Make Time For Downtime

In today’s fiercely competitive academic world, there is a huge amount of pressure on a PhD student. There’s an expectation that they will be working on their thesis every day, every evening, every weekend. I am by no means the first to vocalise this: there have been numerous articles discussing these academic pressures, and their implications on mental health.

This hidden pressure varies from lab to lab. Some groups and supervisors know that this way of working just isn’t achievable, or sustainable, but in some groups, particularly highly successful ones, the pressure is on. Much of the time this pressure is self-imposed, rather than coming from an external source like a supervisor or lab head, but it’s still there.

So I’m here to advocate the importance of downtime. ‘Life’ time. Time off. Play time. Whatever you want to call it, it’s really, really important, both for your health, and for your work. With reports that 47% of PhD students suffer from depression, and an estimated 53% of UK academics have some kind of mental health problem, downtime is something that should not be overlooked.

Unluckily, I learnt this before I even began my PhD. My Dad died suddenly in the final months of my undergraduate degree. There was no question of not returning to university to finish; he was incredibly proud of me, and I wasn’t going to let him down. But it was a struggle. It’s not something I talk about much, but it taught me a lot of things, mainly that life is short and you should do things you enjoy before it’s too late. Something we should all know, but a mindset I never truly embraced until this happened. During the following months, I was emotionally and physically drained. All I knew was how to focus on my work; revise for exams, write reports, do coursework. This different type of exhaustion was new and unfamiliar. 

Luckily for me, I had an incredibly supportive supervisor. He could tell when I was having a bad day, and he’d make me go home to rest. I was very grateful for that support. It was an extreme situation, granted, but he made me see that it was okay to take time out for myself.

As clichéd as it sounds, time heals. I moved into my parallel reality where things were finally okay, but different. I grew up. And I took on a new work ethic. I realised that you really do need to fence out times for yourself where you can just watch telly, go for a run, go watch your favourite band play – whatever it is that you need, that you want to do, just for yourself. WITHOUT feeling guilty. Defend those times; they’re yours and you need them. Because that downtime gives your batteries time to recharge. Your brain works on stuff in the background, and you get to do the things you enjoy.

This work ethic is something I took into my PhD right from the start. A PhD is such a focused, intense thing, sometimes you do just need to go out and let your hair down, whatever that may mean for you. And that’s okay. It really is. Even if you’re doing something work-related – when I went away for my internship, I was raring to go when I got back from the lab! The three month break away really helped me see things from a different perspective. Maybe find a cause you’d like to volunteer for – it’ll look great on your CV, too!

All of this doesn’t mean I’m smugly sitting here feeling totally content when I go out with friends, or book an evening fitness class. Of course I still get The Guilts, especially in the last months of my PhD. But sometimes I can take a step back, realise it’s irrational guilt, and not feel quite as bad.

I just wanted to write this to reassure any PhD students who may be reading that these feelings are all normal. Everyone feels that pressure to be working 24/7, and everyone feels guilty when they’re not. But, please please do make that time for yourself. It’s your life to live, and your future self will honestly thank you for it.

If you liked this, you might want to read this article, which I also linked above. Though I haven’t suffered nearly as much as the author, a lot of it really resonated with me. There’s some good links to other articles about pressure and mental health in academia too, some of which I used in this post.