Getting back into ‘the zone’ after a break from PhD-ing

It can be so tough to get back into PhD work after time away. A few weeks ago I wrote about my reluctance to take any time off when ill, for this very reason. I eventually learned the hard way that sometimes a break is necessary – there are no shortcuts in this department!I was also hesitant to take time off when I got the flu because I knew I had a family holiday coming up. Although this trip to the isle of Harris was also useful for my studies, it did mean that I eventually spent over two weeks away from desk-based tasks.

Since it’s summer, I suspect there are more than a few PhD researchers out there who have been battling (or anticipate the battle) to hit the ground running when they return to their desk after a holiday or time spent looking after the kids. With not one, but two supervisors to meet the following week, I wanted to get a lot done during my first few days back.


Caffeine & Sugar are key components of any ‘back to work’ plan!

How did I get on? Well, the answer is … mixed. On the one hand, I was brimming with enthusiasm – there were lots of thoughts and ideas sparked during my trip to Harris & Lewis, and I tried to note as many of them down as possible at the time. I always find it inspiring to get out and about. No matter where I travel in Scotland, I try to speak to local residents: the people working in tourism hotspots like cafes, book shops, and heritage centres. I also watch how tourists behave, and try to engage them in casual conversation where possible. By doing this, I’ve learnt a lot about people’s perceptions of Scottish heritage and tourism, and it provides me with some insight into tourist experiences which aren’t always made apparent in books or research papers. This has been enormously useful in helping me to frame my research and focus in on key themes.

land protest

The memorials & heritage sites on Lewis provided me with lots of food for thought when I returned to my desk

So I was motivated and very happy to be back to an established routine. I tried to capitalise on this with a ‘to do’ list of essential tasks (finally finish transcribing the interviews I’ve carried out, type up notes from reading, reply to emails, prepare for meetings with supervisors). I even set myself deadlines to complete each task and had my Pomodoro timer ready!

Oh how I underestimated the time it takes to complete routine administrative tasks! I foolishly hadn’t set up an ‘out of office’ email before I left, and had more to reply to than I’d anticipated. Typing up notes from my reading also took much longer than I’d planned. Then there were all of the other little things that added up over the week. I realised I had to return a book to the library which I hadn’t yet managed to finish. There were all sorts of minor administrative tasks left over from the week I was ill. I hadn’t seen my PhD office-mate since June and we needed a serious catch up (the joys and benefits of PhD camaraderie will be the topic of numerous future posts!).

And that’s before even mentioning transcribing. I conducted 20 interviews on Tiree during my fieldwork and I find it genuinely enjoyable to revisit these conversations. It’s incredibly satisfying to recognise different themes emerging which I know haven’t been explored before and relate to broader debates within my field of study. I make a point of taking notes while I transcribe – it forces me to take the time to really consider and think about what is happening in each conversation and to note down incidental details like tone of voice, atmosphere, how much we laugh (which is quite often!). Transcribing is definitely not time wasted. That said, it takes a lot of time, and always more than I anticipate!

Highland cow

Did I waste some time daydreaming about being back on Harris with the Highland cows? Possibly…

Overall, I’d say the week was a partial success. I did get a lot done, but it also took me longer than I’d expected simply to get back into the swing of things. It felt like this week was more about catching up with myself than pushing my project forward. That was frustrating at first, but it’s also a lesson in being realistic when it comes to time management and (no matter how busy) allowing for a bit of flexibility to accommodate the unexpected.

There was, as always, plenty of good advice on Twitter! My SGSAH blogger predecessor Lucie was ahead of the game – asking for advice on how to get back into work mode when she returned from holiday. People offered practical advice: plan some time at the beginning to tidy up your desk and computer files; make manageable, detailed ‘to do’ lists; attend a writing group; work backwards from a key deadline.

In addition to the practical tips, it is comforting to know that others in the PhD community face the same challenges and take time to share their (I suspect) hard-won advice. It can be seriously overwhelming to return to all that work you’ve left, and for those of us who suffer with the ‘PhD guilt’ of taking time off, it is reassuring to know that you’re not the only one.

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Contact Joanna via email at, or find her on Twitter

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