Late last year* I took a break from what was becoming a pretty intense relationship. We’d been getting on each other’s nerves, things were on the verge of turning nasty and it seemed like time apart was the best solution.
Yes, my thesis and I took a break. I went to Vietnam for a month, doing nothing even remotely related to research (I saw a few arboreal mammals, but that was just a coincidence). My thesis stayed at home on the laptop (and six backups. It’s not paranoia. It’s caring).
While away I implemented a firm ‘no work’ policy. Unfortunately, that wasn’t properly communicated to my brain. The second I started to unwind, I was bombarded with thesis related ideas. I didn’t mean it. I was ambushed. Sitting in an airport I figured out how to restructure a paper I’d been struggling with. Eating street food in Hanoi I had an idea for a post-PhD project. And sipping cocktails on a roof-top bar … well, that was just nice.
Turns out that downtime plays a key role in creative problem solving. If we want to solve complex problems, we need time to think. To really think.
I’m not saying these ideas were my best. I’ll probably look back at my scrappy little napkin notes and find most of them need more work or are just gibberish. Still, they’re avenues I wouldn’t have explored if I hadn’t been on holiday. And they might lead to new, better ideas.
Also, I feel like the difference between a career and a job is not so much about work hours or earning potential as it is about passion. I know I’ve chosen the right career path precisely because sometimes I can’t just ‘stop thinking’ about my research. And I don’t want to.
Now I hear you thinking “Really Kylie? You went on a holiday to Vietnam and all you did was think about your PhD?” No, my slightly cynical reader. I also went abseiling. That’s not my point.
I wasn’t haunted by my PhD out of stress. But taking time away from the emails, meetings and general academic clutter allowed a few latent ideas to formulate and float to the surface. My holiday gave me perspective, clarity and insight.
There’s a prevailing attitude that a PhD is an intense period of hard, constant, relentless activity. You’ve got three or four years to do something mind-blowing. So you put your head down and just push through. When it’s finished then you can relax. At least, that’s what we tell ourselves, right before we plunge into that short-term post-doc contract and put exactly the same expectations on ourselves.
As counter-intuitive as it may seem, I’ve found taking regular time out to be really important, both for my work output and general mental stability. And I’m not alone – see here and here for proof. There’s no need to spend big on a long, overseas holiday (let’s face it, we’re students). Just get out. Start small. A long weekend, a short weekend, an afternoon or a long bath.
When I came back I felt refreshed and ready to go again. I put a lot of that down to floating around on Halong Bay (jealous?). Disappointingly though, my thesis didn’t spare me a second thought and remained wilfully incomplete. That said, absence did make the heart grow fonder and I’m pleased to say we are getting along well.
*Originally posted at my old site, ksoanesresearch.wordpress.com, February 22, 2013.