Hannah Hogan |

‘Leave of absence’ can feel a bit like a dirty expression in a culture that struggles to talk openly about mental health or “failure”. However, I was reassured that it’s not unusual for PhD projects to be put on hold for any number of reasons – some positive, some less so. If a major change or issue is likely to interrupt your project, a leave of absence is a viable option worth discussing with your supervisor.

Last April I’d had it with my PhD, to the extent that it took something of a toll on my mental health. Feeling burnt out and at a standstill, I sat down with my supervisor.  Between us we decided that I would take a six-month leave of absence. During that time I was to stop thinking about the thesis completely and take whatever steps I needed to start feeling better again. If I was ready to come back at the end of that six months, we would pick up the project again (which, as it turned out, wasn’t at as much of a dead-end as I’d thought it was) and start afresh.

Taking time away from my thesis was hugely beneficial and as October rolled around, I was feeling refreshed and ready to come back at the PhD with a new vigour. However, I remained apprehensive. Six months of not looking at my research at all felt like a long time. How could I pick up where I left off without feeling overwhelmed? Would I still remember how to “PhD”?. There is not a great deal of advice in this area – however, returning to PhD study is just as significant as making the decision to step away from it, and it is worth talking about. This post passes on some of the incredibly helpful tips I found as my return date approached, along with some reflections of my own.

As Cally Guerin has discussed over at Doctoral Writing SIG, returning from an extended leave of absence can be daunting. As well as interrupting the momentum of a project, Guerin suggested that a break away from research and writing may also (albeit subconsciously) disrupt the ‘emerging researcher identity’. We are all familiar with our sense of self being tied to our PhDs – research has shown that the writing process plays a significant role in developing our academic identities (for example, see Kamler & Thomson 2006). Depending on what has happened during an extended break, doctoral candidates may return to their projects with a new sense of ‘self’ (for example, recovered from serious illness or lost a loved one) that is not so easily married up with their identities as researchers.

On the other side of this coin, a leave of absence can also have profoundly positive consequences for our interrupted thesis. A project might be re-assessed with new eyes after an extended break and can be taken in directions we may not have considered before.

With this in mind, then, how can we best prepare to take up the reins of our PhDs again?

Writing Tools

  • Evaluate your project. Re-read your most recent chapters or drafts and revisit your notes. This will enable you to…
  • Make a grand plan. However you prefer to structure it, draw up a “big picture” plan pinpointing where the project is at this moment, what remains to be done, and how long you have left to do it. As is so often the case with PhDs, this is not necessarily set in stone, and your supervisor can help you set realistic targets and devise helpful strategies, but it helps to feel relatively in control of your project when you return.
  • Be realistic. Once you have a grand plan, break down the next steps into manageable “chunks”. Be kind to yourself – it’s very tempting to jump headlong into the thesis with lofty goals and big promises to your supervisor (this was my stumbling block approximately 3 weeks after re-starting), but do your best to figure out what is realistic for you, and focus on taking small steps forward.
  • Dot the i’s. Check the conditions for return set out in your leave of absence confirmation letter. Make sure that you have filled out the right paperwork, submitted your doctor’s note if applicable, and re-enrolled. This will ensure you return to your studies smoothly and that you have access to the resources you need. No one wants to psych themselves up to re-start their PhD, then find they can’t borrow a book from the library!
  • Sort out your funding. If you have been the recipient of any funding that requires a report and your leave of absence has delayed it, contact the funding body on your return to let them know you are studying again, and to reschedule report submissions etc. if necessary.
  • Reintegrate with your research community. As soon as you can, take advantage of opportunities to get involved with your fellow researchers again. Attend seminars, join a research network, or write a post for Pubs & Publications! This will not only help to re-establish your “doctoral identity”, but can also have positive implications for your research, and help to avoid becoming isolated.

I have now been back at my studies for a term, and whilst it hasn’t been easy and there’s still a long way to go, the thesis has progressed and I feel more productive and positive than I have for a long time. I hope that you have found these tips helpful, and I’d be very eager to hear from anyone else who has recently returned from an extended break! What advice have you received on re-acquainting yourself with your thesis?


Hannah Hogan is approaching the end of her second year of her PhD at the University of York. You can find her on Twitter.


Image 1: Pixabay; Image 2: Wikimedia