As I write the opening to this blog post, it’s 5pm on a Sunday. Oops. My plan to have the entire weekend off didn’t exactly go to plan – a situation I’m all too familiar with, particularly since starting my PhD in October.
It’s easy to feel guilty trying to take some time off when you’ve got a huge project in front of you. A study by Nature.com found that 76% of PhD students were working more than 40 hour weeks in 2019. And for those of us with jobs to juggle, it just doesn’t feel like there’s enough hours in the day never mind week. Then there are those who are self-funding a PhD and have to work full-time to do so, or those whose days off are filled with caring responsibilities. Rest assured, we’ve all got a lot on our plates. It’s no surprise that many of us don’t see those two days ‘off’ every week that our 9-5 peers may enjoy— despite the fact that the PhD is often referred to as a ‘9-5’ commitment.
Is there simply a way to manage our time better? When many of us are cramming in 60 hour weeks and still feeling like we’re just scraping by, can we just… snatch those two days out of thin air? I asked a few of my peers to figure out if we can reclaim our ‘weekends’.
Working to Deadlines Instead of Days
Whether it’s deadlines set by our supervisors or the – often impossible! – ‘mini’ deadlines we set ourselves, working towards a goal by a certain date is the norm for a PhD student. But how can this help ‘reclaim’ the weekend? Recent graduate Louise Flockhart from the University of Stirling explains: “I worked when I was on a roll and took time back when I wanted it. I didn’t keep track of my hours necessarily but I made sure I’d meet my deadlines and it took the pressure off if I really wasn’t able to concentrate midweek, for example.” Simply put, if you’re struggling to plan time off in advance – even if that’s just getting to the end of every week – then taking it as you need it throughout the week, if possible, is a way to do so. I put this to the test a couple of weeks ago and took Thursday off after spending my first hour that morning unable to focus. Unwilling to waste a day going in circles, I took the day off and adjusted my word count goals for the rest of the week so I’d still meet my deadline. Admittedly this is a bit of a haphazard and unreliable way to do things at times – especially if you have friends and family who like to make spontaneous weekend plans, have caring responsibilities and/or shift-work – but at the very least, it ensures you do actually take the time off and still meet your deadlines, as there’s less time to talk yourself out of taking time out.
Lan from the University of West of Scotland agrees, although once they’ve set a deadline they try and stick to their days off instead of my balancing act above: “I’ve been taking small steps to wrestle control back, like trying to claim one day a week that’s mine. I’m lucky that my hobby is long distance running, so on my off day, once I’ve done my run – I’m too exhausted to work!
“The rest of the time, I do work with clarity and purpose. I love a spreadsheet and at the beginning of the week I’ll timetable my work by the hour. Each morning I’ll revisit my plan for the day, and schedule by Pomodoro chunks. I set myself accountable deadlines every two weeks, either with supervisors or with friends.”
Embrace the freedom of being flexible
Some of us might find that forcing the 9-5 schedule just doesn’t fit our productivity and leaves us feeling frustrating when 5pm hits and we still haven’t done our best – sometimes making us feel like we must work the evenings or into Saturday and Sunday as a result. Emma McGeough from Glasgow Caledonian University decided something had to change—and that something was the expectation that she should follow a 9-5 schedule simply because it’s the norm: “I also used to track my hours (when I was full time) and recognised that I’m much more productive later in the evenings and at weekends. When you accept that it makes you feel much better about Monday’s off or the 11am starts. I found when I was dragging myself into the office for 9am I was just sitting staring into space.”
The importance of annual leave
If you’re struggling to take a couple of days off every week, then at the very least you should aim to take annual holidays. At the University of Stirling, we get a set amount of ‘leave’ to take each year, and we can track this via our online system. It feels very much like how you would apply for annual leave in the workplace, and even if your institution doesn’t take a formal approach to this it’s worthwhile figuring out how much you should take. “I (very roughly) keep track of an equivalent to “annual leave” to make sure I didn’t burn out,” Fiona Dakin from the University of St Andrews told me.
Larissa from Edinburgh Napier University shared her experience of not taking enough time off:
“I was just put on forced leave yesterday by my supervisors. I’ve tried to have set hours but for whatever reason felt I wasn’t doing enough so started working into my breaks and then into my days off and just never really being able to switch off. Especially with the lockdown I’ve had a lot of my small breaks and holidays cancelled so I just worked, because what else is there to do at home? I ended up looking at a blank page for days just because I felt I had to keep working rather than taking a step back and thinking about what I’m doing. I’m glad I’m not the only one but do feel a break and pause can do wonders, really taking stock and making sure you don’t just do work for the sake of it or feel too overwhelmed.
“I’ll still work into my weekends I’m sure, but I’m going try and do it with a purpose and definitely take some proper leave. Let’s make sure we take care of ourselves and don’t burn out.”
Acceptance… Kind of.
‘Woah, did I get to the end of this post just for the writer to tell me I should live with it?’ I hear you cry. Well, not quite. Here’s my situation: my funding terms allow me to work for an extra day a week, and I do so because of various financial responsibilities the stipend doesn’t quite cover. I commit to my PhD full time, so that means 5 days of PhD, and 1 day of the extra work I’m allowed to do. To try and magically squeeze two days off into my typical working week just isn’t possible – but there are small ways I can get some time back. For example, within the period between handing in a submission and waiting for feedback.
I think back to my undergraduate days, where every spare evening and weekend was given over to shift-work and I wonder how I did that for four years. And then another year on top of that for my Master’s degree. Just because I, and others, manage ‘fine’ doesn’t mean these situations are OK – the conversation about class barriers in academia, funding, and external support for researchers who are parents and carers looms large over my head here – but there are still ways to reclaim snatches of time off and ensure I take ‘annual leave’ to prevent burn-out. There are also some online communities – like @PhDForum on Twitter – that have online writing days during the weekends acknowledging that many of us simply have to work into those days.
I recently saw a conversation on Twitter about PhD researchers working weekends, and someone made the observation that the researchers who could regularly take the time off at the weekend (presumably due to the absence of other jobs, caring responsibilities etc.) had a certain kind of ‘privilege’. I feel that reflects badly on the system as opposed to the individuals within it, but it still rang a bell. Anyway, until something changes I’ll continue managing my 6-day work week and be sure to make the most of any weekends I stumble across – whether that’s a day lounging in front of Netflix or climbing my next Munro.
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