How to survive the festive season as an academic

The Christmas holidays are around the corner and for many PhD students this means a long‑awaited break from their daily routine. For those who are celebrating and spending this time with their families, this period tends to cause mixed feelings. Of course there is the joy of seeing your loved ones again. But then there are also those never-ending conversations about your PhD, anxiety about paper submission deadlines right after the holidays, and just no fool-proof way of switching from work- to holiday-mode. For this blog post, I picked the most common and dreaded (loaded) questions and statements – or intrusive thoughts – that PhD students are confronted with back home, to provide some advice on how to respond to them.

“What’s your PhD in?”

When I announced that I was moving to Scotland to pursue a PhD, I was met with the inevitable question: “What will your PhD be in?” Now, almost one and a half years later, I still struggle with this one. You don’t want to be too generic by only saying which subject(s) you’re doing your research in, but you also don’t want to dive right in, especially in the instances where the question was meant to help overcome the awkwardness of small talk.

My best advice is to come up with one sentence that scratches the surface of what your PhD is in, leaves people who are genuinely interested in the work wanting to know more but doesn’t overwhelm superficial conversations. Sometimes people are just trying to figure out if your research is in STEM or in the humanities – no need to give them a mini-viva. Try to make your sentence compelling and catchy – it might grow on you and you’ll find yourself using it to introduce yourself at conferences once the holidays are over again.

“Academia never sleeps”

Or at least deadlines related to research never sleep. If you’re unlucky, you’re hoping to submit your work or a paper shortly after the holiday season (I’m definitely speaking about myself here). This will probably mean that you intend to soldier through that period to meet your deadline. And while sometimes it’s nice to work in a different setting (or if you remain on campus, on a mostly empty campus), and a change of scenery can help you get over writer’s block, it’s important to be mindful about taking time for yourself as well. If this comes with giving yourself a break in your own time, when it suits your schedule, then go for it. If instead you want to be on break during the Christmas break, that’s also great. But don’t fall into the trap of feeling guilty for having not worked during the holiday season if that’s what you end up doing. Everybody needs a break and there is usually no better time to take one than when expectations of you working are basically non-existent. Just write that out-of-office message and be unapologetic about it.

Photo by Any Lane on

“When will you get a real job?” 

The academic job market is famously competitive, and many PhD students are therefore not pursuing rare tenure track positions further down the line. Instead, many are just as excited to explore a career path in industry. Of course, this inevitably leads to a comparison with people who have joined the workforce once they had earned the required qualifications instead of doing a PhD. After all, by the time you finish your PhD, they will be multiple steps higher on the career ladder. What’s important here, is to remember that you can’t compare apples with pears and that you don’t start doubting the monumental decision you made when you started your research journey. A PhD can be an asset if used correctly and while it might delay the start of your “real” career (or pause it) this is something you took into account when you chose this path – no point in second guessing your choice now. Stay confident even while you’re spending a few days outside of the academia bubble during the holidays.

That being said, on behalf of the SGSAH blog I wish you a wonderful festive season and hope the loaded questions are kept to a minimum!

Anna Rezk is a 2nd year PhD researcher in Design Informatics at the University of Edinburgh in partnership with the BBC R&D. Her research revolves around the implication of personalised and highly customisable public service media content and how it can be leveraged to promote inclusive and democratic civic participation. Due to her background in journalism and computer science, she is particularly interested in news, and how content can be algorithmically enhanced and curated without thwarting editorial intent. Find her on Twitter as @anna_rezk.

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