By Sam Grinsell and Virginia Calabria |

As the nights start getting longer and the campus fills up with undergraduates again, the summer holidays already seem to be fading into distant memories. To hold onto these memories a little longer, and to go against the grain of thinking of PhDs as an epic struggle, in this post we point out some ways in which a holiday might be like a PhD. There might be more similarities than you expect.

Two people skiing

Skiing (or other sports) holiday

Some holidays are all about action. If your idea of relaxing is plunging down a snow-covered mountain with some sticks strapped to your feet, or kayaking through rapids, or mountain-biking through a forest, you obviously enjoy pushing yourself.

You begin your PhD at breakneck speed, writing papers and organising events. People from your department hardly ever see you, as you always seem to be away for an international conference or conducting field research. You are everywhere except the office. By the time you complete you have several publications in the pipeline, on a bewildering range of subjects. You are by far the busiest person you know.

Walking holiday

For those who like to combine a challenge with a slower pace of life and plenty of pub visits, the walking holiday has been the traditional option. Authors and Oxford professors C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien often walked together, so if you’re a walker you’re following in some famous academic footsteps.

You take your time with your PhD, carefully gathering evidence and establishing your place in the literature. You keep regular hours in the both the office and the local pub. You enjoy small, niche conferences and only rarely appear at national/international gatherings. People who know you worry that you are too calm about the whole PhD thing, but by the time you reach your viva you have established a reputation for rigorous research that is the envy of your peers.

Luxury holiday

Some holidays are all about indulgence. Soak up some sun, dip languidly in a pool, sip on an exotic cocktail, and breath in the decadence.

You are a funded student at one of the world’s elite universities. You are brilliant at pitching your research to different audiences, and so attract funding for every field-trip and conference presentation. You only present at the biggest conferences in the most glamorous locations. You are on first name terms with everyone who’s anyone in your field. A lot of hard work goes into all this though, so although your peers envy you they try not to begrudge your success too much.

Sightseeing tour

Some holiday locations are so packed with things to see and do that only a closely planned itinerary can see you through. You are the master of the carefully curated tour, taking in just the right combination of tourist classics and hidden gems. Whether it’s a city or a region, you love getting to know a new place and taking your stories back home.

At the start of your PhD, you wrote a checklist of things you wanted to achieve during it, and this has become your guide. From attending your first conference to organising one, from writing book reviews to publishing articles, you are determined to achieve everything a PhD student might conceivably have done. You have the most rounded CV among your peers, but people wonder how you manage it all.

Road leading to distant mountains

Road trip

Sometimes all you know is your destination, and that you want to enjoy the ride. The road trip is a holiday that’s all about the journey, about open roads and clear skies, about leaving your past behind.

You have little idea what your PhD will be at the start, but you love reading and research and know that it will develop into something. You take a lot of detours and go down a lot of back alleys, but this gives you a much wider understanding of your research than many of your peers seem to have. You do only the things you want, and have little interest in assembling a list of achievements just for the sake of it.

Camping holiday

Some holidays are about leaving your comfort zone and getting back to nature. Abandoning everyday luxuries can reconnect us with who we really are and what we care most about.

You left the university where you started to join a supervisor in a different institution far from your roots. You tend to be self-sufficient in your research, occasionally reminding your department that you exist but otherwise getting on with things in your own way. You do exactly what is needed for your project and little else, attending only highly relevant conferences, and preparing specialist publications. Your research is distinctive, idiosyncratic, and could not have been done by anyone else.

Final thoughts

We hope you have found this post amusing, but if there is a serious point it’s that PhD students deserve a break like everyone else. Of course, an expensive holiday might not be viable right now, but you should still make sure you take plenty of breaks. This will be better for you, and ultimately for your research as well.


Sam Grinsell is a PhD candidate at the University of Edinburgh, and Deputy Chair of Pubs and Publications.

Virginia Calabria is about to start a PhD in Linguistics at KU Lueven.

Image 1, CC0 via Pixababy

Image 2, By Robinseed [CC BY-SA 4.0 (], from Wikimedia Commons

Image 3, via Pexels