Running from the PhD (Literally!)

When it all becomes a bit much and the thought of reading or writing another word becomes nauseating, there’s a whole host of ways in which PhD researchers unwind…


It’s 11am. The morning has crawled by in a series of difficult contract law terms I need to get my head around. An imposing Word document sits open on my screen, begging for more sentences to be typed. My brain is overflowing with theories I’m only just coming to terms with and as I turn the page of a wrist-breaking textbook, I’m met with a whole host of new things to learn. My brain is absolute mush.

So. I close the textbook. Close my laptop. Grab my running shoes, and head out the door.

When facing the wet, windy and grey Scottish winter is preferable to spending another minute in front of my research, I know it’s time for a break. Sometimes we’re told that we should treat the PhD like a 9–5 job.  For those in this kind of employment, regular breaks are (or should be) encouraged to promote productivity and workflow, so it’s a no-brainer that the same goes for us researchers. For me, running is the perfect way to get through a mental block. For one, it feels like I’m literally running away from my problems – which is nice. For another, I’m lucky enough to live near a river and park, which makes for the perfect setting to clear my head.

Whether you’re looking for inspiration on how to unwind or are simply (like me) nosey about how others get through their PhD experience, here are some ways fellow PhD researchers take breaks to help push through the dreaded research slump or writing block.

Cooking up a brainstorm

“If I have really bad writer’s block, I make a risotto,” offers Lindsay Middleton from the University of Glasgow. “When making risotto specifically, you have to spend a lot of time stirring it. I like to have my laptop open near where I’m cooking with the difficult section up. Something about stirring makes it easier to formulate sentences, and the repetition of stirring, writing and thinking slowly unblocks any writer’s block I have! And then at the end, you have a couple of new paragraphs – and some risotto!” I think we can all agree that sounds like a win-win situation. (A reminder that I’d like anyone with quick, easy and healthy recipes perfect for PhD students to send them in for the ‘Food for Thought’ blog series I have planned!)

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Lindsay’s phenomenal risotto!

The great outdoors

It’s a given that heading outdoors into the fresh air can do you a world of good (both mentally and physically) but just heading out for a simple walk isn’t engaging enough for everyone. “I like to row,” said Katherine Stephen from Edinburgh Napier University. “Sometimes you just need the North Sea air whipping your hair about to refresh your brain!”

Nicole Brandon from the University of Dundee keeps her walking breaks interesting by doing a bit of bird spotting. “If you can find them singing, then things aren’t as horrific or as exhausting as they may seem – and not just PhD related things!”

Benefiting from the outdoors doesn’t always need to involve getting chilled by the sea or battered by the Scottish weather. “Going for a drive with the roof down and music up helps me to de-stress,” said Victoria Russell from the University of Stirling. “My favourite places to drive are to lochs: Loch Ard, Loch Arklet, Loch Chon, Loch Katrine, and Loch Lomond.”


Victoria’s view from the road

Fiction > Reality

For many of us, unwinding with a bit of TV, a good book or a video game is most likely a regular occurrence. However, it’s been proven that these activities are often accompanied by feelings of guilt or failure. But, it shouldn’t be this way. Ben Taysum discusses how reading for pleasure is a great way to stay engaged and unwind at the same time: “If I’m totally burnt out, I read fiction. If I just need a change of pace from the content of work but need to keep my mind engaged, I read non-fiction. I’ve incorporated regular reading breaks into my day-to-day work and it’s exponentially improved my workflow.” Amber Hinde from the University of Glasgow feels similar about reading fiction and taking TV breaks. “I used to make myself feel guilty when I used to read stuff that was non-uni related, but like watching TV, it’s great escapism,” she explains.

Whatever you do to de-stress from PhD work, make sure you take regular breaks to avoid burn out. And I don’t know who needs to hear this – I certainly do – but checking your emails in between writing or researching tasks does not count as a break!

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