are a person that gets easily anxious or distracted. In this case it will be really valuable for you to set up a schedule in advance for the first days after you get back from your holiday.

If, for instance, you know that three weeks after you are back you have to present a progress report to your thesis committee and you are missing two experiments to conclude your statistics, then you have to make sure that there will be time enough to successfully perform them. Have your protocols prepared, order the materials you will need and, if possible, book out any core facility instruments for a specific date. Since people will continue working in your absence you don’t want to struggle for a spot at the last moment.

Even if you don’t have any pending deadlines, it’s comforting to know what your next step after the holidays will be and that you’re prepared for it. Put together a list of the articles you plan to read when you return, or determine which paper you’re going to be working on next.

Tip #3 Stay in contact, but not too much

Some people manage to totally disconnect themselves from work during the holidays. For me, as a person that always needs to be in control of everything that’s going on, this has always been much harder.

I’ve found out that in my case there is kind of a golden balance. And here’s how it goes.

I absolutely ‘unplug’ my scientific brain for 1/3 of my holidays. During the remaining 2/3 of the days I check and reply to my emails every second day. I also try to look through one or two papers that I really fancy reading during that time, but no more.

Additionally, I have found it very helpful to prepare a small PowerPoint presentation for myself with everything I have accomplished so far and with my short-term next steps. Whenever I find myself in front of a computer for some time during the day, I take ten minutes away from Instagram and Facebook and use them to add 1-2 slides in my presentation. I see this as a game. Since it is really informal I can comment on my results and my progress in any way I want. It’s kind of fun and it keeps you on track with where your project is so far and what is coming up next.

Tip #4 Have fun – you deserve it

Resting, relaxing and letting go are really essential for keeping up with the good work. A PhD is a long, frustrating and sometimes lonely process. But you know what? You are doing it because YOU CAN. And not everyone can. You are a specialist in your field, able to meet very high expectations. Hence, there is no reason for guilt or disappointment when you leave your everyday routine for a while.

And don’t let anyone, even yourself, tell you otherwise. You have a right and a human need to step back for a while. Sleep longer, see your friends when and how you can, exchange gifts, drink a bit more, eat ‘unhealthy’ and refill your batteries. After your holidays things will go back to normal and perhaps be even better than before.

So give yourself a gift this Christmas: you are an AMAZING researcher and you deserve a break (especially this year).




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Last Updated: 23 December 2021